A different 'Quest for Perfection'

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
Ask any BYU fan, player, coach, or even opponent, and they probably have a theory as to why BYU, the highest-ranked non-BCS team to start 2008, imploded in every big game it played last season.

The Cougars were too tense, too overconfident, too absorbed with all the hype that surrounded the program, too insert-a-theory-here. The team has heard it all.

But to get to the root of what happened last year, it's important to understand where this program was just a few years ago. From 1997 to 2004, the Cougars had one double-digit win season. They had just four winning seasons during that span. And for the better part of this decade, the Cougars only winning season came in 2001.

So when coach Bronco Mendenhall took over in 2005 and went from a 6-6 record his first season to two consecutive 11-2 seasons, expectations for the program grew faster than Mendenhall and his staff could have predicted and ultimately could control. And Mendenhall said he's as guilty as anyone for pushing his team more than they were maybe ready to handle.

"In terms of where do you go from there, and I continued to propel and kind of push the team forward, but most likely I was pushing beyond where that team was capable of going," Mendenhall said. "The expectation because of the previous years, myself included, was that you now have to surpass what you have done. And so I think that's why players, staff and community felt the pressure that was there."

That's why BYU has worked hard this spring to change the culture around its football team. Expectations for winning are still high, but so is the expectation to have fun and enjoy playing the game. Too often the fun in football was lost last season, which put a strain on the players and the coaches. So each coach has challenged his players not to be afraid of failure, but instead to embrace, learn from it and come out a better player on the other side. It's the mission of the coaches this season to insulate the players from the pressures of the media and the community and just get back to when football was simple, when it was just a game.

"I think the hype that everyone gave us going into the season and kind of the pressure that we put on ourselves as a program to win every game and to be perfect and all that was difficult for us to handle," senior tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I think we had the mindset that we were better than we were and that we didn't have to work as hard to be as good. That was obviously wrong. I think we've learned a lot of lessons from it and I think we're a stronger team this year and a better team this year because of all the things that we went through last year."

Lost in translation
Looking back on it, Mendenhall wishes he had never muttered the words "Quest for Perfection" during the last offseason. At least not publicly. From the minute he took the line from the school's mission statement, it was taken out of context.

While Mendenhall was asking for perfection out of his players in every facet of their lives, with football being far down on the list, fans, media, and opponents took the mantra to mean that Mendenhall was searching for an undefeated season, another Mountain West championship and the school's first BCS berth.

"After I tried to explain, no matter how many times, it never really was embraced in the way it was intended," Mendenhall said. "It was just one more thing I was having to manage as the season was going on and conversely, it was one more thing the players were having to manage. I don't regret the principle and presenting it to the team because I do think it was the final step in kind of re-linking the program to the institution and tying to the mission statement, but if I were to say now, was making it public worth the maintenance? Certainly not."

BYU didn't need help intensifying the target that was already on its back, but Mendenhall's words certainly did that. BYU came into 2008 having gone undefeated in Mountain West Conference play for two consecutive seasons. It had won every game at home during that span and was the highest preseason ranked non-BCS team in the country.

And the team was heaping expectations on itself. In 2007, the departing seniors told the team to be better than 11-2, leaving the 2008 class with the task of carrying the torch for a team that had tasted winning, but didn't understand what it meant to be a winning program.

"I know the seniors that left the program [in 2007] that was a huge exit suggestion, to raise the expectations," offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. "It was to expect more, to do more, and even though that has a good ring to it, a good sound to it, man, the guys that stayed back, they got to live up to that and that puts it all on them."

Expectations keep building
BYU's 59-0 win over UCLA on Sept. 13 was the beginning of the end for the Cougars. It was one of the best games BYU had played during Mendenhall's tenure. The Cougars executed flawlessly, exploited one of the most well-known schools in college football and did so on national television.

Even though the season was just three games old, BYU was already being hailed as a team that was going to go undefeated, bust the BCS and take the rest of the country by storm.

The next weekend, BYU dismantled Wyoming 44-0 and though it was a great victory, players and coaches remember fans and media grumbling about the Cougars scoring fewer points on a lowly Wyoming team than they did on a power like UCLA.

That's where Anae said the wheels started to come off.

"There was a point where we're rocking and rolling, No. 7 or 8 in the country, and we had an outstanding game and the people of the country and our fans just thought, this is it, we're going to waltz through the rest of the deal, everybody's just going to fall down when we show up," Anae said. "That intention is good, but it kind of paints you in a corner if you've got to fight your way back into a game from a huge first-quarter deficit. It makes it problematic if you have a slugfest with a [New Mexico], who you should just, according to the point spread, should just roll over. And so, those kind of things happened throughout the course of the year and we just kept getting a little tighter, and tighter, and tighter. One mistake happens and before you know it a kid starts to slump his head and his body language. We didn't have the group value that we're going to live for the next play instead of think about the last one."

The "Quest for Per
fection" started to take on a life of its own. After two consecutive shutouts, Utah State scored 14 points on the Cougars and the grumbles got louder. It didn't matter that both touchdowns were scored in the fourth quarter against some of the second-string players after BYU had a 34-0 lead. BYU had already established that it had the ability to shut out weaker teams and a one-win Utah State team was certainly that.

So players started getting questions about lackadaisical play. People who worked around the program started bringing out historical numbers and comparing the 2008 Cougars to the national championship team in 1984 and several other BYU teams that had had stellar seasons. Practices became quiet and focused, the joking in the locker room was limited. BYU was 5-0, on its way to 6-0, outscoring its opponents by more than 27 points and football stopped being a game.

"It became just like a workman-like attitude," senior defensive back Jan Jorgensen said. "We came in to just do our job, to get in, get out, win, win by a lot, and leave. And it wasn't like we were out there flying around, having fun and doing those things. I think we really forgot about that."

The fall
Anae said talking about what happened at TCU on Oct. 16 is easier than living through it. From the opening kick, TCU jumped all over the Cougars, got them out of their comfort zone and came away with a 32-7 win, the first conference loss for BYU in two years and a crushing blow to the Cougars chances at a BCS game.

Several players described the postgame as a surreal moment, a time when everything that they had built came crashing down. It was the moment the team broke under the weight of the expectations of its community and itself.

"In the minds of our team, our team's psyche, we went from being a very top performer in the country to just everything shattered," Anae said. "That was tough. And I'm not sure we did that at a very high level, to get the guys back and get on to the next one. I don't even remember who we played after, but I do know that as the year wore on, man, it seemed like every little mistake was just tough to let go of. The guys were just so tight in what they were doing. 'Tight' meaning afraid to make mistakes. Almost playing not to lose, that kind of thing."

BYU survived the next four weeks on talent, but it was clear that something was broken in the system. The team couldn't insulate itself from the criticism and football stopped being the sport than many of the BYU players had come to love as children. It started to become a grind that affected personal lives, school, every aspect of perfection that Mendenhall hoped they would be able to achieve when the season started.

But even after all of the struggles, the Cougars still had a chance to claim their third Mountain West title with a win over rival Utah. It didn't happen and the Cougars' quest came to an abrupt and shocking end. By the time the bowl game came around, players were done. They were done going to the same bowl for the fourth consecutive year and they just wanted the season to be over.

"Really, the worst thing that happened to this team was the 6-0 start because this team and staff started to believe that we were the previous years' teams," Mendenhall said. "We all knew we weren't."

A new year, a new attitude
This spring has been about getting back to basics for both BYU players and coaches. All parties spent much of the offseason reassessing what's really important in the game of football and while winning is a big thing, it's not the only thing and that's been stressed to the players in nearly every handout and pep talk they've been given.

Practices have been light, but more productive than in late 2008. Coaches have joked around and made a point to praise players for doing things well rather than punishing them for doing things poorly. The coaching staff has done its best to eliminate the fear of failure within their players.

Anae said he's made it his mission to insulate players from the media, comparison statistics and anything else that might cause them to lapse back into the team it was a year ago.

And the players appreciate it. Quarterback Max Hall said the locker room is a different place. For much of last year, no one was smiling, laughing or joking. But the carefree attitude that he's almost always associated with football has started to return. Guys are playing loose and enjoying the game, not working the job.

Finally, BYU is starting to understand the "Quest for Perfection" in the terms that it was intended. The Cougars might not go undefeated this season, but at least they'll enjoy trying.

"The season before, we were upbeat the whole season and it ended up great for us," Hall said. "When you're a kid it was just like, 'We're out here on the field, this is sweet.' And you're just enjoying the moment and enjoying playing ball. I think that's what we're getting back to and I think some of the younger guys are helping us out with that. There's an excitement now, and a culture change that's going on. It's going to be a different year."