In case you missed it, we published something on SB Nation.com today about BYU's football program, conference realignment, future football scheduling and more. We've been working on this for a while (and aren't done reporting on this subject), but I had a few things in the proverbial notebook that I wanted to share with you guys, that for one reason or another, we didn't add to the article. The following thoughts are my personal observations and opinions.
BYU was very kind in helping facilitate access to some players at the MTSU fireside, and members of the Murfreesboro Stake, BYU Alumni association, and other BYU fans were very open, accommodating, and happy to share their story. While we were able to speak to athletic directors and university staff from multiple universities, repeated attempts to speak to BYU's athletic department, coaching staff and other university officials were unsuccessful. That doesn't mean we aren't going to try again in the future, but that's why other than Wrubell, they aren't in this story.
Between the fireside, the actual MTSU game, the hotel and the airport waiting to go home, I talked to at least fifty BYU fans. Not one person told me they wanted to fire Bronco, and this was on the heels of that four game losing streak, when #FireBronco sentiment on social media was at peak levels. I gave folks plenty of room, but nobody bit. Only a relatively small minority wanted any sort of assistant coaching change either. I'm not sure if this is a representative sample or not. Maybe folks are less excited about clamoring for a guy to lose his job to another man's face. Maybe I was speaking to a different demographic of Cougar fans. Who knows? The resounding positivity was notable, though.
Speaking of the fireside, I came away thinking the entire thing was very cool, and a great example of what makes BYU unique in a good way. I understand that there are some fans who are not crazy about these events, for fear that they create distractions from football, or highlight the "Mormon-ness" of the program or what have you, but it is hard for me to agree.
It was trick or treat night in Murfreesboro, the weather was total crap, and yet, hundreds of people crammed into a school auditorium to watch football players talk about God. Many of these people came from different states to have that conversation. That's impressive, and after watching the whole thing, I understand why.
I can't speak to other firesides, but this didn't feel like any Stake event or non-Sunday fireside I had ever been to. There was an air of informality to it, with tons of kids, and even some adults, forgoing typical Sunday attire in favor of BYU jerseys or apparel. There was a question and answer session, with Cougars walking the microphone up and down the auditorium. I thought the event captured the best possible spirit of a Testimony meeting, with all of the approachability, and none of the awkward tears or cringeworthy statements that occasionally pop up. As an occasional Serious Professional Journalist, I probably have some sort of built-in skepticism about this sort of thing, but I was legitimately moved, especially after listening to Jordan Leslie. To hear other families talk about how happy they are to be able to use these athletes as an example for their children, well, it's a different sort of story than I'm used to writing. I liked it.
That's why the Memphis brawl made me legitimately mad. It's hard to reconcile the mom who drove 11 hours to hear a football player talk about being a good example with a man sucker punching an already restrained player. There were a few nervous jokes about on the field sportsmanship AT the fireside, since all the way back at MTSU, fans saw all the personal foul penalties BYU was racking up. There was even a little commotion on the field at the end of the MTSU game, although it obviously wasn't even in the same zip code as what happened with Memphis. That brawl changed both the timing, and on some level, the direction of our article, as well.
I came away from this experience feeling really bad for Middle Tennessee State's AD. The program worked hard to bring in a "name" program for a home date, and while yes, the weather was bad, basically no Blue Raider fans showed up. I walked around their official fan tailgate less than an hour before the game, and other than the (very loud) Christian Rock band, a Comcast representative, and a few other people who were paid to man booths, not a single fan was there. Zero. The stadium pictures, I think, speak for themselves. In a part of the country with very few Mormons, BYU absolutely made this a home game.
I've been a skeptic of the concept of "BYU as a National Brand", and on some level, I think I still am, (I remember seeing articles last year in the DN that claimed that BYU was the 10th most popular program in places like Chicago, which is completely ridiculous) but I have to admit, I was really impressed by not just the raw turnout at this game, but the distance. We spoke to a man in Arkansas who bought 100 tickets and organized a trip. There were groups (unclear if specifically organized at the Stake level, or otherwise) from Indiana, from North Carolina, from Georgia, from Kansas, and all over the South. Some of these people weren't even really big football fans, but turned the tailgates into family gatherings. The coaches and players are very aware of that traveling ability (Bronco mentioned it to me after the game), and while I don't think it necessarily has the #brand #implications that others hope it does, it is an advantage for a team that has to play a lot of their big games on the road.
One of the last guys off the field after the game? Christian Stewart, who was autographing stuff and giving high fives to little kids.
This didn't make the article, but I talked to SB Nation's Bud Elliot, our recruiting guru, about BYU's recruiting level and what that means for "P5" consideration. This is what he said:
"Should BYU be considered a peer to Power 5 schools? Yes and no. BYU easily recruits better than some of the worst Power 5 programs, but it's not close to the upper echelon of that group.
BYU has a lot of unique challenges in recruiting. Aside from being located in a relatively shallow talent state, the Cougars must also deal with convincing players foreign to the culture at BYU that it is indeed a place that they want to spend their next four years. Given that neither of those things are likely to change, I don't see opportunity for BYU to move up significantly. Recruiting is much less dynamic than most fans are willing to believe. In the last 22 seasons, just 12 teams have won a national title, and just a handful more have played for it all and failed to win. Fewer great players slip through the cracks now because digital film makes it easier for schools to see so many more players than they could just a decade ago.
Given BYU's track record of success, both on the field and the recruiting trail, it's reasonable to expect the Cougars to keep going to bowls on a consistent basis. I'm sure they'll miss some at times, and in great years when everything comes together, it'll have a shot to be the Group of 5 representative. "
FWIW, I mostly agree with this.
Finally, I don't think this story is over. 2015 is likely to be a pivotal season for BYU, as their schedule ramps up the difficulty, while also being the last year for many key BYU players (like Taysom Hill) over the last few seasons. For all of the BYU fan concerns over the program's inability to get over a the proverbial "hump" over the last few years, the program still has some esteem. Can they capitalize and grow this momentum, into either a P5 berth or more favorable scheduling terms? Or will they stumble? We'll be sure to keep following along, no matter what.