Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall greets friend Kenneth Jones as members of the BYU football team arrive for a fireside in Seattle on Sept. 5, 2008.

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. — For BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, perhaps the first real surprise of the season came during Thursday night’s traditional pre-game fireside here prior to Friday’s season-opener against Connecticut.

Senior tight end Devin Mahina, who organized the fireside, called an audible and changed the format. After a few players shared some remarks, as they usually do, this time, those in the congregation were invited to ask the team questions. “I learned about the format,” Mendenhall told the large crowd at the Hartford Stake Center, “when it was announced from the podium.” Mendenhall and his players addressed a variety of topics, from independence and the Big 12, to what makes BYU different, to returned missionaries being an advantage for the program.

Here’s a sample of the questions and answers:

Question: Is the principle of councils in the church used within the BYU football program?

Mendenhall: “I have very bright men, I have spiritual men, I have compassionate men and wise men (working with him). They speak to me and provide solutions and counsel and we usually find resolutions of what needs to happen on behalf of these young men who I’m entrusted to be the steward over. However, at a different level, there are four captains on our team. There’s also a leadership council member of each position group. This year, we’ll meet together every Tuesday at 11 o’clock. The idea being that, as a head coach, my job is make myself as expendable as possible, meaning giving as much of the program as possible the ownership of our team to team members so they can learn and grow and take ownership of the direction of the program. Then it becomes sustainable — it’s not tied to a leader, it’s tied to principle.”

Question: Some people view having returned missionaries in the program as an unfair advantage for BYU. Is it an advantage?

Mendenhall: “There’s a very simple principle regarding that. I would view it as an amazing advantage in this capacity — the young men that I coach are more mature intellectually, they have amazing spiritual backgrounds. Over 80 percent of my team the last three years have served missions. Over 70 percent the past nine years have served missions. Anyone in the country can sign LDS players. LDS players don’t have to come to BYU. They can go elsewhere. It’s amazing that less than 7 percent of those that go elsewhere actually serve missions. If it’s such an advantage, then why don’t those coaches promote those kids into going? In fact, they’re discouraged from going because it becomes football first. We’ve had young men that have come back three days before training camp. You might ask them if it’s an advantage as their bodies are trying to catch up to their spirits and their minds. It takes approximately a year for their bodies to recapture what they once were. Ultimately, I think it’s a huge advantage because of balance in our lives. In the world of college football today, there isn’t much balance. It’s moving more toward commercialization and money. It’s what can you get, not what you can provide for others and what service you can give in your education. Our program is focused on those things at its core. I love that approach in terms of preparing them to go on (in life). Whether it helps us win a game or not, I’m not sure that’s even relevant. But I do think it prepares them for life.”

Question: For any players who aren’t LDS, what’s the difference between your experiences with this team and your experience with other teams, and how has it helped you?

Safety Harvey Jackson, a transfer from Nebraska: “One of the differences is, there are a lot of mature players here. There are a lot of nice people, also. The way things are set up here, it’s not all about football. It’s about teaching you how to become a better man, which is something I like. It’s about teaching you to become more spiritual in what you believe in. Coach Mendenhall teaches you how to be a man. Nebraska is a great place, but it’s primarily football, football, football, then everything else.”

Question: Given your comments about pleading this summer for membership in the Big 12 Conference, was independence a mistake?

Mendenhall: “It’s a pretty simple answer. First to understand what independence meant, there was one primary motive in going independent, and only one. It was exposure. Exposure for the church, our message and what we believe. Over the past three seasons, only 14 teams out of 129 that play Division I football have been seen more than BYU. Only 14. That is excluding BYUtv. If the No. 1 goal is exposure, then that mission has been accomplished to this point. To your next point about the pleading for the Big 12, if some exposure is good, more exposure, then, is better. That is the intent. There is an issue right now of some conferences having a concern that we won’t play on Sunday. I’m not talking football; I’m talking any sport. That is an issue with them. I won’t mention specific conferences, or who has that issue, but we’ll be glad to fulfill the mission of the school and our institution through football when someone will welcome us for who we are without conditions. Until then, we’ll travel the world in front, hopefully, of as many people on the biggest stages with these men and our message. I think we’ll have to win our way in, and we look forward to doing that.”

Question: What would be your advice to youths, particularly those who are the only member of the church in their school?

Running back Adam Hine: “That’s a great question. One of the toughest things as a youth is being someone who holds the standards that you do, it’s a tough thing, especially when there’s so much peer pressure. My advice is to know what your standards are. You can’t keep your standards if you don’t know what they are. I’d suggest you read For The Strength of Youth if you haven’t. Second, after you know your standards, make commitments to yourself and others that you will keep the standards. That way, when you’re at a party and someone is drinking, you already made the decision beforehand that you’re not going to drink. That way you’re not put in a pickle when it comes up. I know that to be true because I’ve been put in a pickle, where I hadn’t made the decision beforehand. It’s a lot easier when you know your standards and you make commitments to keep them.”

Question: How has playing on this team helped you grow closer to Heavenly Father?

Quarterback Taysom Hill: “Things like this, firesides, helps us realize that we’re part of something greater. We represent something that’s far beyond ourselves. We have an opportunity to reach out to others and be on our best behavior and be examples. I loved how (wide receiver) Kurt (Henderson) talked about the Stripling Warriors and how he compared them to our football team. Some of my best friends (are players on this team) because of what we go through on and off the field. Whether they are members of the church or not or whether they served missions or not, they’re great people.”

In closing, Mendenhall said he enjoys the firesides his team puts on. He started the tradition of holding firesides on the eve of games during his first season as head coach in 2005. “We cherish these opportunities. Under Devin’s direction, it’s been fun to be exposed to multiple players and see their differences and similarities," Mendenhall said. "We’re not perfect. We do our best to represent our beliefs through a game. Christ went about doing good. That’s the intent of our program through football.”

Before the Q&A session, Henderson, place-kicker Trevor Samson and defensive lineman Graham Rowley shared their feelings about God. Samson, who is not a member of the LDS Church, quipped, "This is my first fireside, not to mention my first time speaking at a fireside." Running backs coach Mark Atuaia, and a group of running backs — Hine, Nate Carter, Paul Lasike, Algernon Brown and Toloa’i Ho Ching — sang the hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”