PROVO When BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall attended the annual national coaching convention last January, his colleagues congratulated him on his team's 11-2 record. It was the Cougars' first winning season since 2001.
"The most common comment to me was, 'That was a great season. You had a great team.' And I agree," Mendenhall recalled. "They didn't say, 'You have a great program.' At one point, BYU was a great program. I don't think I'll be viewed as a quality coach or this program won't be viewed as it once was until there's consistency."
Mendenhall is attending this year's coaching convention today, and one can only wonder if now he's receiving compliments for having a great program after the 2007 Cougars repeated the accomplishments of 2006 with an 11-2 overall record, an unbeaten, outright Mountain West Conference championship, a return to the national rankings, and a bowl victory.
Certainly, it's a mark of consistency.
Few had expected the Cougars to duplicate the 2006 squad's performance, given the departure of numerous senior stars. BYU, which was picked to finish second in the 2007 preseason media poll, didn't dominate opponents statistically the way it did in '06, but what the Cougars accomplished in '07 can be considered even more impressive. They did it with several unproven underclassmen at key positions.
Mendenhall has rebuilt BYU football on the premise that it can maintain a standard of excellence, regardless of the players who come and go.
"I would like this program to be known as a great program and the next group of players coming in picking up where they left off, just going forward," Mendenhall said. "That is our ultimate goal."
Going into the 2007 campaign, Mendenhall set the "Raising the Bar" theme. He didn't back down from the level of expectation established by legendary coach LaVell Edwards or the expectations generated in 2006.
"We would like to do this year-in and year-out," Mendenhall said prior to the '07 season. "Will it be the exact record? You can never predict that. But the level of play, the level of conduct and the level of success are certainly something to aspire to."
Despite BYU's stellar success the past two seasons, there are objectives still to conquer for the Cougars. Both years, they started 1-2, having lost two nonconference road games early in the season, before finishing with 10-game winning streaks.
In 2008, BYU is aiming to take the next step going undefeated and earning a berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
"We've talked all along that our goal is to get to a BCS game and to get into that spotlight," said quarterback Max Hall, who earned first-team MWC honors.
No doubt, in '08, the Cougars won't be satisfied with another 11-2 record. By their own admission, the bar will be raised once again.
"Hopefully (the bowl win) will be good for our start next year," Hall added, "and we can open in the top 25 and keep fighting and working until we get (to the BCS)."
Hall will lead an offense in '08 that returns nine starters, including Austin Collie, Dennis Pitta, Harvey Unga, Dallas Reynolds and Ray Feinga.
In 2007, BYU's offense was productive and at times prolific, averaging 30.1 points and 442 yards per game. However, the Cougars hurt themselves in a few games with penalties and turnovers. The 27-17 loss at UCLA on Sept. 8 can be tied directly to three turnovers and 11 penalties.
Yet BYU's offense came up big when it needed to, notably on the play of the year converting on fourth-and-18 against the University of Utah deep in its own territory with a little more than one minute remaining. On that play, Hall completed a 49-yard pass to Collie on a drive that culminated with Unga scoring the game-winning touchdown to turn a 10-9 deficit to a 17-10 advantage with 38 seconds left.
"It was a big play," Hall said of his memorable fourth-down pass to Collie. "It gave us a chance to win the game, then Harvey was able to cap it off. I remember thinking on that play that I've got to make something happen.
"Every great quarterback is able to make something happen in those situations. I'm young and for me to be a sophomore and be able to put our team in that situation and make a play like that was a big step for me and my confidence. It also helped the team as far as me stepping up as a leader. It's one of those things where you work hard and, hopefully, when you get in those situations you come out on top."
The Cougar defense, which gave up an average of 18.5 points per game, was solid overall, though it also experienced several lapses and bend-but-don't-break moments. It inexplicably suffered a complete meltdown in a 55-47 setback at Tulsa on Sept. 15. The Golden Hurricane, coming off of a bye, threw all sorts of gadget plays at BYU and enjoyed amazing success, to the tune of 595 yards of total offense.
"Maybe they had this one circled on their calendars because they beat the crap out of us," senior safety Quinn Gooch said afterward. "It wasn't our night. We thought we were good. We thought we had a good defense. But I guess we better rethink how we're doing things."
That humbling defeat at Tulsa turned out to be a turning point for the Cougars. Not only did they not lose another game in '07, but BYU's defense shut down its opponents' attempts at trickery the rest of the season.
BYU will have to replace eight defensive starters including Las Vegas Bowl hero Eathyn Manumaleuna (who is leaving for an LDS mission this month) and senior linebackers Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga.
Among those returning is defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen, who emerged as a star after recording 14 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss, and linebacker David Nixon. There are several voids in the defensive backfield that BYU will address in the spring.
As for special teams, it was a wild ride that featured a new placekicker, Mitch Payne, and a new punter, C.J. Santiago, who both had to learn on the job.
Another play that will live forever in Cougar football lore was executed by the special teams Manumaleuna's block of Kai Forbath's 28-yard field goal attempt as time expired, avenging one of the season's losses and preserving the one-point triumph over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.
"What I saw was an incredible surge," Mendenhall said of that play. "We sent all 11 (players), which is a desperation block. They looked at each other before they went back out and a couple of them thought they would be the one to get it. I saw enough of the tip (of the ball) to see it start spiraling. But I wasn't sure then if that would be enough. It was close to the crossbar, and I didn't know if it went through or not at that point. It will be a great play to use as an example for our program for a long time, because it was a play of will."
Kehl only wishes he had one more year of eligibility remaining. He is still disappointed that he didn't help lead BYU to a BCS bowl, but he's grateful for his role in the Cougars' return to prominence.
"I have a unique perspective. I've seen the program go full circle," he said. "When I got here in the fall of 2002 as a true freshman, we were ranked in the preseason, coming off of a 12-2 season. We had the top offense in the country in (former coach) Gary Crowton's first year. Everybody was excited. We won our first two games in 2002, and we were on top of the world. Then the wheels kind of fell off that truck. We sputtered that year, and we finished 5-7.
"I left for a mission, and we had two more losing seasons. I came back and we went 6-6, then 11-2 last year (and again this year). It's been cool. Years down the road, I think it will be special for me to know that I was part of that. To know that I saw what caused it to go south the way it did and then to be a part of what's brought back that tradition and honor, it's been fun. It's been a privilege."
Sophomore defensive lineman Brett Denney has high hopes for the 2008 Cougars."We're going to be aiming for the next best thing, going undefeated," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen with the BCS, but all we can control is winning the games that we've got. We've done this (11-2 record) two years in a row, and we'll take that momentum into next season."