It’s about sharing the unique message that we have. It's not only in how we play football, but why we're playing the game and for what we believe. That, to me, is very compelling. —Bronco Mendenhall, BYU head football coach
Editor's note: This is the eighth in an occasional series exploring the issues related to BYU scheduling football games as an independent.
PROVO — In the moments after BYU’s 2012 regular-season finale at New Mexico State last November, coach Bronco Mendenhall expressed his amazement at the number of blue-clad Cougar fans that made the trip to Las Cruces, N.M.
The crowd wasn't large, but it was vocal. And it made an impression on Mendenhall.
"Most (opposing) coaches marvel at our support. I think what it really shows is, there's so much more to BYU than just football," he said.
"I love our fans at home. There's a phenomenal commitment, though, from the ones that travel and show up when we play on the road. They're so excited to see us. That's been a great thing about independence. There are some unique places we're playing. For those fans that don't usually get to see us in person, you talk to them and they're appreciative. That's a pretty cool thing."
Weeks earlier, thousands of BYU fans showed up in force at Notre Dame and at Georgia Tech — more evidence of the Cougars’ national following. No matter where BYU plays, Cougar faithful find a way to be there.
Part of BYU’s approach to scheduling as an independent involves playing games all over the country, in an array of geographical locations.
In the future, BYU has games scheduled throughout the United States, on the East Coast (West Virginia in Landover, Md.; Virginia, Connecticut, East Carolina), the Midwest (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan), the South (Houston, Texas, Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee), and the West Coast (USC). Of course, this isn’t a new philosophy.
Former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett believed the Cougars could increase exposure for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by playing in various areas of the country, providing church members with chances to see BYU in action.
"We always wanted to get the team where the Saints could see us," Tuckett said. Mendenhall and current athletic director Tom Holmoe share a similar belief. Since 2005, the Cougars have been putting on firesides before almost every game, combining football and faith.
“It’s about sharing the unique message that we have,” Mendenhall said. “It's not only in how we play football, but why we're playing the game and for what we believe. That, to me, is very compelling. Now to have built a chance to do that on bigger stages throughout the country in different venues against different teams, that part has really captivated my heart. To see the interest from players around the country wanting to be part of it, that's been really fun."
For Mendenhall, holding firesides is an important part of every road trip, as a way to share with fans, and others, the mission of the football program and the university.
"It's welcome to anyone who would like to attend just to provide an inspiring message of hope and substance through the vehicle of football,” he said. “We're trying to make sure that the world at least understands that for us football is part of what we do, but not the only thing that we do. It gives a lot of the local fans and supporters, and maybe even the opponents, a glimpse of what BYU football is about and who the players are that represent the institution."