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BYU’s Independence Sparks Recruiting Change

BYU has a rich history in football, mostly with players of the Mormon faith. But for the first time since the program started in 1922 the Cougars will be an independent this fall. Will the move be a boon for recruiting and lead to BYU becoming the “Notre Dame of the West”?

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has talked openly about the Cougars’ move toward independence, which coincides with rival Utah’s move to the Pac-12.

“Independence could be an incredible shot in the arm,” Holmoe told CBSSports.com. “Does it help and push us forward? Yes. Now if we are good - only one thing that means good and that means winning games – that could be a great push and momentum and who knows where we go?”

The Deseret News reported, citing BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, that a move to independent already has sparked positive gains on the recruiting trail. Doman said recruiting has been impacted “quite significantly.”

The newspaper said that the Cougars already have received verbal commitments from linebacker and Florida native Bobby Wolford and California running back Jamaal Williams, both of whom are not Mormons.

There’s no doubt that a move away from the Mountain West Conference - and teams like New Mexico, Colorado State and Wyoming - allows BYU a more national profile and an opportunity to schedule big-time opponents.

In 2011, BYU will face Ole Miss, Texas, Utah and UCF. Notre Dame, West Virginia, Oregon State, Boise State, Georgia Tech and Utah are on the docket for future seasons.

Oh yeah, there’s that little matter of an eight-year contract with ESPN and its family of networks, which will televise every BYU game except one for the duration of the deal. That one game will be on BYUtv, which beams into 60 million homes.

The combination of big-time opponents and constant national exposure will allow the Cougars to provide prospective recruits with an increasingly appealing pitch. But will it work?

Last season, 18 of the 19 players signed by the school were Mormons. While it’s certainly not a knock on LDS players, it’s a logical conclusion that, if a school dips into a singular pool, it’s less likely to have well-rounded talent.

However, the coaching staff insists that BYU is committed to finding the best players - not just the best of the LDS crop.

“We don’t just want the best LDS athletes, we want the best athletes that have the same standards that we have here at BYU. Period,” BYU assistant coach Joe DuPaix told the Deseret News.

“Our job is to bring in the best possible talent out there.”

The latter part of that quote is necessary: BYU will be in over its head against other BCS schools if it can’t recruit nationally. But when DuPaix speaks about standards, he’s highlighting the school’s biggest difference: the honor code.

BYU’s honor code was brought to light last March, when Cougars basketball player Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season for violating it. According to reports, Davies did nothing criminal but allegedly had premartial sex with his girlfriend.

In the eyes of many, that is just a rite of passage for college students - along with drinking alcohol and smoking, which also are some of the activities prohibited by the code.

After Davies’ suspension grabbed national headlines, the school’s behavioral guidelines were put under the spotlight.

High-profile athletes like New York Knicks center Amare Stoudemire and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow came to Davies’ defense. Stoudemire said that BYU should let Davies live a little, while Tebow - a devout Christian himself - said he deserved a second chance.

That type of exposure, especially from Stoudemire - who tweeted his thoughts to his legion of followers - may turn off a teenager during the recruiting process. College athletes are notorious for acting up off the field. If many college football and basketball stars already have a tough time obeying the law, how are they going to uphold the honor code?

And there are plenty of high-profile college football and basketball players who already have children out of premarital sex. That wouldn’t fly in Provo.

The parents of recruits, on the other hand, may like it. The Deseret News reported that the school received positive feedback for their honor code.

“The moment the Brandon Davies thing hit the media, one of our associate athletic directors received a check from a woman who was not a member of the LDS faith, but saw the integrity being upheld and said she wanted to support this,” Doman told the newspaper.

He also said that the calls haven’t stopped since the incident. Some parents want BYU to recruit their kids because of the Davies suspension.

Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall has posted 56 wins in his six seasons at BYU, including three 11-win seasons. He said that the school’s recruiting pitch will be a familiar refrain. The honor code can be a good thing, and it isn’t aimed at only LDS player but those who are “socially conservative.”

No, Mendenhall wasn’t speaking about in the voting booth.

“They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they’re not partiers,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News. “They have strong Christian values, but maybe didn’t view BYU in terms of football status as Ohio State or as a top 10 program, even though we’ve been consistently ranked very high.

“What’s happened is they’ve become more intrigued. That’s been an unintended byproduct.”

And Davies’ suspension has been, in part, an impetus for that intrigue.

But the move to become a college football and basketball powerhouse is a slippery slope.

If the school has left the Mountain West to ink with ESPN and become the “Notre Dame of the West” and is now recruiting nationally to compete for national titles, will BYU start to to bend academic standards and become more lenient with punishments or recruit lesser quality of kids?

After all, the Irish have lowered academic standards in their quest to win another national title in football and just reinstated wide receiver Michael Floyd after a March DUI arrest - his third incident with alcohol since 2009. Whereas Davies missed the entire Mountain West Conference Tournament and Big Dance, Floyd won’t even miss a game for Notre Dame.

And if there’s one thing BYU students, alumni and fans take more pride in than the accomplishments of the Cougars on the gridiron and hardwood, it’s how they conduct themselves on and off of it. Needless to say, finding the quality of player and character that Jimmer Fredette exhibited during his career in Provo is the exception, not the rule.

Time will tell how the BYU athletic department navigates the future but it’s already clear that the move to become an independent and a college sports power will inherently lead to a clash of religions; not between the LDS Church and any other denomination, but between that of the Mormon faith and big-time college athletics.

 
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