Luke Hansen
BYU running back Bryan Karyia gives a young fan an autograph after BYU\'s Friday night fireside in an LDS meeting house in Tupelo, Mississippi.

TUPELO, Miss. — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall recruited the state of Mississippi as a coach at Louisiana Tech, but Friday was his first trip here to host a fireside, the first of the 2011 football season.

Prior to today's game against Ole Miss in Oxford, Mendenhall was joined by two speakers, sophomore tight end Austin Holt and junior defensive back Robbie Buckner, inside a crowded Tupelo Stake Center, where sophomore kicker Brian Smith also sang.

"I basically asked each one of them to share their story," Mendenhall said as the team arrived at its hotel Friday evening. "And I'm talking about BYU football but I'm also talking about what they believe, so they'll share basically what they believe and how it ties to life and football."

Nearly 1,200 people were estimated inside the center, where three extra overflow rooms were reportedly added to two scheduled overflow spaces.

BYU president Cecil O. Samuelson was presented a key to the city.

"Really just an opportunity to serve is what we consider (Friday night) and an opportunity to play (Saturday), which hopefully lends credibility to how we're living," Mendenhall said. "Hopefully it's a message of not only faith, but football and that the two can coexist."

BYU, then coached by Gary Crowton, hosted a fireside prior to a December 2001 game against Mississippi State in Starkville, but even with new faces 10 years later, Mendenhall said the approach to his firesides won't change.

"We have basically the same approach no matter where we go and I think anyone who chooses to attend will find it really uplifting and an inspiring night and it's usually the favorite part of my trip," he smiled.

Though he has taken his share of criticism for putting football on the back end of his priorities list, the seventh-year coach doesn't mince his words when talking about it.

"I like football, but the events on Friday night are really special," he said. "I think it lends credibility when we play well. There have only been I think seven teams that have won more games the past five years than us. I just like the thought that it is possible, not only possible, desirable to do more than just play ball."

The Cougars boast a collective GPA of more than 3.0 and Mendenhall says around 75 percent of his players speak a second language.

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"There's a lot of them that are married and doing other things and I think in our life we can focus on other things and still be successful," he said. "Football, at the end of the day and at the end of our lives, will be just a way maybe you've helped other people.

"I'm not sure that in and of itself will be enough to really put our stamp on what we've done here on this Earth. Hopefully we're maximizing our talents and I'm asking our players to do the very best they can through the gifts they've been given to really maybe share a message."