Monday, December 31, 2007

Fourth Time Not a Charm

Preceding the basketball game at Boise State, I had competing thoughts regarding the contest. The first was concern that BYU could well lose again in Idaho; they had not seemed completely in synch since losing in the final minutes to North Carolina.

The second thought was that my first impression was folly: the Cougars were certainly more than capable of beating the Broncos. Given their hard-earned national ranking, surely they would step up and come together again as a very good team should; this would be a statement game about the quality of BYU basketball away from their comfortable Marriott Center (or Energy Solutions Arena).

But this game turned out only to be the next in what is becoming a dishearteningly familiar pattern. What do last year's conference championship loss against UNLV, the NCAA Tournament loss to Xavier, this year's loss in Salt Lake City to Michigan State, and Saturday night's loss at Boise State have in common? In all four games, BYU held sizable leads at the break--the smallest being six points against Xavier; the others, at least ten.

The results of competition are based on a combination of what players do and what coaches do. Superior players will produce superior outcomes for a given coaching staff. Quantifying that argument is as easy as comparing the margin of victory of last year's football team to this year's squad. At the same time, it is also clear that a superior coach will produce better outcomes with a given set of players. I know I wasn't the only fan that wondered how the football team could continue to lose eminently winnable games in the last three years under Gary Crowton.

I was happy to hear Dave Rose, when he was promoted, say that he would not be the one to tell his team they couldn't beat a particular opponent. And, I still feel that some of what I wrote about him previously remains true. Nevertheless, the four distinctly similar losses from two clubs with different identities indicate that the fault may not lie with the players.

The negatives I see toward the end of games include a prolonged reliance on 3-point shots when they stop falling, not getting a second player in the post to take pressure off Trent Plaisted, and neglecting to send players driving to the basket to either create sinkable foul shots--Plaisted is a horrific liability when he goes to the line--or dish back out to players who might now be more open.

Dave Rose is a very good coach in preparing for the start of a game, but he is not showing the ability to match adjustments made by opposing coaches after halftime. His in-game strategy requires considerable development if Cougar basketball is to reach its potential.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Must-Read Post

I don't anticipate doing this very often, but I saw a post today that I feel everyone should read. "Cruiser" of Cougar Legion detailed the fireside given at the Red Rock Stake Center the night before the Las Vegas Bowl. A very short excerpt follows:

When Coach Mendenhall finally spoke, he did so in a rather straight-forward, almost severe voice. Soon enough, it became clear why.

If you haven't seen this yet, you owe it to yourself to visit this link: A Holy Night at Red Rock.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Thoughts on the Las Vegas Bowl

I don't feel too badly about my prediction for how UCLA's offense would fare, other than Kai Forbath is even better than I thought. I was indeed aware that he was a fine kicker, but he was frankly nothing short of spectacular in this game--the last (blocked) kick notwithstanding. That block was all about the determination of the Cougar defense to preserve the win.

UCLA did not score a touchdown that they earned. When BYU got the ball with a few seconds on the clock before halftime, I said, "They'll take a knee and head into the locker room." Why one would EVER consider running a play when the possibility of scoring before the half is infinitesimal defies comprehension. What a different game it might have been without that gift to the Bruins.

BYU got to 17 points faster than I expected. I then anticipated that they would end up with 30 or more points because I believed the offense would get better as the game went on. Who knew that they would go scoreless in the second half--or that they would win the game while doing so?

I was very disappointed in the offensive output. I also based my prediction for a strong running game on the view that the offensive line had measurably improved since the previous meeting with UCLA. Yet this game was frankly won instead primarily because Max Hall had improved in the interim. I was amazed to see UCLA's defensive front consistently wreak havoc with the Cougar offense. I thought that the offensive line would at least hold its own against them, but that was not to be. Likely correlated with that was Robert Anae's seeming lack of confidence in utilizing the running game as an integral component of the game plan. The offense's one-dimensionality played right into the hands of UCLA. It was also readily apparent what kind of play was coming when Hall called audibles; a tightening of the gaps between lineman meant a run was coming, and a widening of gaps indicated a pass. More needs to be done to keep an opposing defensive coach, especially one as good as DeWayne Walker, guessing.

The last thing I did not foresee was BYU being able to block a kick with a game on the line. Coach Mendenhall, however, said he could see that in his players' eyes. That, it goes without saying, is a good thing. Cougar football is in very good shape indeed when its players believe they will find a way to win. The value of such a belief cannot be underestimated with regard to the success of the program going forward.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Las Vegas Bowl Predictions

On the surface, this year's bowl game is easier to predict than was last year's. Last year, there were real questions as to whether BYU would win the game, due to the potential for Oregon to score a lot of points despite having struggled the last half of the year. This year, the initial reaction of many to the re-match with UCLA was one nearing disdain because of the Bruins' plethora of injuries and extreme underperformance at times during the season, coupled with the firing of head coach Karl Dorrell.

There are, however, still some variables to consider. The first is that BYU lost to UCLA earlier in the season, and the Cougars have never beaten the Bruins since their first meeting with future Hall of Famer Steve Young leading the way; despite the different directions the respective seasons have taken, there has to be at least a small amount of psychological uncertainty regarding playing UCLA again. Also, DeWayne Walker showed last year the ability to put together a defensive scheme capable of beating USC. Ben Olson, who will start against BYU, undoubtedly has an unspoken desire to not lose to the Cougars and thus perhaps be regarded inferior to Max Hall, who is frankly at BYU only because Olson left. Finally, this game will be viewed as Coach Walker's audition for a head coaching position, whether at UCLA or elsewhere. He surely recognizes that his ability to motivate his squad to perform under adverse circumstances will be closely correlated to the quality of job offers he receives going forward.

It is with this backdrop that I see BYU sputtering somewhat to begin the game. I can even see a scoreless first quarter unfolding. I do see the Cougars beginning to warm up after that, though, finding a rhythm, and starting to put points on the board. Meanwhile, the relatively-unsung BYU defense also continues to seek to prove itself. I expect them to hound Ben Olson, perhaps even knocking the injury-prone quarterback from the game as it becomes apparent the Bruins cannot effectively run the ball on their opponent and Olson is asked to do more.

In the second half, as the Cougars build their lead, I anticipate them running more effectively, and relying increasingly on that ground game to control the clock and methodically put points on the board. I look for at least 80 yards and 120 yards on the ground from Taufui Vakapuna and Harvey Unga, respectively, with a very real possibility for both to go over 100, depending on how much Vakapuna is used--and how often passes are thrown to both instead of being handed the ball. I believe Fui is back and hungry to show that he is a punishing runner along with his partner-in-crime Unga.

On the other side of the ball, I think the UCLA offense is in for a long night. I can see Mendenhall's charges holding them without a touchdown, regardless of who gets the most time at quarterback.

In the end, it may not be a very exciting game, with regard to the score. My heart says BYU 34, UCLA 3, but my mind takes one touchdown off that score: BYU 27, UCLA 3. Perhaps they will be in position to score again late in the game, but Brendan Gaskins takes a knee on consecutive posessions to run out the clock.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Anxious About Michigan State

I recently wrote a post asserting that the BYU basketball team may be good enough by the end of the year to make it to the Final Four. They beat the #6 team in the country, and played even with the #1 team until the very end. I also, however, stated that I anticipated some bumpiness along the way.

BYU takes on Michigan State in less than two hours today. I wish this game were a little later in the season. The Cougars have not played particularly well in wins over Portland or Weber State. I am concerned that perhaps they have not come back to the confident level of play they displayed against Louisville and North Carolina.

This team is still forging its identity. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well they competed with the two high-ranking teams a couple of weeks ago. I felt they were farther along than one could reasonably expect.

Do I think BYU is capable of beating the Spartans? Yes, certainly. But I will not be surprised if they come up a little short today. I hope I am wrong, and that Dave Rose is an even better coach than I have already seen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cartoon: Most happening place in Provo

This is from the Daily Utah Chronicle, by Kurt Francom. Here is the link to the original.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cougars In Final Four?

I know, it is extremely early to start this kind of talk, but BYU's basketball team just took out the #6 team in the country, and went toe-to-toe with the #1 team for all but the last two minutes of the game.

Given that this squad is considerably different from last year's, it shouldn't be nearly this good yet. But it also seems likely that the team will get much better as the year goes on, just as any team with new pieces (and new roles) normally does.

Coach Dave Rose is still finding out what he has with this group. Jonathan Tavernari will probably learn to choose his shots better. Coach Rose will ensure that the team won't rely exclusively on three-point shots at the end of a game when they are tired--missing all of them essentially handed the game to North Carolina at the end. Jimmer Fredette and others will find their places on the team.

And when the team comes together in late-season form, I don't see them being inferior to many teams at all in the country. I do anticipate a little bumpiness as their identity is forged--I can't say that I expect them to go entirely undefeated in conference play. But I believe that this year's version, as early as it is in the season, is very close indeed to the level of team that finished last year, which had a winning record on the road and was undefeated at home.

Finally, Coach Rose demonstrated that he knows what to do with his team when playing a reputedly superior opponent, including calling timeouts to get them to regroup when Louisville appeared in position to pull away from them. And we know what happened to Louisville.

BYU in the Final Four this year? That might not be considered Madness when March arrives.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Class Or Crass, Continued

I was able to attend the BYU-Utah game today, and, wow--what another exciting finish. I'm to the point where I expect gut-wrenching games every year, and this was no exception. Perhaps I will just watch the last minute of every BYU-Utah game from now on to minimize the stress.

I observed a few things that slightly marred the day, though: One was Utah coach Kyle Whittingham not being man enough after the game to give Harvey Unga his proper due after Unga's stellar performance almost single-handedly won the game for BYU. Whittingham responded that Unga was "pretty good" when asked to comment on his play. He later half-heartedly said that Unga "really hurt us", but it seemed clear that Whittingham still could not bring himself to be fully complimentary of this great player that originally committed to play for him. Somehow I cannot see Bronco Mendenhall being anything less than completely commendatory of an opposing player, even if he had lost a recruiting battle for that player.

Why do I mention that? If any LDS Utah fans visit this site, I want to continue to hammer home the point that their school and coach probably do not represent them very well.

More disturbing than that was the twenty-something Utah fan standing on a street corner near the stadium before the game waving a sign that read "BYU sucks" on one side--OK, I admittedly don't expect better than that from many of those in red--but "Bronco likes little boys" on the other. Nice.

Unfortunately, though, I also saw a couple of college-age BYU fans wearing shirts that I had recently heard about. One said "U Suck", and the other--I have forgotten what it said--was no better.

I am concerned when I see BYU fans stooping to the level of many Utah fans, allowing for the likelihood that none will ever stoop so low as to approximate the depraved joke about our coach noted above. Not one BYU supporter should be derogatory of a rival. There is a minimum level of refinement, if you will, expected of Latter-day Saints, and, by extension, BYU fans. Does this mean we should all be model citizens? Well, yes it does.

We should frankly be cautious when dealing with colleagues who are Utah fans when we return to work. It is great to be victorious. We should be gracious in victory, regardless of how those colleagues may have been when the tables were turned. A broader perspective needs to be considered when dealing with human relationships. In the end, we should be representative of our faith at all times, including after the emotionally charged rivalry game.

As a minor postscript, behavior representative of a BYU fan should also include cleaning up our trash at the stadium when we leave. People seemed conscientious in that regard when I went to a game earlier in the season, but I didn't see many around me picking up after themselves today.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Class Or Crass?

I am writing today about the Cougars' main rival, the University of Utah, for a specifically BYU-related purpose.

Before the recent Wyoming vs Utah football game, Wyoming's coach guaranteed to a group of Wyoming students that his team would beat Utah. That bit of bravado quickly reached the Utah locker room and apparently ruffled a few feathers. After thoroughly dominating Wyoming to the tune of 40-0(!) at halftime, Utah's coach Kyle Whittingham decided to try an onside kick after a field goal increased their lead to 43-0 in the third quarter. The reaction to that utterly classless act was unanimous condemnation.

Or so I thought, until I read the comments to an article by Gordon Monson in the Salt Lake Tribune. I would probably be conservative to say that 80% of the Utah fans leaving comments were in favor of Whittingham's actions, which apparently included several long bombs to try for quick scores. Some fans tried to justify what he did by comparing his actions to that of other coaches, even though most examples given were taken out of context.

The Tribune allows users to rate comments positively or negatively. Comments that showed any kind of reasonable thought, whether by Utah fans or otherwise, showed multiple thumbs down. Comments in favor of the petty actions of their coach showed multiple thumbs up. Not surprisingly with Utah fans--based on experience--a fair number of them compared their actions to something that BYU had done or might be perceived to do. One went so far as to say that if Wyoming's coach had guaranteed a victory against BYU, the LDS Church would send its missionary force to Wyoming to conduct another Mountain Meadows Massacre. To its credit, the Tribune did remove that comment after I (and, hopefully, others) clicked on the "Report Abuse" link, but not before it had gained several thumbs up.

Now I'm getting to the point. Why would a member of the LDS Church support a program that is so heavily dominated by this type of fan? If you are a Mormon Utah fan, do you think that this school may once again become the type of school that it was years ago--the school of choice for those of your faith, a school for whom the majority of supporters share your beliefs or at least your values? Have I been told incorrectly that many LDS don't want to take their children to Utah games--especially involving the school owned by your church--because of the foul language coming from more than a few of your fellow fans? Has it not crossed your mind that these people tolerate you at best and despise you at worst?

If you are LDS, the University of Utah is not YOUR school, in the sense that it reflects your values or even really wants you there, other than for the fact that it requires a student population, which is supplied to a fair extent by Mormons--the U's previous (non-LDS) president even admitted that a sizable portion of the school's quota was filled by students that had first applied to BYU. And if that sounds like veiled arrogance on my part, please understand that, although I did attend BYU, I would not even have applied if the grades required today for admission were the standard when I was in high school.

If you are a Mormon Utah fan, what is keeping you from supporting the school that fosters your values? How do you justify supporting a school for which the majority of fans do not share your values and are in fact against much of what you stand for? If it is because you were denied admission to BYU, is that really a valid reason? Is it really right to be against BYU because there is incredible competition to get in these days? If you have another reason, does it hold up to serious scrutiny?

There's a bigger picture to consider than one of a provincial nature. Rarely does a Utah coach, even an LDS one, as we are coming to recognize, reflect the type of person that we hopefully aspire to be. BYU athletics means something on a national level, and even abroad. People recognize that it represents the LDS Church institutionally. With the alternative here in Utah, can you, a Mormon, recognize that and align yourself with the program that far more promotes your values and beliefs rather than the one that is in many ways against them?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Is BYU a Top 25 Team?

I read an article recently about efforts of BYU's athletic department to lobby for votes in the national polls. I, as much as anyone, would of course like to see BYU re-join the Top 25. Unlike last year, though, I'm not sure that the team deserves to be ranked at this point.

A point could be made regarding the up-and-down year for many teams, and the fact that several three-loss teams have more votes than two loss-BYU, although each of them is a member of a so-called BCS conference (most being in the SEC, as it happens). I am also not sure that one-loss Boise State, ranked number 19, would beat BYU if they were to play. Nevertheless, the issue for BYU is one of decided under-performance. Earlier in the season, I felt that if the Cougars could just eliminate penalties and turnovers, they would play to a very high level. I also felt they would likely be unbeaten if not for those issues.

Somehow, though, they haven't reached their potential despite subsequently cutting down on penalties and turnovers. The had enough in them to convincingly defeat an Air Force team that wasn't as good as some were beginning to think. They showed some satisfying tenacity in winning at the home of a New Mexico team that had been playing solid football, and always gives them stiff competition. But the passing game struggled against UNLV, and they pounded their way on the ground to 24 points and a win. Against lower-division Eastern Washington, they ended up with 42 points, but one of those touchdowns came from an interception return, and the passing game was again not particularly effective--Max Hall completed only 50% of his passes. They should have had 42 points by halftime with an interception return factored in. Finally, the Cougars scored only 35 against struggling Colorado State yesterday. Perhaps I should give BYU the benefit of the doubt on that one, however, as CSU did soundly trounce UNLV in Las Vegas two weeks ago and, although they couldn't muster any offense against Utah, the Utes scored only 27 points against them. It may also be worth noting that the BYU team that routinely routed opponents last year could only manage 24 points against the Rams--who have been weak for some time now--so perhaps a low point total against CSU is not worthy of alarm.

Nevertheless, I will not be surprised if BYU is unable to crack the Top 25 until they are 8-2, with wins over TCU and Wyoming. More importantly, if they have not come to play "cleaner football", as Coach Mendenhall is fond of saying, they may very well lose--horror of horrors--to an improving Utah team the week after the Wyoming game. Then the desire for a national ranking will have to be put on hold for another year.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Questioning Our "Investment" Strategy

I was going to write a post last week after the loss to UCLA entitled something like, "Nothing Left to Play For". That was my initial feeling after the Cougars likely blew their possibilities at a BCS bowl with penalties, turnovers, and questionable officiating. But as I examined the situation, I realized that there was plenty left to play for, in terms of BYU's future as a program. There might still even be an outside chance at a BCS bowl if the Cougars won the rest of the way, thanks to changes made after the 1996 Bowl Alliance snub of a similar BYU team (which, coincidentally, lost only once, on the road, against a good Pac-10 team). And yes, Utah and Boise State, you're welcome for the good fortune afforded you by BYU.

However, the question of whether or not the Cougars will do well the rest of this season for the future of the program is now not so clear.

I'm sure I am not the only one who will say this, but I think it needs to be said, regardless. I can live with BYU losing because things didn't go their way despite their best effort. I can live with the team not being as good as I would like due to lack of experience. I can even live with the team losing because of turnovers; sometimes there doesn't seem to be much than can be done about those, somehow. What I cannot accept is penalties playing an integral part in losing.

Despite three turnovers and drive-killing penalties, they had managed 47 points and were in position yesterday to tie the game against Tulsa on a final drive before yet another turnover. Despite similar problems with penalties, turnovers, and the aforementioned questionable officiating, they last week gave UCLA a terrific run for their money--yes, I am fully aware that previously winless Utah routed the same UCLA team at Salt Lake City 44-6 the next week (yesterday). That Twilight Zone outcome can only be attributed to a combination of Ben Olson's and UCLA's extreme inconsistency (especially when they don't feel the type of threat posed by "upset special" BYU), and Utah's propensity to exchange their customary uninspired play for an occasional out-of-their-minds performance when it appears they have little chance to win.

The point is, BYU has considerable talent, probably enough to have won both of the last two games. Why then aren't they winning?

Coach Bronco Mendenhall has made execution and discipline the foundation of his program. BYU has steadily gotten better in both regards over the last two years, so much so that the athletic department voluntarily reworked his contract. Now, however, the team seems to be revisiting some of the horrors of the Gary Crowton era, and I believe this presents a dilemma for Cougar fans. At least under Crowton, we recognized that there were issues in the program that required serious attention. But those issues seemed to be resolved under the new regime.

Now we are faced with a new potential for real disillusionment. If Mendenhall's philosophies emphasize rock-solid steadiness to the extent that, as he says, they should be to the point where new components can be inserted to maintain the established level of play, how is it possible that the result of their efforts now produces a disconnection that manifests itself in personal fouls and other penalties that either hurt themselves or help the opposition? BYU fans have bought into Mendenhall's vision; we are "fully invested" in the program. But anyone knows that if a popular investment does not produce anticipated returns, investors will dump it en masse.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fully Invested?

As we approach another college football season, I believe it is appropriate to reflect on the raison d'etre of BYU athletics (did I impress anyone with that phrase? I'm trying to). From Ezra Taft Benson suggesting that BYU's athletic success should become a focus after the favorable press given the LDS Church following BYU's 1951 NIT (and de facto National) basketball championship, to then-BYU president Rex E. Lee telling not-yet-LDS Ty Detmer that he, by winning the Heisman Trophy, had done more for missionary work for the Church then any other BYU player--or something like that--I am of the view that athletics continue to exist at BYU because of the potential for positive exposure to the Church. I apologize for not being able to provide references to the preceding attributed comments, by the way. Some things don't lend themselves to quick discovery.

Let's examine support for BYU sports. Most Cougar fans are LDS. I imagine that, at least at the core, those of us who are LDS root for BYU because we see it as an extension of our identities: we love sports; if we could play Division I sports, we would certainly do so; if we played Division I sports, what school would better represent who we are than the one which represents our religion?

Now, are we "fully invested" in our support of BYU athletics? Of that, I have little doubt. Are we fully invested in the religion underlying the school? That's a different matter, isn't it? It is possible to see BYU just as another school playing sports. I have even met a couple of confused souls who said they liked BYU football and University of Utah basketball. My admitted initial reaction to such is to view them as Mormons with the second "m" missing in that word, but then I remember that I'm supposed to be Christlike to everyone. . . .

Before we played Arizona last year, I posted a commentary about a couple of Cougar fans that disparaged the Wildcats and those that hate BYU. Their remarks were not what one would hope from people who belong to a religion both demanding a high level of commitment and claiming to be the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Living the teachings of the Church is extremely difficult--no doubt about it. I struggle constantly to try to live my religion which, by definition, means that I should always be looking to better myself, love others, and eliminate shortcomings (among other requirements). But the fact that it is hard doesn't exempt us from the responsibility to do so, and I think that responsibility is frankly greater for those of us who proclaim ourselves BYU fans because of the religion the school represents. I hope we all remember that for the coming year.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Importance of an NCAA Tournament Win

BYU basketball coach Dave Rose recently announced new recruits signed to letters of intent to join the Cougars. Conspicuously absent from that list was Brad Garrett.

Brad Garrett just finished his freshman season at the College of Southern Idaho. He was highly recruited, but his family and friends expected him to go to BYU--he even played one year in high school for current BYU assistant coach John Warden. However, he surprised people by signing with Oklahoma State instead.

Why didn't he choose the Cougars? I will go out on a limb and speculate that he saw a solid program at Oklahoma State, one that has made a couple of trips to the Final Four in this generation. When he looked at BYU, he saw a team that underachieved in the NCAA Tournament, losing the one game they played after leading at halftime.

I argued in January regarding the value of a bowl win to the football program. I think a victory in the NCAA Tournament may hold similar significance to the basketball team.

While Steve Cleveland was head basketball coach at BYU, the Cougars were able to sign every LDS player they targeted. I can remember one player who Cleveland didn't recruit despite some impressive scoring from the point guard position, and it is possible that he had been told not to bother, because that player had always wanted to go to Utah. It is also possible that Cleveland felt that a scoring point guard wasn't as high a priority as the other players he was recruiting. Regardless of the reason, it remains true that I did not once hear of BYU missing out on an LDS recruit once Coach Cleveland got the program going again.

However, the Cougars couldn't get past the first round in the NCAA Tournament. Admittedly, the deck was stacked against them--each time they were invited, they were paired with previous Final Four entrants, with two of the three opponents actually having won the National Championship. And they lost each time, despite valiant efforts in 2003 and 2004. Any potential recruit might reasonably conclude that if BYU got a break, they would end their Tournament woes, and that their decision to attend BYU might help the Cougars to do just that.

But this year was different. This year, they got an eighth seed. An argument could be made for them being granted a higher seed, but they didn't win their conference championship at UNLV despite leading at halftime. It could once again be said that they were being given a raw deal by being matched with Xavier, a school only two hours away from the tournament site. Xavier also had a history of knocking off higher seeds. Nevertheless, the Cougars had a winning conference record on the road, including winning at Air Force when there was nothing really on the line except pride.

BYU led at halftime against Xavier, but they couldn't hold the lead. Not only could they not maintain the lead, but they seemed to fall apart at the end of the game. Coach Rose said they gave their all, but that didn't seem to be the case, especially based on the aforementioned conference success on the road. An anticipated matchup with the top team in the country (awaiting the victor) also apparently wasn't enough motivation to find their best game.

Thus, a great year finished on a couple of negative notes, first because they lost their conference championship when they led at halftime, and second because they could not redeem themselves with a win against a team that they obviously could have beaten, despite a great deal on the line.

And so what looked like progression from the Steve Cleveland years was perhaps not so, and a player that, by all accounts, should have ended up in a BYU uniform, did not. BYU needs to prove they can win with the players they have, before they will get all the players they want.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

An Acute Irony

I support BYU sports because the success of the athletic program provides positive exposure to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which should increase the number of people who join the church. Of course, living the gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately about doing good to and for others. So why is my first attitude towards LDS fans of the University of Utah--the Cougars' archrival--admittedly one of wanting to whack them on the back of the head and ask, "Wake up! What's your problem?"

Now, I know how that sounds. Before any of the aforementioned start trying to find out where I live so they can make me regret writing that, please allow me to explain--the final analysis hopefully won't be nearly as inflammatory as it currently appears.

I probably identify with BYU because I grew up outside of Utah--in other words, a religious minority as a "Mormon". BYU football was rising to national prominence as I entered my teen years, and people would make the connection between BYU and Mormons. Athletic success, legitimately achieved, is widely respected. I also like football, so BYU was a natural fit for me.

I know there can be many reasons for Latter-day Saints not to be Cougar fans. One prominent reason that I am aware causes Mormons to be against BYU is having been rejected entrance to the school--I am all but certain that was the reason for a colleague from years ago hating BYU. However, the fact that most LDS U of U fans are from Salt Lake City--and most LDS Utah State fans are from the Aggies' hometown of Logan, Utah--indicates to me that a large percentage of LDS fans who support one of the Utah schools at the expense of BYU do not fully comprehend what it means to be a religious minority and, more importantly, the significance of the Cougars' success nationally.

I have even found that recognition is not limited to our borders. I was midway through my mission to Japan in early 1985. My companion and I sometimes rode our bicycles past a university where they had an organized American football team. On one occasion, I heard one of the players say something (in Japanese, of course) about BYU as he saw us go by. I was momentarily amazed, but realized after further thought that the Cougars' national championship in the recent January must have made news among sports fans even in Japan.

So BYU's success increases exposure to the church, and I maintain that is a favorable outcome because more people ultimately come to the church. But to what end? It should be to make the world a better place as more people live the "two great commandments" of loving the Lord and loving their neighbors. So how can I reconcile that with the natural irritation I feel toward LDS fans of BYU's main rival?

The answer, of course, is that I can't. I wish that more of them recognized what BYU's success in the high-profile sports really means to the missionary efforts of the church. I wish more of them would look at the big picture beyond rooting for the local school against the one that represents the LDS Church in the minds of the vast majority of those outside the church both domestically and abroad. But going against the directive to love my fellow men because I disagree with their choice of school to support is highly unlikely to persuade them of the validity of my views, and will surely serve only to make them more antagonistic (or at least less favorable) toward BYU. Even more than that, my primary responsibility is to live that commandment to love others, regardless of the circumstances.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

And The 2009 Heisman Trophy Goes To. . .

John Beck didn't get serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy this year, despite having a magnificent year statistically and winning nine straight games (ten, counting the bowl game, which would not have factored into the voting) after starting the season losing two very close contests away from home. One of those went into overtime against another school (Boston College) that was ranked in the Top 20 most of the year. A similar campaign for Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, or Ty Detmer would have garnered them ample Heisman attention.

The main difference between those other quarterbacks and John Beck is that BYU had a recent history of winning. Strangely enough, the strength of the football program itself, combined with a good year for the player concerned, seems to be more important than just how great the individual himself played. Robbie Bosco finished in the same spot (third) in the Heisman balloting both years he started, despite the fact that his second year was not nearly as successful as the first. One could also look at the 1992 Heisman going to Gino Torretta of Miami. Marshall Faulk would have beaten Torretta easily instead of finishing second if he had played at USC or Texas rather than San Diego State.

But the combination of Bronco Mendenhall as head coach, and John Beck leading the team to great heights this year, will actually prove beneficial to future BYU quarterbacks when it comes to the Heisman balloting--and a Cougar signal-caller may win the award sooner than many might think.

Max Hall has been leading the scout team for BYU this year, preparing the defense to face the opponent each week. At the end of the season, defensive players said Max was better than any quarterback that they faced during the season. That means he is better than at least thirteen other Division One quarterbacks (fourteen if you count two that played for Oregon), including two for ranked teams.

Max Hall is said to have the intangibles, which are often more important than the physical skills themselves. He will be leading a team with some experienced players, which should allow them to have a decent season in his sophomore campaign next year. By his third year, 2009, he will likely have established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks, if not the very best, in the country. Starting with this just-completed season, BYU should have had four good years when the 2009 season ends. So you heard it here first: The 2009 Heisman Trophy goes to Max Hall, Brigham Young University.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Importance of a Bowl Win

I recently read an article in the Provo Daily Herald that asserted that BYU's Las Vegas Bowl victory over Oregon held little real significance for the program. I vigorously disagree. Bowl wins are the last link in the chain to ultimately greater success.

A bowl win raises the year-end ranking, or at least keeps it from dropping. A ranking at the end of the year is highly correlated to the ranking at the beginning of the next year. I have seen teams start the year highly ranked, and not drop out until they lose their third consecutive game--the "must have been a fluke" effect. Conversely, a team that is lower-ranked or unranked has to work much harder to climb the rankings, and falls faster when it loses--the "I told you so" effect. Many knowledgeable football fans will agree that this year's Cougars are a legitimate Top-15 team, but their assent has been slow because they have had to prove themselves every week (and the lack of television exposure didn't help in the convincing of voters). Anyone who doesn't think that a high ranking is valuable need only recall the BCS snub of the 2001 BYU team while it was still undefeated, and, conversely, the BCS bowl invitation extended to Utah three years later because it was ranked higher. Going back further, BYU's history of being ranked in the early 1980's got them in the position to win the National Championship in 1984, despite vehement opposition to that scenario. Hopefully I don't have to explain the importance of playing in a BCS bowl or winning the National Championship.

Winning the bowl game also establishes a standard that future teams will feel obligated to meet. Success breeds success, which goes back to the rankings argument above.

Also, winning bowl games, especially against certain opponents, can be the final factor in recruiting superior players. Would (then non-LDS) Ty Detmer have chosen to come to BYU if Robbie Bosco--bad ankle and all--had not led the Cougars to the final victory to cement their championship season? And then there's JJ DiLuigi, star running back for the team that just won the California high school championship over all-powerful (and previously #1 in the country) De La Salle. I beg someone to argue that he didn't watch with singular pleasure as BYU thrashed what was supposed to be a good Pac-10 team. BYU got this recruit (also not LDS, by the way), because he's considered too small by the Pac-10 schools. He'll play in Nate Meikle's slotback spot, and he's going to turn some heads when he does. Like Curtis Brown, he has a consuming desire to prove the naysayers wrong.

I feel compelled to continue. Oregon, with Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator, has pushed hard to get Austin Collie to leave BYU. Collie was a secure recruit, but, if he weren't, the Cougars' win over the Ducks would have undoubtedly solidified his allegiance. Some recruits, like Ben Olson, aren't as committed to BYU if the Men in Blue aren't setting the football world on fire. Although I believe they will be fine going forward at quarterback, Olson's departure likely didn't do them any immediate favors.

Having better players doesn't always equate to winning (ask Oklahoma about Boise State). All other things being equal, however, a team with better talent will beat a team with inferior talent. How I wished BYU had Boise State's opportunity recently in a BCS bowl game. Boise State is similar in mindset and heart to BYU, but with less talent. That isn't meant to be derogatory to the Broncos, because no team does as well as they have the last few years without ability. Nevertheless, the Cougars will likely put a few more players into the NFL than will Boise State. And with that talent, and mindset and heart equal to that of the Idahoans, I believe there aren't many teams that BYU wouldn't have prevailed over in their final game this year.

Winning a bowl game perhaps is not as important if the regular season wasn't great, actually. A team's pursuit of the highest goals obviously starts with the regular season. But long-term goals for greater success cannot be achieved without winning the bowl games as well.