Ask Duff Tittle about all of the memorable football experiences that nearly five dozen BYU football legends over nine decades conveyed to him in interviews, and he may just surprise you in his response.
“Hardly anybody wanted to talk about football, but instead about friendships, relationships, lessons they’d learned,” said the BYU athletics director of communications about his new book, "What it Means to be A Cougar," a 303-page retrospective published by Triumph Books in Chicago. “That’s the real message of the book. Great football stories are in there too — I eventually got that out of them.”
Cougar No. 2 all-time passer John Beck, now of the Washington Redskins, was among those who needed a little push. Though Beck acknowledged that "What it Means to be a Cougar," may shed more "firsthand perspective" than the "Greatest Moments in BYU Football History" video that he saw on a near-annual basis when he made Holiday Bowl trips as a child with his family, he was quick to speak about the importance of reflecting the purpose of the gospel, as the book tends to do.
"I'm reminded that you never know who can be watching and listening," Beck said. "It's a great opportunity for kids who are maybe not LDS or who are starting to hear about the church to read about somebody they may have looked up to. A young man can not know whether to go on a mission or not and then can read about Austin Collie, as the conference newcomer of the year, going on a mission, only to come back and have success. They can say, 'that's something I can do.'"
Football stories do abound, from Glen Oliverson’s experience in being a part of the first team to beat Utah in 1942 to Brandon Doman’s experiences in playing with his brother Cliff for two years (and, of course, something to do with Doman becoming the starting quarterback). But it’s the opportunity to have learned to become organized and spiritually centered that comprised a large amount of the stories, said Brett Pyne, BYU football media relations director, who helped edit the book.
“People treasure a lot of off-the-field experiences they had together,” Pyne said. “I think as fans, we know about the times they won championships or won a big game, and that’s an important element. But what kind of struck me are a lot of things that people don’t know about: why the athletes came to BYU in the first place, some that thought about leaving because they are not sure they could make it and then becoming some of the greatest players in BYU history. It’s kind of fun to see the human element of getting to know more about what they were thinking as their career transpired.”
Conducting interviews was far from a burden for Tittle during the three months that he spent interviewing the legends, including Heisman Trophy winner Ty Betmer and Eldon Fortie, BYU's first All-American.
“I would ask questions that would bring up unique stories I’d never heard before,” said Tittle, who felt fortunate to be conducting interviews during quarterback weekend last September, where he could interview previous all-American signal-callers that included Steve Young and Jim McMahon. “It was crazy, a lot of these athletes I’ve known really during my 15 years in this position who shared with me experiences and feelings that I’d never heard before.”
Among Tittle’s favorites was that of Curg Belcher, a defensive back for the Cougars from 1963-66. When Belcher was in high school, he was interested in playing for the University of Utah. Then the rarest of occasions occurred.
Belcher received a call from a person he thought was Ray Nagel, Utah’s coach at the time. Belcher learned hours later, when Cougar coach Mal Mitchell and an assistant stood at the door of the Belcher family’s Vernal, Utah, home, that it had been Mitchell on the other end. Following a three-year letter at defensive back, a first-team all-WAC senior season and marriage to his wife Sheila, Belcher told Tittle that the accidental path that took him to BYU was nothing less than “some type of divine intervention.”
“I will always feel that there have been several times where maybe the Lord intervened with me going to BYU,” Belcher says in the chapter.
Such a mindset is a recurring theme throughout the "What it Means to be a Cougar."
Pyne spoke of an account where Marc Wilson credits Lance Reynolds for the reason he came to BYU. Reynolds was serving his mission in Washington when he met Wilson and encouraged him to go to Provo. He also mentioned LaVell Edwards’ passion for the missionary program, where under his watch, “serving was encouraged much more than before he came around,” Pyne said.
“Coach Edwards was influencing them in that regard, coach Mendenhall does the same,” Pyne said. “They both really look out for the young men in the program in that manner. Obviously, both men have been very successful on the football field as well as when it comes to the gospel. They could have had parallel philosophies, but they help encourage it and help the young men feel comfortable with doing both (playing football and serving a mission).”
Be it never-before-heard experiences or the spiritual and well-rounded nature of the legends that have come from Provo, Tittle said while he is not sure about writing another book about BYU athletics in the immediate future, he enjoyed every detail of bringing the book forth.
“I enjoyed the process,” Tittle said. “I’m excited for the readers to see this because of the stories I’ve been able to tell. There’s some great stuff in there.”
Such quality is only a reflection of the school and program the stories speak about, Beck said.
"If I had to go back to make my decision about where to attend school, I would go back to BYU because it's such a special place," Beck said. "That's why I think you get people with such great experiences there. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to have been a part of the school of the faith I believe in. The book probably captures a portion of that feeling. At Washington, as the only member on my team, the feeling is different."