BYU football: Faith in program’s direction, leadership a key to success

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 7 2015 7:43 a.m. MDT

Former BYU football players Leon White, left, James Dye and Dennis Pitta are interviewed during BYU Football Media Day in Provo, Monday, June 23, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Former BYU football players Leon White, left, James Dye and Dennis Pitta are interviewed during BYU Football Media Day in Provo, Monday, June 23, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

PROVO — Faith is anything but a foreign concept at BYU. It's a core principle at the institution privately owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a new era, the playoff era, dawns in top-level college football, former Cougar football players James Dye and Leon White shared their insights on what BYU needs to do to stay in the national spotlight as the game evolves.

That includes having faith in BYU's current path — going independent starting with the 2011 football season.

"What we need to do in order to believe that faithfully BYU’s going to have an opportunity to be in the playoff system, or in the playoff conversation," Dye said during BYU football's media day last week, "you’ve got to believe that whatever path they’re taking right now will be the right path.

Leon White, left, and James Dye, former BYU football players are in the audience during BYU Football Media Day in Provo, Monday, June 23, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Leon White, left, and James Dye, former BYU football players are in the audience during BYU Football Media Day in Provo, Monday, June 23, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"I’m just going to have blind faith that whatever happens we’re going to be considered in that conversation. Whichever path we’re going on right now will be the right path."

Winning consistently, especially against top-flight competition, also plays its part in keeping the Cougar football program — heading into its 10th year under the leadership of Bronco Mendenhall — nationally relevant.

"If we can win 10 games a season, we’re going to do that," White said at media day. "I think Bronco’s going in the right direction of making that happen. He brought in some players this year that I think can help the offense immediately. He’s looking to do that and he wants to build on the season last year and with the players that he has, I think he will."

BYU has been one of the most consistent winning programs over the past 40 years. It is tied for fourth nationally in wins with 353 during that time span. It's a fact members of the Cougar coaching staff have shared via social media in the past week.

But in sports — and as evidenced by some of the realignment moves the past few years in college football — it's more about what you've done recently. The Cougars have not finished a season ranked in the final Associated Press poll since 2009.

Mendenhall made a statement this summer, telling the Austin American-Statesman, "We'd love to be in the Big 12." During the Mendenhall era, BYU is 2-1 against teams from the Big 12 and has another matchup with the league this season — Sept. 6 at Texas.

He backed up those remarks at media day, telling reporters and fans during the State of the Program broadcast, "It (the message) came out exactly the way I intended it. Independence is a fantastic place to launch from, meaning we are making progress. We are gaining momentum, we are becoming more visible, we are gaining more exposure.

"We are playing better and better teams on bigger and bigger stages. And that would be a way to do even more of that."

Dye and White were key contributors in two of the most successful Cougar football seasons in history: the 1984 national championship season and the 1996 Cotton Bowl-winning year — and have experienced the challenges, and benefits, of making BYU a household name.

Dye starred as a wide receiver and return specialist at BYU from 1995-96, earning All-America honors for his return abilities. During the 1996 season, when the Cougars went 14-1 and finished the season ranked No. 5, he had 182 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns, including three via returns.

During the team's Cotton Bowl 19-15 victory over Kansas State, Dye's fourth-quarter touchdown grab brought the Cougars within three points.

"It was a great experience and I think often about that season," Dye said. "Hopefully we’ll continue to live in that moment but we should hopefully be experiencing bigger and better from here on out. I expect for that season, sometime soon, to be eclipsed by another great."

Dye continues to have a vested interest in the program, in addition to being an alumni. His son, Trey, will join the Cougars this fall.

"I want him to relish this moment, to enjoy the opportunity to be in it. This is why you do it at this level — the fanfare, the expectations," Dye said about his son, who will play wide receiver. "But also remember that people do look up to you and you have a great responsibility to protect the brand."

White, a linebacker at BYU from 1981-85, finished his four-year Cougar career with 249 tackles, 17 sacks and seven forced fumbles. During the 1984 national championship season, he had 90 tackles, 13 quarterback hurries and a team-best 10 pass breakups.

In the Holiday Bowl win over Michigan, White finished with nine tackles, two sacks and a tackle for loss.

He was also a winner. White played a pivotal role in the program-best 25-game winning streak that occurred during his time at the school and helped set up the national championship run.

"Thirty years is a long time. For people to remember one of the greatest teams is really exciting," White said as the 30th anniversary of the national championship approaches. "It's exciting for me to see the younger generation remember what we did back then and I think it helps the program as a whole. I think today's players learn a lot from it and it can help them in their upcoming season."

Both the 1984 and 1996 teams had their share of challenges to overcome as well — many of those dealt with public perception.

In 1984, NBC announcer Bryant Gumbel said BYU played a "Bo-Diddley Tech" schedule. The Cougars matched up a Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl that finished the year 6-6. Yet, BYU was the lone undefeated team at the end of the year, climbing through the rankings that season and earned the sport's top prize.

White cited the team's depth, with many players moving on to the pros, as a big reason for one of the greatest eras of BYU football during the early 1980s. He parlayed that collegiate success into an eight-year NFL career.

"It was just an amazing time for BYU, an amazing time for our team," White said. "It definitely put BYU on the map. That is part of why BYU is so successful today."

The 1996 team, despite a 13-1 regular-season record, was snubbed by the Bowl Alliance and had its share of naysayers. Dye cited the team's ability to excel consistently in the day-to-day grind and stay relatively healthy while having strong depth as reasons why BYU had such a memorable year.

"That was one of the most beautiful things about the 14-1 season was being able to go out there every week and someone would say something, 'Well, they’re not serious, they lost to Washington. Look where Washington is at. What are they going to do this week? They’re going to fail, they’re going to stumble,'" Dye said. "And we just continued to pick up speed and gain momentum."

Dye said he loosely recalled reading a couple of writers' opinions, after the Cougars' 1984 national championship, that BYU would not win another national title.

"Sometimes you feel like there’s a power out there that doesn’t really want to see us on that landscape because if we do get to that landscape, that says something about them," Dye said. "No, that says something about us. Let us say what we want to say."

Winning, like the teams Dye and White were a part of, says a lot.

"There are a lot of obstacles, but winning overcomes all the obstacles," White said. "BYU has to stay relevant by winning games."

Email: bjudd@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @brandonljudd

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