PROVO — A sign at the entrance of BYU’s campus reads, “The world is our campus.”
It’s not just a motto.
Many of the school’s student body of more than 33,000 have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in far-flung locales around the globe. On last year's Cougar football team alone, 77 players had served full-time, two-year missions in more than 30 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Madagascar, Chile, England, Germany, Honduras, Japan, the Philippines, India, Russia, Samoa, South Korea and Sweden.
With the recent policy change for LDS missionaries that allows young men to serve at age 18 and young women to serve at age 19, the number of missionaries departing for service is growing exponentially. The LDS Church estimates there will be more than 85,000 missionaries serving by this fall.
It only makes sense that the BYU football team — which is regarded by the school as a missionary tool of the LDS Church and often holds firesides the night before games — would try to schedule contests around the world, right?
That’s something athletic director Tom Holmoe has been exploring, and it stands as an example of the creative measures he’s taking to schedule games for his independent football program.
Millions of church members live outside the United States, though the majority of them probably don't know anything about American football.
For Holmoe, it’s a tantalizing idea — playing a college football game in a place like Mexico City, London, Berlin or Beijing.
But making it happen is no easy feat.
Not that it’s an entirely new concept, as the Cougars have played two official games on foreign soil in their 91-year history.
In December 1978, BYU downed UNLV in its regular-season finale at Yokohama Stadium in Yokohama, Japan.
The previous year, the Cougars won the Western Athletic Conference championship but could not play in the Fiesta Bowl that season because it was held on a Sunday. So, then-athletic director Glen Tuckett planned a goodwill trip to Japan. BYU played two exhibition games in an event called the Silk Bowl against Japanese teams.
"It was a great experience for the team, a great trip for the kids," Tuckett remembered of the 1977 trip to Asia. "You don't get to go to Tokyo very often."
And what was the quality of Japanese football like? "They know the game pretty well, but they were just overmatched," said former BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "They were competitive little guys. The night before the game I remember thinking, 'This would really be big if we lose.'"
In December 1987, BYU went Down Under to play a game. The Cougars traveled about 8,500 miles to meet Colorado State at Princess Park in Melbourne, Australia. BYU won before a paltry crowd of 7,652, and the Cougars haven't played in a foreign country since.
In the late 1990s, there was talk of BYU playing a game against a Western Athletic Conference opponent in Calgary, Alberta, but it never materialized.
At that time, BYU was wooed by a group of fans in Calgary, which has a large LDS populatio. They tried to convince the Cougars to play a regular-season game there. Then-athletic director Rondo Fehlberg said at the time that BYU didn’t want to sacrifice a home game and lose the gate receipts and TV revenue while having to pay for traveling costs.
UTEP showed some interest initially in moving one of its games to Canada, on Halloween night, but in the end, the Cougars decided not to do it. The frigid temperatures in Calgary at that time of the year also played a role in the decision, Fehlberg said.
There’s a chance BYU will play a game in a foreign country again someday, if Holmoe gets his way.
“We’ve gone international. It works for us,” he said. “Now you've got to find a team that wants to do that, and why would they want to do that? Notre Dame has a reason to do it.”
Indeed, just last fall, Notre Dame and Navy played a season opener in Dublin, and it was a wildly successful event. The Emerald Isle Classic drew a crowd of 49,000 — mostly visiting Americans. It was the first U.S. college football game in Ireland since 1996.
"It's kind of exciting. It's hard,” Holmoe said of scheduling an international game. “We can do it. We're used to doing it. We're used to traveling around a lot. You have to have the right (opponent). I would be really excited about that, but there aren't a lot of other teams that are excited about that. People don't want to do that.”
One idea that Holmoe has proposed is to play one of the military academies — Army, Navy or Air Force — overseas like Notre Dame did.25 comments on this story
“I'd love to play a military team near a big military base somewhere in a big international city,” Holmoe said. “That would be great, and I would do anything I could to help make that happen. But they're not interested in that right now. But there may come a time. There are so many factors around their teams and colleges that might not even be athletically related that come into whether or not they can do that.”
Last fall, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked about the possibility of playing in a foreign country, similar to what Notre Dame and Navy did in Dublin. Of course, there are obstacles to overcome, including travel costs and the timing of such a game.
"Maybe if it were the last game of the year or for a bowl game," Mendenhall said. "The thought of starting the year with a trip like that, and then having to play your season, if there was a bye after that, maybe. You'd have to look hard at what you had before that game and what you had after it."
What about a game in New Zealand, a nation that’s close to his heart? "Once you say New Zealand, then you get my attention," he said. "Other places, I'm not so sure."