Monday, October 10, 2005
Updated: April 15, 12:36 PM ET
A Question Of Faith
By Chad Nielsen
It's 6 o'clock on a dark December morning, his first day on the job, and Bronco Mendenhall is already on his knees. Yesterday was like a dream: the press conference, the cameras, the pats on the back. Local boy makes good. Today, though, is as concrete-real as LaVell Edwards Stadium, which hulks in the distance. Just outside his office is Legacy Hall, filled with reminders of BYU's impressive football past. A Heisman trophy, a Doak Walker, a pair of Outlands, a handful of Davey O'Briens. Chad Lewis' cleats, Todd Christensen's jersey, Steve Young's helmet. And the big prize: the 1984 UPI College Football National Championship trophy. Beside it, a bronze bust of Edwards' permanent scowl keeps watch over the house he built.
As Mendenhall bows his head, his shoulders slump with the weight of his task: to revive a once-glorious program. And so, in his first act as head coach, Mendenhall prays for wisdom.
God knows, he'll need it.
Mendenhall has taken over for his old boss, Gary Crowton, who followed a 12—2 debut season in 2001 with the team's first losing season since 1973. Then its second. And third. The Crowton era screeched to a halt with a 52-21 loss to rival Utah at the end of the 2004 season. But wins and losses are not all that has sent Mendenhall to his knees. Eight miles away, three former Cougars have traded in their blue uniforms for orange jumpsuits. They languish in the Utah County Jail, facing charges of gang rape. It is the second such allegation that has been made against BYU football players in less than a year-not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen at a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
This is a school with an honor code office that enforces not only the LDS ban on alcohol, extramarital sex and coffee, but also restricts shorts above the knee and beards. For many of the world's 12.3 million Mormons, BYU is literally the Lord's university. No other Division I-A football school asks its students to adhere to a standard as strict as BYU's-or is committed to insuring that its own standard is met.
In a culture built upon piety, those who stray from the path stand out. Especially when they look different from 99% of everyone else on campus. And when you come for the football, and not the religion, the system can seem impossible to navigate. In 2004, 14 players were suspended or dismissed for honor code violations. Thirteen were black, 12 non-Mormon.
The new coach spends an hour in silent prayer. Then there is a knock on the door, and a heavenly messenger limps in on a bad knee, grimacing in empathy. He's smaller than you might expect; for almost 30 years he looked so imposing on the sideline of the stadium that now bears his name. Until he retired and gave way to Crowton, LaVell Edwards gave BYU fans all they could have wanted: stellar quarterbacks, improbable victories and conference titles. And not least, he gave them a squeaky-clean image.
The Hall of Fame coach has some advice for the new guy. "Go up and talk to the people in the honor code office. Let them know you're not enemies."
As Mendenhall prays for guidance, one answer is clear: It's time for BYU football to embrace the principles that govern the university.
It's time to get back to being Mormon.
IT'S JUNE and Mendenhall pedals up Provo Canyon in the early-morning shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. He surges past another of the hundreds of competitors, on the way to a five-hour clocking in the "Eco Challenge," a torturous triathlon of his own devising. Players who survive the mile swim, the 35-mile ride and the run to Arrowhead Summit, eight miles up and back, will later say this summer's event brought them closer together. But from another man's couch, it looks like one more way for Bronco Mendenhall to kick your keister.
Mendenhall's drill-sergeant persona was built atop a farmhand's perseverance. At American Fork (Utah) High School in the early 1980s, Bronco was a skinny kid who dreamed of following his brother Mat, a 6'6" defensive end, to BYU and into the pros. All the clichés apply: up before dawn for morning milking, shoveling manure after school, lifting weights into the night. But BYU didn't need a sixfoot, 170-pound linebacker with more heart than talent-even after he gained 20 pounds and captained the Snow College defense on the way to the 1985 juco national title. So Bronco went to Oregon State. Why? "BYU was on the schedule," he says.
He started at safety the following season as OSU intercepted BYU three times and held them to 215 yards passing and 1 TD. "I lay on the 50-yard line after the game in front of my family, hometown friends and coaches," he says. "It was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment."
The NFL wasn't any more interested in him than BYU had been, so Mendenhall turned to coaching, spending the next nine years at Snow, Oregon State, Northern Arizona and Louisiana Tech, before five seasons as Rocky Long's defensive coordinator at New Mexico. The two men perfected the aggressive 3-3-5 scheme, and by 2001, Mendenhall's fourth year in Albuquerque, his was the top defense in the MWC. The next fall his team went on the road and smacked around BYU, holding the Cougars to 188 yards en route to a 20-16 victory-the Lobos' first win in Provo since 1971. When Crowton wanted a new coordinator in the off-season, he knew whom to call. After 20 years, Mendenhall had made it to BYU.
Three years later, on the first day of his first preseason camp as the Cougars' head coach, the 39-year-old Mendenhall, in a blue "Eco Challenge Warrior" T-shirt, is clearly in charge. Under his stoic gaze, several players stare in bewilderment at two thick ropes that hang from a swivel bar above their heads. In helmet and pads, they tentatively grasp one in each hand, before executing a modified pull- up, arms spread wide. It looks like a bizarre initiation rite: Any Given Sunday meets A Man Called Horse. Welcome to Camp Mendenhall. "I ask them to declare every day, through the demand of practice, if it's worth it or not," the coach says. "It gives me a clear idea of how they're living. It's very hard to meet the demands if you're not living right."
MAYBE FAITH can move mountains. But can it blanket a 4.4 receiver on a fly pattern? Because that's what Mendenhall really needs.
Coaching BYU is a tougher job than ever before. Honor code violations have gutted what is now Mendenhall's team. Among the 14 players suspended or dismissed in 2004 were two running backs with starting experience, the first-string safety and several promising recruits.
"The thing that distinguishes BYU is the principles embodied in the honor code," says Alton Wade, who, as vice president of Student Life, oversaw the honor code office through most of the 1990s. "When our athletes are not what we represent ourselves to be, it is not a good missionary tool."
Looking like a Mormon missionary in a white shirt and tie-that young, that enthusiastic, that orthodox-Mendenhall won't talk about past indiscretions. But ask him what he's doing to prevent similar incidents and you'll be lucky to escape a PowerPoint presentation. Players will be educated, mentored and preached to. They'll be subjected to a relentless barrage of symbols and buzzwords and mission statements. Gold stickers will be stuck on helmets for good behavior, such as earning a 4.0 GPA. Those who stray will meet a cross fire of peer pressure and zero tolerance. Of course, Mendenhall isn't likely to leave them with the surplus energy to wander.
But Mendenhall's first and most important weapon will be recruiting. As he told a gathering of former players, top-tier LDS athletes will, as always, be the first target. Higher academic and moral standards will further squeeze the Cougars' recruiting pool. (BYU targeted 125 prospects last spring, compared with over 1,000 a year earlier.) Recruits will need a church leader to vouch for them before they can even visit the campus, and their parents will be asked to come along. And then there will be the background checks …
Lenny Gregory had to speak up. Choir boys? Background checks? "It's a joke," says the nose guard (who was known as Lenny Gomes when he played in the early 1990s). "That was my comment. Everybody looked at me like I was a devil. Guys came up to me and said, `Things are different now.'" No one understands the significance of the new order better than Gregory. "There's no way I would have been allowed in the university. Or even recruited."
The off-campus rental Gregory shared with several other rough-and-ready players was known as the House of Pain. Gregory and his housemates, who were not Mormon, drank, brawled, had sex when they could and liked to play with guns. Nothing they did would have garnered much attention at any other school. "We had an edge to us," Gregory says, "even a lot of the Mormon players did. That was one thing that made BYU so good. We walked around like nobody could beat us. And by God, we beat them."
For most of his tenure, Edwards worked closely with the honor code office and quietly disciplined wayward players. Edwards had the autonomy and old-fashioned wherewithal to forge raw characters into something better-if not the Mormon ideal, then at least something resembling adulthood. "I just think part of our responsibility is to help them," Edwards says. "The easiest thing to do is kick the kid out, or cut him from the team." His former lineman agrees. "If it wasn't for LaVell, I'd be a complete loser," says Gregory, now 34 and a successful lumber businessman with a wife and three kids.
But by the time Wade was hired, in 1994, school administrators were no longer comfortable with Edwards' methods. "We had to do some tough things that were not always popular with the coaching staff or the fans," Wade says. "The integrity of the institution is more important than winning a few football games." One year later, BYU's streak of 17 consecutive bowl bids ended. Over the next decade the Cougars would appear in just four bowls and win only one.
Beyond athletics, attitudes have changed. The last two university presidents have been plucked from the upper tier of church leadership. A former campus police officer now directs the honor code office. Campus signs remind students of dress and grooming standards.
In his second year at BYU, senior WR Todd Watkins is still adjusting. "Some of the intricacies I still kind of question," he says. He had to cut his cornrows and get used to leaving a female student's apartment before curfew. "People wouldn't think twice about stuff like that somewhere else, but it's a big issue here. It puts a lot of stress on coaches and players."
THE GLORY days continue to carry weight with recruits like scatback B.J. Mathis, who traded Garland, Texas, for the Rocky Mountains because he believed in BYU football. Although the honor code is made prominent to every recruit, for Mathis, the LDS religion was part of the pleasant landscape, like the sparkling-clean campus, the shiny new team facilities and the friendly, cleancut people. Raised in a faithful Baptist home, he didn't expect to have trouble with the honor code. "I don't really get out and party or anything like that," he says. "My beliefs are strong."
Like many other African-Americans who come to BYU, Mathis had faith that it would provide a pathway to the pros. According to Mendenhall, BYU has more alumni in the NFL than any school "in the West" except USC. Scouts would be watching, and Mathis would have a chance to shine. "They told us we'd get a lot of playing time."
That was junior RB Curtis Brown's recruiting pitch to Watkins, a juco star, last season as well. "I told him it's a culture shock if you're not ready to adjust. But come, play two years and be done." Brown had actually considered a transfer after his first year but then joined the LDS Church, which helped him to fit in. But for others, the spotlight is not always easy to live with. "Everywhere I go people stare holes in the back of my head," Watkins says.
Watkins and Mathis were two of 13 African-Americans signed by Crowton before the 2004 season. "I was worried when he brought in that many from outside this culture at once," says former athletic director Val Hale. "It made me nervous, it made my wife nervous. I expressed concern to the coaches about it."
On Aug. 9, 2004, a 17-year-old woman walked into the Provo City Police Department and accused a group of BYU football players-including Mathis-of having raped her in their apartment the night before. At their trial this past August, Mathis and Ibrahim Rashada-the only two defendants who did not accept a plea arrangementwere found not guilty on all counts. (The previous rape allegation leveled against BYU players in 2004 never went to trial.) But it was too late to salvage their careers in Provo. The university moved quickly to cut ties to the scandal. Hale was out within a month of the allegation, the four accused players were gone by the end of the season, and two others who were at the apartment that night transferred in the off-season. Crowton's tenure was doomed.
Just 14 African-American players are in the media guide this year-14%, compared with a D1-A average of 45%. In Mendenhall's first class, four of 18 signees are black. BYU will not officially confirm statistics on ethnicity of players, but they point out that seven other members of the latest class are either Pacific Islanders or Hispanic.
"During LaVell's time, kids washed out for the same reasons they wash out now," says athletic director Tom Holmoe, a star safety at BYU in the early 1980s. "Our job is to reduce that number. We've probably brought people in who weren't well-suited. So let's do a better job of making it a well-suited place for them."
Mendenhall is developing programs to help minorities and non-LDS athletes adapt to campus life in Provo. Non-LDS coaches have been designated as spiritual leaders. There is nondenominational Bible study and a Big Brother—style alumni mentoring program. These are solid steps that have been a long time coming, says adjunct faculty member Darron Smith, who is black. "BYU has to be more sensitive to the fact that these young men are coming from a different persuasion. If the school is not prepared to deal with that, there's some question as to whether or not the young men need to be here to begin with."
Fewer than 1% of all students at BYU are black, and numbers are even lower in the surrounding community. In his book Black and Mormon , Smith estimates the total number of African-American LDS faithful to be "several thousand," out of a national membership that exceeds five million.
"Coming out here into a predominantly white setting was definitely an adjustment," says Brown, the convert. "I figured I went to a private high school, so it couldn't be that bad. I was wrong." HOW DEVOUT is Mendenhall? He quoted Scripture in the middle of a fashion show. But first, he got worked up about the team's new uniforms, a variation on the pre-1999 standard. With a dapper Coach Edwards at his side, he talked about the symbolism, the tradition, the link to those great teams. Then, quoting from the Book of Mormon, he compared his team with the Sons of Helaman, an ancient band of teenage warriors who were so faithful God didn't let a single one fall in battle. Salt Lake's talk-radio boys had a ball with that, but Mendenhall makes no apologies. This is a Mormon school. Get used to it.
"The institution was established with the spirit being the number one thing," he says. "Why would a model of any other place fit here? It won't. Everything I do is with that in mind, making sure we're aligned with the mission of the university." He desperately wants everyone to forget both the losing and the scandals. "We burned everything that happened the last years," says junior QB John Beck. "We don't even talk about it. It's a new deal. New helmet, new jersey, new everything."
Mendenhall won't comment on the rape trial, except to express his sorrow. But on some level, he's turning the whole thing into a rally for the honor code. "Are players under higher scrutiny? Certainly," he says. "But what I'm asking them to do is embrace it and then say, 'This is who I am and what we represent. Watch me all you want.'"
Coach Edwards is back-in more ways than one-watching the final preseason scrimmage from the stands. For Mendenhall, it must be sweet to talk shop with the guy he wasn't good enough to play for. He makes no effort to dissemble, sprinting to Edwards after practice for a long debriefing that will loom larger in the papers than the D's goal-line stand. Edwards believes in the kid, but worries about the administrative backlash. "I hope we haven't legislated ourselves to where we can't compete," he says. "It's a tough enough job without having to go through other hoops. They have to make sure to give coaches a fighting chance." Bronco hopes there are enough good players out there who value character over image, devotion to a cause over the freedom to be intimate with their girlfriends-or to wear goatees. "How players conduct themselves has more value than how they play," he says. "But the expectation is to win the conference, every year. And every eight or nine years, to compete for a national championship."
If it sounds like fantasy, it probably is. BYU is on the outside of the BCS looking in, and the playing field has changed inside the school as well. No amount of good intentions can change the impact of the more strictly enforced honor code. All the rhetoric, rules and reunions, all the programs, mentors and retro uniforms have to face the cold, hard truth of Saturday. The Mendenhall era has opened to mixed reviews. The Cougars were manhandled at home by Boston College, 20-3, before beating up on D1-AA power Eastern Illinois and losing a heartbreaker to TCU, 51-50, in overtime.
Skeptics will say it's going to take a miracle to return BYU to where it once was. But in the presence of Mendenhall it's hard to remember that you don't think it can happen.