Editor's note: This is the fifth in an occasional series exploring the issues related to scheduling BYU football games as an independent.
PROVO — Drawing upon his personal experience, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall understands the role scheduling can play in a college football player's decision when it comes to where he wants to attend school.
After Mendenhall led Snow College to a national junior college championship in 1985, he was looking for a place to continue his career. BYU, the team he followed as a youth — both his father and older brother played for the Cougars — didn't offer him a scholarship.
Feeling the sting of rejection, Mendenhall chose to play at Oregon State. One of the main reasons for his choice?
"I was going to choose a school that was going to play BYU," he said. During the 1986 season, Mendenhall, who played defensive back, helped the Beavers earn a 10-7 victory in Provo.
"I laid on the 50-yard line after the game, spread-eagle," Mendenhall said. "Not that I played well, it was just a good win."
Now that he leads the BYU football program, he has seen how the intriguing schedules the Cougars face as an independent — with plenty of games at storied venues in various part of the country — are a reason for recruits' decisions to sign with BYU.
"The scheduling has been a really strong selling point," Mendenhall said. "The recruits are frequently asking who we are going to be playing.
"When we tell them, and they see the announcements of the teams we're going to be playing, and where we'll be playing them, they really like that. Our coaching staff likes that. One of the values that you gain by being in a conference is a sense and a knowledge of different teams and venues. What you gain through independence is the intrigue of going on the road, going to new cities, playing new teams and having different experiences. That part has been really refreshing to me.
"I hadn't really expected that," continued the coach. "Our recruits and our current players love that part. They love to travel and go to new places. We love having firesides before games and meeting new people. They love seeing different parts of the country. That part's been very fun."
It's not only about visiting historic stadiums but, for some players, it's a chance to experience a homecoming. Former BYU defensive back Brandon Bradley returned to his hometown as a senior when the Cougars traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., in 2010, the year before BYU went independent, for a game against Florida State.
Former BYU linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who grew up in Texas, was thrilled to return to the Lone Star State in 2011 to play the University of Texas. Ogletree knew all about the aura and mystique of Longhorn football, including a historic 100,000-seat stadium, the iconic Longhorn logo, the distinctive burnt orange uniforms, a catchy fight song and the "Hook 'Em Horns" hand signal that is ubiquitous in Austin.
"The passion and pageantry is unmatched," Ogletree said, although he didn't play in the game because of an injury.
BYU running back Jamaal Williams was a 17-year-old freshman last fall when the Cougars played at No. 5 Notre Dame. He rushed 14 times for 64 yards and caught seven passes for 42 yards against the Fighting Irish. Though disappointed with his team's 17-14 setback, Williams loved playing on a big stage against top-flight competition.
BYU's future schedules — which includes high-profile contests against teams like Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Texas, Michigan and Nebraska — are something players and prospective recruits notice.
"It's cool to play in front of a lot of people and on national television against a good team," Ogletree said. "If you can't get up for it, you probably don't have a pulse because that's what we live for."
That BYU plays so many games on national television is a strong selling point. The Cougars boast a long-term contract with ESPN. Since going independent, BYU has played on ESPN 10 times and on the ESPN family of networks 21 times.
"ESPN has been a very good partner in helping us," Mendenhall said. "There are only seven teams that have been seen more on national TV the last two years, and none when you add BYUtv to it. So what we've gained in independence is a lot more exposure for our program to the world. ESPN has certainly helped us do that."
Recruits that sign with BYU, particularly from outside of Utah, often say one reason is the Cougars regularly appear on ESPN networks.
Offensive lineman Tim Duran, a junior college transfer from Puyallup, Wash., who signed with the Cougars last February, is not a member of the LDS Church and didn't know much about BYU before he became a target of the Cougars' recruiting efforts.
But he had seen the Cougars on television.
"BYU is a big school that plays a lot on national TV, so I definitely like that," he told the Deseret News.
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