PROVO — Since venturing into the land of independence for football before the 2011 season the BYU leadership has gone to great lengths to extol the virtue of worldwide exposure.
The baseline was to send the Cougars into the four corners of the country, bringing untold amounts of positive publicity through the vehicle of winning football. For four years only part of the theory has been realized, as the football team has piled up frequent flier miles in search of opponents.
And all the great publicity? Keep looking.
Aside from beating a lousy Texas program twice, the most noteworthy aspects of BYU football the last four years have been losing the big games, playing a crummy home schedule and engaging in a brawl with Memphis after dropping the Miami Beach Bowl.
But it all changed on a steamy afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, last week. One play, affectionately known as a Hail Mary, finally has brought all the right kind of attention school officials have desperately craved since bolting from the Mountain West Conference.
By now, even BYU fans in China know that Tanner Mangum connected with Mitch Mathews for a game-winning 42-yard touchdown pass on a play that began with one second remaining on the clock. The miracle attracted widespread national attention, as a game-deciding Hail Mary usually does.
For several days, BYU became a media darling by beating a prominent program in the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
But this was more than a victory over a team that rarely loses home games. This game, particularly the one play, was all about the essence of BYU and its founding institution, the LDS Church.
"It's not only good for our football program, it's good for the institution and the church," said coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The M and M Mormon Miracle featured Mangum and Mathews, two players who put football on hold for 24 months to serve church missions. The media wasted no time in especially latching on to Mangum, who returned home from Chile only three months ago and was pressed into service to replace injured star quarterback Taysom Hill.
Suddenly, the freshman from Eagle, Idaho, traded obscurity for stardom. Within 48 hours, the college football world knew all about Mangum.
It started almost immediately after the play became official, when ABC broadcasters began telling Mangum's story of serving a mission and returning home in June. It continued during an on-field interview with Mendenhall saying Mangum was a highly touted recruit who shared MVP honors at the Elite 11 quarterback camp with Jameis Winston, who won a national championship at Florida State and was the top pick in the last NFL Draft.
ESPN jumped on the story, sending reporter Jeannine Edwards to BYU for a heart-warming piece on Mangum as part of its regular Campus Heroes segment. The piece, which lasted three minutes, aired multiple times and featured Mangum on campus signing autographs, posing for selfies and interacting with teammates.
"It's fun to see everyone get so excited about it," Mangum said during the interview.
In truth, the stunning play had little to do with being an independent. Going back to when it belonged to the WAC and MWC, BYU always has been able to schedule quality opponents early in the season before conference play began.
Still, the win over Nebraska combined with Mangum being fresh off a mission, is without question the best development during BYU's tenure as an independent. Hopefully for the Cougars, given the tough schedule that awaits this season, it's the start of what Mendenhall has repeated stated.
His mantra has been: "The best teams we can play, on the biggest stages, in front of the most people and then demonstrate that we have a quality football program."
Remember, though, for all the good works the Cougars do off the field, winning still matters the most. Good works without winning may not be dead, but it obviously doesn't mean as much.