PROVO — From year to year, given the unique aspects of its university, the BYU football program draws in players from mostly the same pool.
The typical recruit has often hails from a Western state — usually Utah or California — and is a member of the LDS Church. Neither of these facts comes as much of a surprise, considering the Salt Lake City-based religion sponsors the Provo university.
For some, the situation creates a recruiting advantage, as LDS players often are drawn to the program for reasons that can go far beyond football. To others, given the school’s strict Honor Code, it creates a distinct disadvantage.
Which side of the fence are you on?
At least one college coach thinks Bronco Mendenhall has the toughest job in the country.
In a recent conference call with BYU beat writers, Mendenhall recalled a conversation he had with Duke coach David Cutcliffe. The Alabama native has coached mostly in the South.
"He looked at me, and he said, 'You have the most difficult and unique job in all of college football,’ is what he said,” Mendenhall said. “He is very bright and very intuitive. He was referring to managing the transition and the attrition and turnover with missionaries.
“I think that the Naval Academy and Air Force and Army have very unique and distinct challenges as well. Ours are quite different than that, but that would be just one of my colleague’s [thoughts], what he said. I would say that sums up most of the comments I get.”
Apparently, Cutcliffe is not alone. Mendenhall has heard similar refrains during his nine seasons as the BYU head coach.
“I have met various coaches over the years, and we have become friends, and they all know what BYU is, that is usually what they think,” he said.
Let’s examine this closer.
Nestled at the base of an awesome mountain range, BYU is a homogenized institution in which most of the students are LDS Church members and Caucasian. As such, it can be difficult to attract good African-American talent.
The Honor Code also can act as a deterrent for recruiting. A fair amount of college athletes may not find such stringent rules as enticing.
Clearly, at least to some degree, Mendenhall has a tough task in some circles selling his football program. There’s a reason BYU’s recruiting classes aren’t usually ranked high nationally.
But the same weaknesses can also be viewed as strengths. Each year the Cougars can tap into a ready-made recruiting base.
For the most part, LDS players show a moderate to high interest in attending BYU. For some, that interest begins at an early age, often going back multiple generations. It’s common for players' parents to have both met at and graduated from BYU.
Even in down years, which have been few, BYU can attract solid LDS talent. The case of Austin Collie provides a classic example. In the midst of consecutive losing seasons, then-coach Gary Crowton successfully recruited Collie out of northern California.
The wide receiver’s father and older brother played the same position for the Cougars. Collie’s younger brother also will play at BYU upon returning from a church mission.
But relying heavily on LDS talent definitely has drawbacks.
With such a limited talent pool to recruit from, BYU can’t afford to lose Mormon players to competing programs. For all the national television exposure that BYU goes overboard in touting the football team receives, it simply isn’t enough for some big-time recruits.
The lure of playing in one of the major conferences is often too much to bypass. As he did on national signing day, Mendenhall can boast that BYU beat USC on three out of four recruits. But losing out on four-star offensive lineman Damien Mama, provided he matches the hype, is a significant blow to the Cougars. USC can replace one top-rated recruit with another, whereas it’s not as easy for BYU.
Another problem for BYU is the majority of its recruiting base isn’t good enough to compete on a national scale. Since becoming an independent in time for the 2011 season, BYU is 6-11 against teams from the five power conferences and Notre Dame. During the same three seasons, the Cougars are 20-2 against the non-BCS competition.
Overall, Mendenhall has nowhere near the toughest job in the country, as his 82-34 career shows. But that same recruiting base isn’t enough to rank consistently among the nation’s elite programs.