Kragthorpe: Bronco should be allowed to have fun with Utah-BYU rivalry
College football • Mendenhall finally loosening up with media, Cougar boosters

By kurt kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

Published: August 25, 2014 05:38PM
Updated: August 25, 2014 11:14PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Provo

After all these years of wishing BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall would say anything interesting, I can’t bash him when he finally does so.

Mendenhall is moving away from his carefully programmed persona, and that’s healthy for everybody. Appearing at the Big Blue Bash booster event Saturday night, he jabbed the University of Utah about the two-year interruption of the football rivalry.

“We are not afraid to play anyone this year. Unlike a certain team here in Salt Lake,” Mendenhall said.

As long as Mendenhall recognizes the reality of his four straight losses to the Utes, he shouldn’t be hammered for having some fun with this subject. He also had better be prepared to deal with that quote repeatedly in 2016, when the series resumes. And he should seriously consider beating teams such as Connecticut and Texas that actually are on BYU’s weak 2014 schedule, in addition to worrying about the Utes.

Some percentage of BYU fans are upset about Mendenhall’s remarks, believing this is not the right time to be prodding Utah, for multiple reasons. That’s a fair point. Yet as he prepares to launch his 10th season Friday at UConn, Mendenhall is showing glimpses of his personality. That’s good. BYU linebackers coach Paul Tidwell spoke recently of a hidden “comical side,” having known him since Mendenhall’s Snow College playing career, and now it’s surfacing publicly.

“Does it show?” Mendenhall asked Monday, smiling in response to a question.

He attributes this trend of revealing “more of myself — or more of a different version of myself” — to his move away from calling the game-day defensive schemes. He’s trying to develop deeper relationships with his players and generally act more like a head coach. Mendenhall believes the new outlook is “important to my longevity” and hopes he can maintain it as the season unfolds.

In Saturday’s case, that meant deviating from his usual approach by sticking around the booster event after his opening comments, even returning to the stage to respond to some friendly jibes from players including receiver Mitch Mathews. That’s a breakthrough for a coach who never seemed to embrace that aspect of his job description.

“It’s nice to be able to stay and interact and just be part of things in a different light,” Mendenhall said.

We can debate whether it is funny or just ironic for Mendenhall to accuse Utah of being “afraid” of BYU, while the Utes face one of the country’s toughest schedules in 2014. But it is further evidence of his personal evolution. In June, he turned a routine interview with a Texas newspaper into a campaign for BYU’s inclusion in the Big 12. He’s laughed and joked much more than usual during his post-practice media sessions this month, and now he’s taking shots at the Utes.

Coaches should be able to say stuff like that in a booster setting, even in this modern world of social media. In that context, Michigan coach Brady Hoke spoke last year of Notre Dame’s “chickening out” of the rivalry. At about the same time, Florida coach Will Muschamp promised fans that Georgia’s reign over the Gators “is not going to be a long winning streak, I can assure you.”

Five months later, the Bulldogs extended their string with a 23-20 victory, forcing Muschamp to live with his words.

Mendenhall may have to do that in 2016 and beyond, while having no opportunity to reverse his 0-4 run against the Utes until then. For now, all BYU — and Utah — can do is play the teams in front of them. That won’t stop many fans on either side from obsessing about their rivals. So who can blame Mendenhall for doing so, to some degree? Only those who genuinely can claim to ignore the other school have that right.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

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