I think it’s a blast. It’s fun to have a lot of energy, and it’s fun to go into a place like that where it’s hostile and there’s a lot of fans cheering against you —BYU guard TJ Haws
PROVO — For years, some fans sitting in student sections at schools hosting BYU teams have dressed up in missionary attire as a way to poke fun at, or mock, the Cougars and the LDS Church, which owns and operates BYU.
It happened at San Diego State when the Cougars were part of the Mountain West Conference, and it’s happened at Gonzaga, where BYU plays Saturday.
Now officials at Gonzaga, a Jesuit school, are strongly encouraging their students to avoid wearing white shirts and ties and bicycle helmets, according to The Gonzaga Bulletin, the official student-run newspaper.
BYU coach Dave Rose and eight current Cougar basketball players have served missions.
Asked Tuesday about Gonzaga’s new approach to the missionary costumes, Rose had nothing but positive things to say about The Kennel, the Zags’ student section.
“Students are great. It’s one of the funnest things about the game,” Rose said. “The only thing I have to say about that is, I mean, I served a mission years ago. I never wore a bike helmet. So maybe keep the bike helmets at home.”
Guard TJ Haws, who served in France, doesn’t take offense, either. He added that he loves the atmosphere at Gonzaga.
“I think it’s a blast. The more fans you play in front of, the better. It’s fun to have a lot of energy, and it’s fun to go into a place like that where it’s hostile and there’s a lot of fans cheering against you,” he said. “It really makes it feel like college basketball. That’s the kind of stuff you watch on TV growing up. You see big arenas, you see lots of crazy fans and a lot of crazy students. That’s what you get up at Gonzaga. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun time.”
While the missionary-costume issue has been discussed at Gonzaga for a while — ever since BYU joined the West Coast Conference in 2012 — the impetus behind the timing of this movement is that Gonzaga has on its roster guard Jesse Wade, a returned missionary from Kaysville who joined the Zags program this season.
In fact, Haws and Wade served in the France Lyon Mission together. Though they weren’t companions, they spent considerable time together talking and getting to know each other.
“He was a great missionary. He’s fun to be around,” Haws said. “His French was awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Wade was named the 2015 Deseret News Mr. Basketball after scoring 1,367 points at Davis High and averaging 26.8 points per game as a senior. He committed to play for the Zags in 2013.
Before BYU travels to Spokane, it visits Loyola Marymount Thursday (9 p.m., MST).
The fact that the BYU-Gonzaga games are always played on an ESPN platform may have something to do with the administration’s desire to avoid what could be perceived by a national TV audience as putting down another religion.
“(Those costumes don’t) really represent who we are as a university and it shines bad on us and doesn’t show a welcoming community that supports everybody,” Colleen Vanderboom, assistant dean of Student Involvement and Leadership, told the Bulletin. “So every year it has come up and we have been talking a lot with Kennel Club and they agree — it’s not cool.”
A letter from Kennel Club board president Claire Murphy was read during a meeting last week involving various university departments, according to the Bulletin.
“The missionary costumes and posters that degrade the Mormon faith that show up in The Kennel every time we face the Cougars makes my stomach twist into knots,” Murphy wrote in the letter. “We are a Jesuit institution that stands to ‘foster a mature commitment to dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity’ and ‘cultivates in its students the capacities and dispositions for ethical discernment, creativity and innovation.’ How are we living up to this mission if we are tearing down the spiritual identity of others?"
According to the Bulletin, the Kennel board is planning to send an email to Gonzaga fans and urge those attending Saturday’s game to “dress appropriately.”
Maybe part of the reason for the decision to eliminate missionary costumes has something to do with the fact that BYU has won three consecutive games at Gonzaga, including last year’s stunner. The Cougars upset the Zags, who were ranked No. 1 and undefeated (29-0) going into the regular-season finale.
After the game, former BYU center Eric Mika, who had recently returned home from a mission to Italy, said that the presence of students dressed as missionaries fired him up, as well as his teammates. Mika even good-naturedly interacted with those fans a little bit during the game on his way to a 29-point, 11-rebound outing against the Zags.