"I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing on the present. That's where the fun is. And if it can't be fun, what's the point?" -- Donald Trump
Bronco Mendenhall is channeling the Donald these days.
Learn. Focus. Fun.
Those are the words -- the last one in particular -- of choice around BYU's fall camp thus far, as in:
» "We're having fun out here."
» "We're loose, flying around, having fun."
» "Football is fun again."
If we all had five bucks for every time we've heard or read the word "fun" coming from the Cougars' mouths of late, like Trump, we'd go out and buy a ton of it.
Which begs the question, then: What was football to the Cougars last season?
We've all heard that, too.
Somehow, BYU last year managed to transform a silly little schoolboy game of tackle into a form of medieval torture, into hammering bamboo shoots under its fingernails. By the time the Cougars lost to Utah and Arizona, they'd moved on to the rack, to the Pear of Anguish, to the Iron Maiden.
They might as well have been coached by Vincent Price.
Burdened as they were with their bulky quest for perfection, and the even greater load they hauled around once that kind of transcendence eluded them, feeling as though they had failed by going 10-3, a new pursuit was found, a new theme identified.
The run to fun.
That's probably a better course, especially when BYU plays Oklahoma in Dallas in Week 1.
Perfection can pound sand.
The Cougars are now the Fun Bunch.
Better to chase a good time in the here and now than to reach and reach and reach while being punched senseless by expectation's two heavy fists.
And Mendenhall has finally figured that out.
At the end of practice the other day, he gathered his team around him and offered up a few closing remarks, twice causing his players to burst into laughter. I'd repeat those words here but, according to BYU's rules for the media -- which do not allow the reporting of conversations between coaches and players, coaches and coaches, and players and players during practices -- I cannot.
Even fun, apparently, has its limits in Provo.
But Bronco was ... funny.
He knows now that the fun begins with him, that he must be the fountain of fun in order for his team not to grind itself to an agonizing halt.
He knows last season was a painful, joyless march, beginning with him. So, Mendenhall appears more enthusiastic, more emotional than he has in the past, at least as head coach. When he was defensive coordinator, it was a different matter. He was a madman, a raving lunatic.
I once saw Mendenhall on the field after a big win with then-Cougar linebacker Brady Poppinga, happily smacking one another like a Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal fighting over the cave's last slab of beef. Grins all around.
That was back in the day when the coach wore shorts in sub-freezing temperatures during early morning spring practices, just to show how tough he was, back when he talked about and openly embraced maniacal effort.
Since becoming head coach, he's become too fervent, too solemn, too corporate, too drab and dour. When was the last time anybody saw Mendenhall crack a smile during a game?
LaVell Edwards rarely smiled, but everybody, including his players, knew he was clever. He regularly revealed his lighter side on other occasions. Mendenhall has as well, but not frequently enough.
Instead, he's often taken on the demeanor of an overly earnest, clunky middle manager, leaning on phrases such as: higher level of execution, position solidification, teachable moments, and program failure.
Mendenhall won a lot of games like that, putting together back-to-back unbeaten league seasons. But when he thought he had his best chance to push his team to its highest level of execution -- sorry -- the whole thing got too cumbersome.
Senior defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen recently described himself and his teammates last year as "lost souls," saying football to them was ... uh-huh, "anything but fun."
Whether fun now can be revived as part of a natural process, rather than a forced formula, especially in such a competitive setting, remains to be seen. But indications are that the whole thing is real.
During practice on Monday, when receiver O'Neill Chambers was run down from behind by a JC transfer cornerback, running back Harvey Unga went over to him and said ... oops, I cannot divulge what he said, but, again, it was humorous.
Except, presumably, the paranoid knuckleheads who wrote the media coverage policies for BYU practices.