All you had to do was look around Neyland Stadium when BYU played Tennessee a few weeks ago to know something was different about that football game. Islands of blue interrupted a traditional sea of orange. A whole lot of islands.
When nonconference opponents arrive, especially those that come into that storied building from more than 1,500 miles away with no background, no history of playing in Knoxville, there normally are minimal interruptions. Brigham Young University and Tennessee had never before played in football.
And, yet, there was an archipelago of Cougar fans, some 15,000 of them, in the stands.
When BYU scored a touchdown, amid so much silence from Volunteer fans, a noticeable roar went up. When it won the game in overtime, a bigger roar was heard. Some of the Vols looked around, as though to say, “Where the hell did these people come from?”
Weird it was for them to see so many interlopers on hand, but not unusual for BYU.
Interloping is what Cougar fans do. What they’ve done for a long time.
When BYU played USC at the Coliseum 16 years ago, there were more than 20,000 Cougar fans decked out in blue. When then-USC athletic director Mike Garrett glanced around the stadium, he said to current BYU A.D. Tom Holmoe: “Tom, I had no idea so many BYU fans would travel down here for this game.” Holmoe said back: “Mike, these people are your neighbors. They live all around you.”
Asked recently about the phenomenon, Holmoe said: “We have fans almost everywhere. Mormons are almost everywhere. What happened at Tennessee was just one example, a good example. They had been planning back there for that game for a year, maybe longer.”
And by “they,” Holmoe meant a mix of BYU alums, BYU fans, and members of the faith who wanted to support the school owned by their church.
It’s not as though announcements or pronouncements are made from the pulpit in regional congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, urging members to attend BYU football games. But, as Holmoe said it, “They don’t have to. The people out there know.”
The dynamic in what those church members often refer to as the “mission field” is different than what it is in Utah, where sports allegiances among Latter-day Saint parishioners are passionately divided among Utah, Utah State and BYU.
Many of those who attend BYU football and basketball games around the country are, in fact, hardcore fans, but some are linked more on account of their religious affiliation, doing what they think they can for the cause.
When it comes to buying tickets and buying concessions, such distinctions do not matter. A buck spent is a buck spent. A hundred bucks spent are a hundred bucks spent. A seat filled is a seat filled. Thousands of seats filled are thousands of seats filled.
The draw typically seems stronger in the West. It is not unusual, for instance, at road West Coast Conference basketball games for there to be as many BYU fans in the gym as fans of whichever home team the Cougars are playing.
Holmoe said this has helped him in scheduling football games:
“I can call up any of the Pac-12 teams and get a game because they know we’ll draw a crowd. The church affiliation has an effect on that. It does help us in scheduling, but some of the teams we want to play, in the South or East, might not be as aware of it.”
Apparently, they are aware of it now in Tennessee.
In upcoming weeks, BYU football plays at locations from coast to coast — at South Florida in Tampa, at UMass in Amherst, and at San Diego State.
BYU fans in those areas know their Cougars are coming, and so might more than a few churchgoers who root for other teams — but who buy into the faith — who are willing to buy tickets and T-shirts and hot dogs to support the Cougars, as well. Especially if BYU has a winning record.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.