When BYU and Utah State meet at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday night, it will mark the return of a long and sometimes bitter rivalry. Seldom more bitter than this year, if you're coming from the Aggie perspective.
If you're a BYU fan, you're holding up your hands and saying, "What, did we do something wrong?" If you're an Aggie fan, you're invoking the code of the Old West, whereby cattle rustling was punishable by hanging. In the eyes of USU fans, that's what happened with quarterback Riley Nelson: The Cougars rustled their property.
That's not entirely accurate, but emotion often rules in these cases. Nelson made the choice to transfer from USU to BYU, nobody else. No one recruited him, he says. He just decided to play at the school of quarterbacks.
Objectively, it's hard to blame him. When he was on his LDS mission, USU was going through the worst period in its football history. BYU has won 24 of the last 27 games against the Aggies. So he transferred to BYU, where he has been insisting all week he's happy as a retriever.
Meanwhile, details remain vague. Did BYU actually recruit him while he was on his mission? How could he leave the school where his father played and his grandfather coached? Does he KNOW what he did to people in the Cache Valley?
If you ask him, or BYU, nothing underhanded occurred. His parents learned a scholarship was available at BYU from a high school coach in Logan. They then notified their son, who was serving in Spain. After due consideration, Nelson informed BYU he was transferring, so the school sent him a note of welcome.
It was all very civilized and simple.
Who initially notified whom seems to be the debating point. Was it a BYU coach, who contacted Nelson's prep coach, who contacted the Nelsons, who contacted Riley Nelson? Or did the prep coach do the research and act on his own, by notifying Nelson's parents?
In a way, it's a moot point. Nelson would likely have reached the same conclusion after he got home, anyway.
The main point is that this sort of scenario — where a player announces a transfer, mid-mission — is unlikely to occur again. That's because on Aug. 1, the NCAA enacted legislation to keep missionaries from being contacted by colleges while they're on their missions, period. Known to USU fans as the "Riley Nelson Rule," the NCAA is saying, in essence, keep your hands off those missionaries.
In Bylaw 184.108.40.206.2.1 of the NCAA handbook, it states: An institution shall not contact a student-athlete who has begun service on an official church mission without obtaining permission from the institution from which the student-athlete withdrew prior to beginning his or her mission if the student-athlete signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) and attended the institution (with which he or she signed the NLI) as a full-time student. ... If such a student-athlete has completed his or her official church mission and does not enroll full-time in a collegiate institution within one calendar year of completion of the mission, an institution may contact the student-athlete without obtaining permission from the first institution.
In short, that means let the missionaries be missionaries.
And don't even think about sending cookies.
Some say BYU will always have people doing its recruiting, and in a sense, that's true. LDS Church leaders can certainly exert influence. But not all LDS leaders are BYU fans, and many don't care about football.
But even if it does happen, it won't be with BYU's cooperation.
The thinking by the NCAA is that when missionaries are praying, they should be praying for their investigators, not which football team they should join. When they're reading, they should be reading scripture, not defenses.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall says he doesn't recruit players while they are on their missions, anyway. Just the same, now missionaries will know going in that the odds of being contacted by angels are far greater than being contacted by BYU.
Thus saith the NCAA.