Dick Harmon: Dick Harmon: New book uncovers BYU, Bronco Mendenhall secrets

Published: Sunday, Sept. 2 2012 12:31 p.m. MDT

BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall works with the defense during practice on Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PROVO — During BYU's win over Washington State on Thursday night, a guy named Dan Wilcox roamed the Cougar sidelines looking for fatigue, stress or energy loss in the bodies of players he helped convert body fat into lean muscle mass during the offseason. Then, this nutritionist administered aid.

This tiny wrinkle — a competitive strategy to add "Dan The Man" into Bronco Mendenhall's circle — has achieved amazing results in a short time. It fits a program goal to become the healthiest and most well-conditioned football team in America.

Is it working? We shall see.

It may not lead to a national championship this season or even 12 wins, but it might make the difference in a fourth-quarter play — and that could make all the difference to getting there someday.

The philosophy of these kinds of Mendenhall tweaks and strategies is artfully explained in deep detail in a new book released on Thursday titled "Running into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall — 5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team," by Paul Gustavson and Alyson Von Feldt (Shadow Mountain).

Gustavson, an organizational behavioral scientist whose work has enhanced Fortune 500 Companies, has worked with Mendenhall for half a decade, coaching him on the dynamics of how to build a better organization. In this book, Gustavson and Von Feldt break it all down — why Mendenhall uses symbols, metaphors, does do-overs with team processes, releases identifiable slogans like "Tradition, Spirit, Honor" and gets more practice segments done in less time on a daily basis than most teams.

The book is a deep look inside BYU football and what turns its gears. It takes about 15 strategies and explains how they were hatched, what they are intended to do and describes the results.

What works so well in this narrative is Mendenhall isn't at the pulpit. Instead, this book uses voices of former players, current coaches and even departed linebacker coach Barry Lamb, now at Tulane. Lamb explains how he's transported some of the ideas to his new gig.

The legendary John Wooden once said, "Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there — mental, moral and physical."

Following that ideal, this book explains the science behind BYU football practices that has drawn criticism and surprise. It discusses things like eve-of-gameday spiritual firesides, reduced daily office hours by coaches, making football No. 5 on the list of priorities, burning old helmets in a bonfire and hiking up a mountain for a team meeting.

I was surprised at the depth and detail Mendenhall allowed Gustavson to wade into his own operations and the access granted to him to write this book. The benefit is it's informative, entertaining and the writing is clean and clear. Yes, it honks the horn, but it also fills the brain.

In this book, you'll find a myriad of anecdotes and stories that have never been published or discussed in public, like how Mendenhall disappears every day and why; a surprise phone call to Mendenhall out of the blue on the freeway from LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer and how a pregame meeting of all positions and their respective coaches on a road trip in one crowded room resulted in remodeling some walls in the football offices to recapture the energy of that experience.

The book explains why BYU narrowed its recruiting board from hundreds of prospects to 35 or 40 each year and why that works.

The book explains — in practice — why Mendenhall tries to win by creating different pegs to climb, taking note of a study by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to heart. That study discovered that the difference between NFL dynasties and average teams came down to two or three plays a game — not a disparity in talent. It showed that the most accurate execution of plays made the biggest difference.

Getting the motivation, the practice and the system to produce those few plays more perfectly is the theme of this book.

The five strategies Mendenhall is using are based on "Five Smooth Stones," a Gustavson agenda presented to corporations nationally and internationally. It is a metaphor based on the stones in the pouch carried by biblical David to slay Goliath.

These include obtaining a competitive advantage by doing things differently; recognizing that an organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets; processes in organizations are not all created equal; knowledge is the purest form of competitive advantage; and the importance of a leader to capturing hearts and minds is critical.

These ideas drive BYU football and are how Mendenhall rolls.

This is a book coaches can benefit from. It's a book for fans of the program and members of the LDS faith. It is also an excellent lab-rat set of notes for business leaders to see firsthand how attempts to gain order and purpose in an organization can work within their own four walls via examining the BYU football engine.

But perhaps most important of all, for fans and critics of Mendenhall, this book sheds greatly needed light on what makes this introverted, sometimes hard-to-reach, Mitt Romney-like perceived persona tick.

It exposes Mendenhall and takes the reader closer to knowing him beyond his record.

And it explains the philosophy behind why Wilcox is walking along the sidelines looking at his players.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com, Twitter: Harmonwrites

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