Texas Christian’s 40-point rout of Utah in a meeting of unbeaten teams once turned the specially chosen words on the back of the Utes’ jerseys into material for mockery.
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall made a mess of similar strategy and deservedly became a target for derision, even before his team took the field.
Mendenhall broke the No. 1 rule of uniform alterations in college athletics: Let the players decide about such things, or at least make them believe it was their own idea.
So Mendenhall recovered by adjusting his initial plan to have BYU’s values of “Tradition,” “Spirit” and “Honor” replace the players’ last names on their jerseys for every game. By doing so only for the Oct. 12 homecoming game vs. Georgia Tech this season, the presentation becomes a novelty and players and fans likely will accept it on that basis.
But he undoubtedly misjudged the response to the original idea from inside and outside of his program. The question now becomes whether everyone’s belief in Mendenhall is fully restored, or if Thursday’s sequence of events resulted in a net loss of credibility.
My sense is that his willingness to adjust will be viewed positively by the players, while some fans will believe they actually affected the outcome and outsiders will enjoy having more reason to make fun of him. In other words, nothing’s changed. The whole episode showed Mendenhall to be out of touch with his players to a remarkable degree, but he’s probably won them back.
Personally, I’m not sure Mendenhall’s change of plans is a victory for the Twitterverse, as some are claiming. Yet somehow, he got the word that players and fans were not too happy, and he responded with a once-a-year approach that would have made sense — if only he had talked to team leaders and received approval in the first place.
Surprising the players by having the new-look jerseys placed in their lockers Thursday was a big mistake. Correctable, maybe. A product of good intentions, certainly. But college athletes — and a school’s fans — care so much about uniforms these days that coaches simply can’t mess with this stuff without expecting some fallout. BYU is a different place, but not completely unique.
Names on the backs of their jerseys are important to the players. There’s family pride, and there’s an element of individuality in a team context.
But elements of variety can be fun. The service academies have made standard practice of specialty uniforms for games in the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series. Air Force’s jerseys featured “B-2 Spirit” and “F-22 Raptor” in honor of military aircraft when the Falcons played Navy last season. In previous years, the Falcons had “Freedom” and “Service” on the back.
Utah’s black, camouflage jerseys were printed with “Duty,” “Honor” and “Courage” when the Utes met TCU in November 2010, promoting the Wounded Warrior Project. The Utes set themselves up for some degree of embarrassment by performing poorly in their attempt to fulfill those words. Yet disregarding how Utah lost 47-7, it was a good cause and a worthwhile idea from the school’s apparel provider.
The same applies to BYU’s use of “Tradition,” “Spirit” and “Honor.” The element of surprise regarding the homecoming uniforms is gone now, and you’d better believe there’s potential for mockery if the Cougars look bad against Georgia Tech.
Yet if BYU plays well, Mendenhall will have created a new tradition that may have some staying power and be embraced in the future - no matter how awkwardly it was introduced.