Ravell Call, Deseret News
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PROVO — While attending the annual national coaches convention last January, BYU's Bronco Mendenhall found himself inundated by unexpected comments from other coaches around the country.
Many of those comments centered around the Cougars' recently completed season — their first as an independent — and multiple moments along the way that coaches had watched on one of the ESPN networks.
Among those moments included Kyle Van Noy's fumble recovery and game-winning touchdown in a come-from-behind victory over Ole Miss in the season-opener; a heartbreaking loss at Texas; an embarrassing blowout defeat at home to Utah; Cody Hoffman's electrifying, game-changing kickoff return for a touchdown against Central Florida; Riley Nelson coming off the bench to engineer a fourth-quarter rally and the last-minute, game-winning touchdown against Utah State; and Nelson and Hoffman teaming up for the game-winning, fake-spike, last-minute TD against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
As part of BYU's eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN, the Cougars appeared on the ESPN family of networks 11 times in 2011. ESPN and ESPN2 are available in nearly 100 million homes.
The comments of the coaches at the convention put a face on those numbers.
"Almost everyone I visited with would talk about something of a specific game that they saw on ESPN," Mendenhall said. "I knew more and more people were watching (BYU games), but to have the comments from my peers was validating in a way. That had never happened before."
Before going independent, BYU was a member of the Mountain West Conference, playing many of its games on The mtn., an obscure, now-defunct network.
These days, the Cougars are playing under a microscope.
"The word (the coaches) kept using was resiliency, they were describing our team's progression," Mendenhall said. "In previous years, the coaches watched us play at the end in a bowl game (broadcast on ESPN), but they hadn't followed us all the way along."
Certainly, BYU is enjoying the unprecedented exposure thanks to ESPN.
On the other hand, the Worldwide Leader dictates when the Cougars play, which poses challenges.
As BYU gets ready for its second year of independence in 2012, ESPN has the Cougars playing four of their first six games on days other than Saturday, with two Thursday night games as part of ESPN's College Football Primetime (vs. Washington State and at Boise State) and a pair of Friday night contests (vs. Hawaii and vs. Utah State).
Playing Boise State on a Thursday night means the Cougars will have a short week to prepare for the Broncos — just five days after what is expected to be an emotional battle against archrival Utah in Salt Lake City.
And two of BYU's first six games will kick off at 8:15 p.m. (MT).
Mendenhall has said many times he prefers Saturday afternoon games, but he understands that due to the deal with ESPN, the Cougars will be playing a lot of night games, and its fair share of Thursday and Friday tilts.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said he is happy with the exposure that ESPN games provide the program, despite playing at unusual times.
"The tradeoff is the fact that (ESPN) wants to put us in there in some of those prime viewing spots — Thursday and Friday nights. Our contract with them is such that they help us schedule and they promise to put us in prime-time situations," said Doman. "It's not always going to be on Saturday because of all of the other contracts that they have. I think we're quite fortunate to have it.
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