When Mormons gather at church this weekend to show respect for the achievements of Brigham Young, it may have nothing to do with religion.
Thanks to a sophisticated satellite system that links 3,000 Mormon facilities in the Western Hemisphere, church members can watch Brigham Young University sports. Saturday's football game with Colorado State was televised live over the system from Provo, Utah, where church founder Brigham Young started the school in 1875.As members like to joke, "How do you tell a Mormon church? Instead of a cross on top, it has a satellite dish."
It's high-tech that would make the Osmond Family proud.
"It's kind of a unique phenomenon," said Scott LeTellier, president of World Cup 1994 and a law graduate of BYU. "I'll go to meetings at the church and see people watching basketball games. It really is an institution. It astounds me.
"Certainly, with the religious tie, there is a fervor beyond people who went to school there. It's one of the few locations that can rival Notre Dame for national or international following."
The wide following of Irish football is well-documented, much of it linked to the Catholic religion. The support potential is staggering with 57 million Catholics in this country and 248 million world-wide.
But there are 235 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. There's only one Brigham Young. The 4.2 million U.S. Mormons (7.5 million worldwide) create another impressive fan pool.
The satellite network began in 1978 as a way to unite the faithful for church business, with general conferences and training sessions beamed from headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. By the early 1980s there were 100 church satellite dishes around the country. The athletic department recognized the potential and sought approval for transmitting games.
Prior to each season, a schedule of events is mailed to churches. Football games shown on commercial networks can only be done on a tape-delay basis. Games not on a network are beamed live to churches.
Sometimes specials are produced. After BYU won the national title in 1984, the school filmed a two-hour tribute to the team.
The system doubles as a recruiting tool. Families know they can see sons play no matter how far away they live from the school. Highlights are easily available to stations around the country who might have interest. In college football, the more exposure, the better.
The system also is a source of funding. The Cougar Club, which pays for much of the satellite time, sponsors membership drives during telecasts. The club has some 4,000 members. More than 1,000 live outside of Utah. School officials attribute out-of-state interest to the satellite network.
Once, during a game, the club asked viewers to send postcards that told where they were watching. BYU received cards from 38 states, Canada and Mexico.
Plans are to expand the system - and the games - to Europe as soon as technically possible.
Because of BYU's wide-open passing attack, games normally are entertaining. BYU knocked off Miami in its opener, and quarterback Ty Detmer became the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Consequently, interest has spilled to non-Mormons who own satellite dishes.
"One time a man from Los Angeles called me wanting satellite coordinate information," said Jay Monsen, the athletic department's electronic media director. "I assumed he was Mormon and asked him if there were a lot of Mormons in the area. He said, iI don't know anything about Mormons. I just know you have a heck of a football team, and I want to watch the games."'
Rabid fan behavior does not blend naturally with the Mormon religion. Mormons are strict non-drinkers. Even caffeine is frowned on - including soft drinks.
The games are shown in cultural halls, never in the chapel. And because of the setting, there is a serious undertone.
Asked if there are ever emotional outbursts like throwing popcorn at the TV, Whittle said, "It's still in a church."
This time he was not kidding.