PROVO — As BYU embarks on its inaugural football season as an independent, many are wondering and speculating about the implications of such a bold — and some would say risky — move.
But for Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall, the motivation behind the decision to stand alone is crystal clear.
"If you were to ask me the main reason to go independent, it would be exposure for the (LDS) Church," said Mendenhall, who is entering his seventh season at the helm. "The controversial nature of statements like that is just inherent to my regime as being the head coach.
"The reason I'm here is exposure for the Church through football and to develop young men who can do just that. To say the most visible part of the institution shouldn't be aligned with or represent the governing institution makes no sense to me. I'm just trying to make sure we do that in an adequate manner so when people watch us, they can draw the connection.
"Now there are more people that have the chance to see that. … Football itself is not enough for me. It's just not. But when you add that component, it's even more exciting."
To magnify, and facilitate, the exposure for BYU football, the school signed an eight-year contract with ESPN. The school also boasts its own television network, BYUtv. That means there will be lot of eyeballs watching the Cougars, and there will be even more pressure to win.
Mendenhall embraces that pressure.
"Certainly there's pressure, but why stay the same?" he said. "We're anxious for this to be a defining moment in the institution's history — to move forward. To not take the risk, that wouldn't be right."
Mendenhall and his players have stated repeatedly that their goal is to win a national championship. To accomplish that in the BCS era, a team like BYU would have to go undefeated, and even that might not be enough to propel the Cougars to the championship game.
But BYU is dreaming big.
"We'll always be remembered for being the first team at BYU to be independent," said running back JJ Di Luigi. "But what I want to be remembered for even more is bringing back another national championship. That's what we're trying to do this year."
"We have high expectations for ourselves," said quarterback Jake Heaps. "We're shooting for a national championship and a chance to play for a BCS game. That's what we're going to play for. That's the determination of our success. It's a big goal of ours. It's kind of tough to sit there and say, 'Well, if we go 10-2 and don't make a BCS bowl game, it's a disappointing season.' To us, that's our mindset. That's our goal."
Should the Cougars lose games early in the season, without a conference championship to play for, how will they gauge their success as an independent?
"When I think about our program and our unreached potential, that's what I measure us against. Are we as a staff, and the players, reaching what we're capable of? That's the best gauge," said Mendenhall, who has guided BYU to a 56-21 record since 2005. "When you're in a conference, a lot of people measure it by conference championships. I've tried to measure it by reaching our potential as a team. My biggest frustration a year ago early on was that I didn't feel like we were reaching our potential. Sometimes I feel better even on a loss if we play well than a win if we don't. I kind of have an internal clock that's developed over time ... more of just, do I think the team's playing to their ability level? And that's what I'm going to do."
The Cougars have yet to play their first game as an independent — that will happen on Sept. 3 at Ole Miss — but rumors are running rampant about their future. With conference realignment talk heating up again, will BYU be invited to the Big 12? And if the invitation comes, would the Cougars accept it?
Athletic director Tom Holmoe has been surveying the national landscape in college football, but for now, he is committed to the unique course the school has chosen to follow.
"We're going to move forward," he said. "We have a big, big football season ahead of us and there are a lot of things going on right now within our program that move us forward to independence. Our strength is moving ahead."
The way Mendenhall sees it, by moving ahead as an independent, anything can be achieved. That would include winning a national championship.
"When I consider what are the obstacles and is it possible, I think it is," Mendenhall said. "I would just as soon say it. There will be detractors everywhere that say it's not possible. I'm not one of them. I think it is possible. I can't give you the time frame, but it is a worthwhile goal. And what if, with our standards, with this climate, and with this institution, what if we were able to accomplish this here? What would that do to the national landscape? That, to me, is an intriguing reason to get up every day and come to work."