Sunday, November 26, 2006

Faith, Plus Work, Precedes The Miracle Finish

When BYU started on their last drive with 1:19 left in yesterday's 33-31 win over archrival Utah, I told my wife that they would win. Knowing only BYU's history since we moved back to the States from Hong Kong in 1995 (and not having experienced firsthand the great years under Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer), she was not so sure and left the room temporarily to do something else. She came back with nine seconds left, and I told her she needed to stay in the room--that she was about to experience history in the making. I was completely sure BYU would score and win the game at that point.

After a spike ran the clock to seven seconds, I must admit my confidence level wasn't quite 100% when the next pass was deflected and we were down to three seconds, but I still felt that I would be very, very surprised if BYU didn't pull it out. Of course they did, in what was such an incredible finish that it became ESPN's play of the day.

I believe the significance of this finish cannot be overestimated, with regard to the future of BYU football and anything that might be affected by it. Like the 1980 Holiday ("Miracle") Bowl finish, it will transcend time. Without that miracle comeback, BYU would not have won a national championship four years later.

The belief ("faith") in what BYU was capable of achieving was what drove them during the early 1980's. It also influenced BYU's future a little down the road as a non-LDS high school sophomore quarterback in Texas drew inspiration from Robbie Bosco's gutsy performance in the 1984 Holiday Bowl (which clinched the National Championship). A couple of years later, Ty Detmer committed to BYU. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1990.

The years between Robbie Bosco graduating in 1985 and Ty Detmer coming onto the scene in 1988 saw the Cougars unable to find or produce star quarterbacks. At the time, the 1986 and 1987 seasons were considered aberrations. The period after Detmer's departure in 1991 until this year confirmed that mediocre quarterback play had become the rule rather than the exception. Questions arose as to the capability and/or suitability of Norm Chow as offensive coordinator.

Since leaving BYU, Chow has certainly proven his capability when working with great talent, akin to Phil Jackson with Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. But there were valid reasons for him not being considered to succeed LaVell Edwards as head coach, and many of those reasons were also directly related to BYU's lack of sustained success. As the reasons for Chow's unsuitability have been chronicled elsewhere and by multiple writers, I will not reiterate them.

Regardless of the reasons, BYU's legacy of success had been squandered. No longer did BYU have quarterbacks or teams that could do the highly improbable, until now.

Why was I quite confident that they would pull off the miracle finish? And what was the difference between this year and last year, when Beck likely could have won the game against Utah in regulation, or at least tied it in overtime?

The elements of BYU's dramatic finish have been some time in the making. Credit goes partly to Gary Crowton. He hired people--when he was allowed to; his hands were somewhat tied for the first couple of years--that better suited BYU and Polynesian recruits, who are certainly a boost to the Cougars' success.

Most of the credit, however, goes to Bronco Mendenhall, who, of course, was one of Crowton's hires. Mendenhall has believed that BYU could win with the best BYU-type players, whether LDS or not, whereas Crowton's emphasis was on pure talent first and then suitability to BYU second, which turned out to be a disaster from the dual viewpoints of BYU's image and recruits lost to dismissal.

Mendenhall not only went with the talent best suited to BYU, but the discipline and execution-based emphasis he has instituted fits BYU as well. The results have not been immediate and probably could not have been anticipated to be so. But two years is frankly not too much to allow to see such a dramatic turnaround.

I was confident that BYU would pull off the miracle finish yesterday because of the incremental steps they have made both this year and last. Last year, I could see that perhaps they weren't completely there, because the belief based on the preparation was not quite sufficient. I was a little concerned this year when they didn't win the Boston College game. But the TCU game proved that they were back. In yesterday's victory, it was only a matter of looking back at what they had accomplished, and knowing that they were capable of doing it.

John Beck said, "I remember telling myself, 'John, you've prepared forever for moments like this.'" Johnny Harline, who made the winning catch, said, "Everyone on the sideline kept telling each other, 'We're going to be all right.' We knew we would come back and win it." They believed. They prepared. And the result was a magic moment that will be remembered for a long, long time.

Now, can I apply this to my own life (which is almost as important as football)?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Not Your Average White Band (of Brothers)

BYU's immense improvement on defense this year can be attributed in part to Bronco Mendenhall's switch to the 3-4 alignment to take advantage of talent at the linebacker position, and certainly that group's contribution could have been anticipated. The big surprise is in seeing the defensive backs hold their own as an integral part of the defense, and that is a direct reflection of the tutelage of new secondary coach Jaime Hill.

Although I am not an expert on the subject, I see Hill's crew playing with confidence and coming up with interceptions and pass deflections at key moments. And this is from an average group of guys, as far as secondary talent goes. I thought of Cougar players calling themselves a band of brothers, then thought of the stereotypical BYU athlete, and came up with the "average white band of brothers". (Uncommonly clever, I know. I'm sure everyone is just as impressed with my wit as I am. . . .) The point is that BYU's defensive backs, regardless of race, have never been confused with those at USC or Miami, but don't tell this year's group that.

I'm concerned that Jaime Hill is going to do so well with BYU's secondary going forward that he will quickly be recognized for the work he's done, and will have other programs trying to lure him away.

The idea of actual time with his family outside of football--don't you just love day-of-rest Sundays and Monday family nights?--reportedly was the biggest incentive in drawing Coach Hill to BYU. But schools in better conferences dangling more money might nevertheless trump that. Thus, I feel drastic measures might be in order.

I'm going to contact Coach Hill. The message: Get a Book of Mormon, and read it. Coach Hill isn't LDS. A high percentage of those who read the Book of Mormon all the way through believe it. If he accepts my request to read it, there is a good chance he will "become a statistic" and also believe it, at which point he would have to admit that he needs to convert. He wouldn't be the first to fall into that category, by any means--my wife is also a "statistic", but that's yet another subject for another time.

If Coach Hill converts, the likelihood of him staying at BYU is much higher, and I can rest assured that the Cougars will continue to have strong secondaries for the long haul. Never mind that those who convert to the LDS religion and live its teachings to the best of their ability uniformly find a happiness they would not have thought possible--I love having a killer defensive backfield!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Vakapuna's Example

After Fui Vakapuna scored BYU's first touchdown today in the win over Air Force, I told my 4-year-old son that Vakapuna had been a missionary here in Orange County (actually in the Carlsbad Mission, which extends into southern OC), and that I had seen him when he was assigned to another ward at the church building we previously attended. When my son heard this, he said, "That's neat that he was a missionary here!"

What a great example. My son has begun to show an interest--thankfully, from my standpoint--in watching BYU football with me. Any time someone in a higher-profile position does (or has done) something worthy of praise, it can be an influence for good. I'm glad to see a high percentage of LDS players on the team going on missions, and I wish that virtually all LDS players would go on missions. I'm reminded of the fact that, when LDS leaders have said that every worthy young man should go on a mission, they didn't say, "with the exception of athletes".

I incidentally resisted the (considerable, for me) urge to go up and talk BYU football to Fui when I saw him at church, as I had heard that he was commendably focused on his mission and downplayed his status as a football player.

Incidentally #2: I was whoo-hooing after Michael Reed scored BYU's second touchdown today, when my 4-year-old initiated this exchange: "Daddy?" "Yes?" "Sometimes you're a little loud."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I Think He's Got "It"

In a post from March, I questioned whether John Beck had "it", the intangible quality that great quarterbacks have that allows them to win games even if they don't have all the physical tools. As recently as the Boston College game, I would still have said "no". Beck has been able to make a great number of plays, but hasn't appeared to have the ability to make them when it counted. I saw something different in the TCU game, however, and it was something that has been documented in articles from both the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, wherein he is reported to have had separate heart-to-hearts with Robbie Bosco and Brandon Doman.

In the TCU game, I saw a quarterback who made less errant throws to receivers. I saw a quarterback who audibled out of the called play to produce sensational touchdowns. In short--here's the hyperbole--I saw a winner. Never mind that the victory wasn't a matter of producing a last-minute drive that the great quarterbacks are associated with. To me, it is every bit as impressive to go into hostile territory, against a ranked opponent, and put your team up by so much late in the game that the opponent has no real chance of coming back, and that is what Beck and company did against TCU. BYU scored a final touchdown with 7:27 left in the game to go up by three scores. I can't imagine a more convincing victory on the road against a team that deserved to be ranked in the Top 20.

I also couldn't be happier for John Beck. From a self-serving standpoint, I as a fan have needed this to greatly increase the likelihood that BYU will have a great season. But for John Beck himself, this should be the entrance to the hallowed halls of quality quarterbacks that have played at BYU--something that he has so long desired. I believe he's finally learned what it takes, and he will likely end his BYU career the way he wants it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why There Are Those That Hate BYU

I read an opinion post today in the Arizona Daily Star written by a Utah State fan, telling why he grew up hating BYU. The article itself wasn't that bad, but a couple of comments really bothered me. The trouble is that the offensive comments were by BYU fans.

A "Wayne R" disparaged our upcoming opponent, the Arizona Wildcats, by saying that the standards at BYU are very high and that most Wildcat players wouldn't even get a recruiting visit to Provo. Whether or not that is true, it's arrogant. He then added to his arrogance by saying "there is no doubt that win or loose [sic], they will be the best team on the field." An "Aaron P" compounded the insult by referring to those who hate the Cougars as "degenerates".

Perhaps some BYU fans think that you can separate being a football fan from what you hear in the Sacramental prayers on Sunday--maybe it's not that important. But if these fans haven't noticed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the type of religion about which one is generally casual. One of those who commented on the aforementioned article understandably termed LDS doctrine "wacky". Without going into details, those that come to the conclusion that the LDS Church is what it says, do so because they've had experiences that overpower arguments against the improbability that, for instance, a 14-year-old boy saw God and Jesus Christ.

Because the LDS religion is one that people either "really believe" or "really don't", you would think that people would take seriously central tenets such as taking upon oneself the name of Christ--and that they would recognize that applies even with regard to football. It's no wonder there are those that hate BYU: it takes only one hypocrite to leave our opponents with a sour taste. If a person experiences more than one disagreeable attitude, which would be the case by reading the comments after the Utah State fan's article, their antipathy towards us could easily become permanent.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Where Can He Find "It"?

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I did recently see a commercial saying whatever "it" is, you could find it on a popular online auction site. I was reminded that some quarterbacks seem to have "it", and some don't. The question is, can you get "it" when you don't have "it" to begin with?

Most people would agree that Jim McMahon had "it". Same for Steve Young, Ty Detmer, and Brandon Doman. Brandon Doman won games many others wouldn't have--the aforementioned three excluded, of course--including the last game of LaVell Edwards' final season, against Utah. He essentially told his team they weren't going to lose, and got them to join with him to make improbable plays to pull the game out. He also did what was necessary to win the game at New Mexico the following year when Luke Staley was out, including scrambling for the first down on fourth-and-11.

It's true that regardless of how good one player is, or whether he has "it", he can't do it all, and will not win every game. But an example of a game that very likely would have been won by Doman was this last year's game against Utah. BYU had the ball with a chance to go up by a field goal or a touchdown toward the end of the game, and John Beck couldn't do what was necessary to put points on the board. Any points likely would have won the game, but no points meant overtime at best. He had a second chance with more pressure in overtime after Utah had scored, and, as we know, was no more successful with that opportunity. I frankly am not as concerned about not being able to match Utah's score in overtime. More telling to me is that he did not have "it" when the pressure was not as great, and he also had the chance to put the pressure on the opponent with a short clock in regulation.

After the Utah game, Beck mentioned something that he had touched on before, and that is that the difference between success and failure can be minute, with a slightly high trajectory on a pass possibly being the difference in a game, for instance. Surely being a top quarterback is not something that just anybody can achieve. Yet few would argue that Beck doesn't have the physical tools, or even the desire. So why is it that someone like Brandon Doman or Ty Detmer, who admittedly didn't have all the physical tools, were so often successful when it counted?

Brandon Doman was hired as a coach precisely to help BYU's quarterbacks with the intangibles. So far, I can't tell a difference with John Beck. Beck had mixed results before Doman coached him, and he's had mixed results since. Does that mean "it" cannot be coached? If Beck is going to become a great college quarterback, he has no more than this coming year to show it. I sincerely hope he will become great, and that Doman is able to impart "it", because not only will that be important to BYU football, it will also be important to John Beck personally and career-wise, and I'd like to see him succeed.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Man For All (Basketball) Seasons

This post was meant to be written shortly after the BYU-UNLV game a couple of weeks ago. As this blog isn't something I do for a living, a lot of things managed to get in the way of writing the last two weeks. In the meantime, what was perhaps not completely obvious has become more readily evident. That said. . .

I was happy to have Steve Cleveland at BYU. I will be forever grateful to him for resurrecting the BYU basketball program. The game that perhaps stands out as an example of the best of Cleveland's coaching ability was the 2000 conference tournament victory ending a 12-game losing streak against the University of Utah. Cleveland and his assistants went over several scenarios into the early hours of the morning on how to beat Utah, and nothing clicked. Finally Cleveland determined that Eric Nielsen, a steady but generally unspectacular player, could beat Utah's best player, Hanno Mottola, off the dribble. Three new plays were drawn up for Nielsen. He finished with a career-high 17 points, and the rivalry was back.

But although the team got back to a respectable level, there was always something lacking. Perhaps the best team under Cleveland was the 2003-2004 version with a future NBA first-round pick in Rafael Araujo. That team beat Oklahoma State (which later made it to the Final Four) and had then-USC coach Henry Bibby saying that BYU was one of the top three teams in the West, along with Stanford and Arizona. As much talent as that team had, however, they were inconsistent. They also continued a trend under Cleveland of losing their only game in the NCAA tournament. You could blame the latter two losses on getting matched against teams that were used to tournament-level play (UConn and Syracuse), and maybe that was just bad luck. Nevertheless, BYU's loss to Syracuse came despite many thinking that the Cougars would take the Orangemen out. That Cougar team was the aforementioned group that beat a future Final Four entrant.

Last year saw BYU take a major step backward, and, after leaving for Fresno State, Cleveland said he had accomplished everything that he felt he could at BYU. Enter Dave Rose. What I see with his team this year is passion and toughness. After a loss at Utah that seemingly stopped BYU's momentum, the Cougars jumped all over UNLV at home. Then the Rebels fought their way back and took the lead. I suspected that, as in years past, BYU would not be able to pull this one out--they wouldn't be mentally tough enough. To my very pleasant surprise, BYU turned the tables on UNLV and were the tougher team down the stretch. Since that game, they've won twice on the road and beat San Diego State at home, pulling away at the end by making all eight of their free throws in the last 53 seconds.

As most know, Dave Rose played for the "Phi Slamma Jamma" Houston Cougars team with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. As talented as that team was, they lost in the championship to North Carolina State, a team that kept winning close games. Rose has taken that lesson learned and applied it to his philosophy of coaching. He says that he won't be the one to tell his team they can't win. That right there, I believe, is the difference between Dave Rose and Steve Cleveland. Steve Cleveland felt he had done all he could at BYU. He didn't feel he could do any better with the talent pool he could get there. Dave Rose doesn't feel that way. He believes the "better" team doesn't always win, and that, even if his team isn't "better", what's to stop them from playing better than the other team in any given situation? That succinctly illustrates why he is likely the right man to coach BYU for a long time to come.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Man Who Would Be Star QB

BYU once recruited an all-state quarterback who was 6'4", had gone undefeated his senior year, and was going to receive not an athletic scholarship but a Gordon B. Hinckley scholarship--the most prestigious awarded at BYU. If that combination of athletic success and smarts wasn't enough to make you figuratively drool over his prospects as a BYU quarterback, surely you would after hearing that his father had made it to the NFL as a quarterback.

Jump ahead a few years. The new starting quarterback has a great first game, but plays poorly thereafter and gets benched in the middle of the year. The man who should be next in line, a sophomore with some game-time experience the previous year, shows in live action that he isn't ready to step up. Not only is he not ready to play, but he isn't even able to beat out a redshirt freshman a few months removed from his mission. He gets some playing time in a few games that year and the next, but in his highest-profile appearance it is obvious he doesn't have it--he throws more than twenty passes, with only 20% being completed (along with an interception). It appears that he has been instructed to look downfield as often as he can to try for quick scores since the team is way behind, but he is seldom even close on his throws. During his junior year, he isn't seriously considered in the running to start, even though the player who eventually won the starting job the year before was inconsistent, and another player being considered is fresh off his mission with no college football experience. Due to injuries and lack of experience, the team struggles.

Of course the quarterback in question is the same one who looked fantastic coming out of high school. So what was the issue?

This quarterback maintained his perfect grades in college, graduating summa cum laude. He also was gifted musically, to the point of composing and producing a piano album. He pursued a Rhodes scholarship, and was a national finalist (with two others) for the $21,500 Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship. Getting perfect grades is uncommon in college, and exceedingly rare for the student with the additional demands of sports. Being able to compose and produce one's own album as well is altogether unheard. I think the issue for this student-athlete, who by all accounts was a stellar human being, was one of spreading himself too thin with pursuits outside of football. I can't fault him for wanting to get the best grades possible; there is life after football, and very often life without football regardless of how good the player has become if injury or bad luck gets in the way. But, he was taking a scholarship spot on the team despite his being based on academics rather than athletics. He was one of only a handful of quarterbacks--the most important position--on the team. As such, he should have recognized the importance of, and obligation to, devoting all the attention he could to the success of the football team. That means he needed to become the best quarterback he could reasonably be.

College football only lasts four to five years, and then it's over. Other endeavors can wait. This quarterback's time passed without him becoming the star that I expected, and the team needed, him to be. If another quarterback with similar credentials comes to BYU, I hope he will realize his importance to the team, and direct his energy accordingly.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

We Appreciate Your Concern, But. . .

I mentioned in my first post of this blog that I didn't completely agree with Gordon Monson's article about Stanley Havili. In line with the Salt Lake Tribune's penchant for taking the glass-is-half-empty view of anything regarding BYU, Monson looked to have Cougar fans thoroughly wring their hands over the loss of Havili to USC. He blamed it on the state of the program, concluding that, "Three straight losing seasons, followed by an unconvincing 6-6 year, during which new coaches were attempting to learn on the run likely wasn't - and isn't - the best sell for top recruits, even top LDS recruits."

Bronco Mendenhall is of course looking to sell the entire BYU package: spirituality, academics, and athletics (see Dick Harmon's Deseret News article) rather than the current won-loss record. And, what do you know--some top athletes are buying it. BYU was a consistent quarterback away from an 8-4 year, and I hope to see the day when great success nets BYU all the LDS players it recruits. Yet if that never happens, it unfortunately didn't happen in the Edwards era either. Quarterback Sean Salisbury made the interesting choice to go to USC when the Trojans offered anything but the quarterback-friendly environment that BYU did, for instance. Nevertheless, it's hard to argue that Mendenhall is currently losing the recruiting wars. Pete Carroll gets one from Utah, and BYU gets one from Carroll's backyard. Romney Fuga was the LA Times lineman of the year. Do you suppose Pete Carroll didn't want him? But wait, there's more: Stanley Havili's opinion that the pastures were greener elsewhere didn't deter another top Pac-10 prospect, Matangi Tonga of northern California, from susbequently choosing BYU either. Fuga and Tonga were looking at the same 6-6 record Havili was, so maybe there is more to it than the immediate success of the football program.

Why Havili went back on his supposedly firm decision to serve a mission is something I'd like to know. But there are certainly different levels of commitment, and different reasons for wanting to serve a mission. As Monson accurately pointed out, BYU wasn't really at the top of his list to begin with. It was reported well before Havili gave his oral commitment that he was quite interested in Iowa--and the fact that a kid from Utah was looking at a Big Ten school other than Michigan, Ohio State, or Penn State in itself says that perhaps his search criteria was unusual from the start. Surely the Cougars wanted Havili, as they would any top LDS player. But the fact that BYU is able to woo recruits away from their home schools and conferences despite a currently inferior athletic offering indicates that the loss of a targeted LDS athlete going forward will be the exception rather than the rule.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Congratulations to Women's Basketball

Congratulations to the women's basketball team for finally being recognized with a Top-25 ranking. The lack of a ranking for them had been a running travesty. Until losing at home to North Carolina State, they were undefeated, including a victory on the road at then-ranked UCLA. How does a team be undefeated, win on the road against a ranked team, and not get ranked themselves? They finally made people wake up by beating ranked Utah at their place for the first time in four years. It helps also that the team that beat them (by two points) is now also ranked.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Stanley Havili and More

Stanley Havili's decision to attend USC over BYU has been on my mind more than it probably ought to be. That plus Gordon Monson of the Salt Lake Tribune writing an article about him that I didn't completely agree with, joined forces with several other elements to cause me to decide to start this weblog. Among those elements are my passion for BYU sports in general, a long-held desire to write, and my wife's experience with her own blog.

My wife, who did not grow up in the Church and missed the "glory" days of BYU football, told me that if our son grew up and had the choice between playing for USC and BYU, she would be for him going to USC, based on the current state of Cougar football. My response to her was that if a kid is "all that", he was going to be a star regardless of what school he played for. I gave her numerous examples of guys that played for less than top-notch schools, yet did great things for their schools and ended up doing well in the pros. Among them were Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State), and Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio). I also mentioned that it's yet to be seen if Stanley Havili will be as good as one Luke Staley, who did all right for himself at BYU.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: I believe LDS athletes should be using their talent for the benefit of the Church, which is best done representing the school that people recognize represents the Church. Ben Olson should be at BYU. I didn't think he'd play right away when he returned, because I frankly expected John Beck to be as good as Ben, with two years game experience to boot--I wish that expectation had been accurate. So I understood Ben's desire to go somewhere else where he thought he could play sooner, his stated lack of fear regarding competition notwithstanding--note that he didn't consider going to USC, despite their recent reputation for making good quarterbacks great. Whatever Ben is, he's not stupid. He wouldn't have played behind Matt Leinart and John David Booty, the guy who held the title of Best High School Quarterback his senior year, just as Ben had his senior year. Nevertheless, Ben should be at BYU, and not just because he had an obligation to the school that didn't get other quarterbacks to come because Ben had committed. He should be at BYU because his success should benefit BYU, which benefits his Church. Stanley Havili should be at BYU for the same reason. Haloti Ngata, who apparently was named All-American, should have been at BYU. So should JT (Johnathan) Mapu--glad to see JT Mapu on a mission, by the way. If these kids have the talent to go to the NFL from UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Tennessee, they will go to the NFL from BYU (see the number of players from BYU in the NFL in this article). If these kids would collectively pull their heads out of the sand and realize that collective talent wins football games--something that Gary Crowton could attest to in his first year, with a Doak Walker award winner, all-conference quarterback, two future NFL defensive ends and a tight end that started for a Super Bowl team the next year--they would realize that they could make BYU a great team, not just contribute to the greatness of other schools. It's a serious shame that they don't realize that.