Ask BYU coach LaVell Edwards what the toughest part of his job is and he won't talk about the long recruiting trips that send him bouncing from one airport to another. He won't bring up the countless interview requests and speaking engagements. And, no, he won't even mention losing to Utah.
"It's the myriad problems you deal with," he explained. "A lot of little things. There's always something going on. In coaching, it goes with the territory."Edwards is referring to those uncomfortable situations when his players, members of his large and youthful football family, get into trouble. That includes everything from flunking out of school to breaking the law. "When that many people are involved, you always deal with issues - academic, social and civil," he said. "I get tired of it."
Considering there are more football players than athletes in any other sport on campus, there is a greater probability of problems.
Last month, BYU return specialist and WAC freshman of the year Jaron Dabney admitted to taking a shirt from a Provo department store. And since the spring of 1995, a number of other incidents involving BYU players (see graph) have brought embarrassment to Edwards, the university and the school's sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We don't want (situations like these) to continue," said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
Edwards, in his 26th season as head coach, is understandably concerned. Still, he insists that having players who experience legal strife or violate the school's honor code is nothing new. Student-athletes attending BYU today are no different from the ones attending 10 or 15 years ago, according to Edwards. "We've always had problems," he said. "When I was a bishop on campus there were problems."
The difference these days, he explains, is that when a player makes a mistake, it's unlikely to remain an in-house matter. Because of increased exposure of BYU football and the increased number of media outlets trolling for information, the spotlight shining on the program is brighter than ever.
As a result, when his players behave badly, everybody finds out about it.
Not that BYU has more athlete-related scandals than at other schools. "It's hard to go two to three days without reading a story about a student-athlete from somewhere in the country getting into trouble," said associate athletic director Val Hale.
But when it happens in Provo, it attracts a special kind of attention. "The very thought of BYU not measuring up to its standards makes front-page news," said athletic director Rondo Fehlberg. "Ninety-nine percent of the time we reach expectations, but that doesn't make news. It's a challenge to meet expectations that are so high. People are always watching."
Still, he can understand the public's preoccupation with the struggles of BYU athletes.
"We stand up and tell the world we're different," said Fehlberg. "We invite the world to judge us, and we bring scrutiny upon ourselves. We can't complain about it. I'm proud of what we stand for."
Though Fehlberg acknowledges the recent rash of incidents is disturbing, he insists the athletic department is not in a panic mode. "We're always concerned when our athletes have problems or violate the honor code or fail to meet expectations," he said. "When one of our athletes stumble, it's one too many. But are we more concerned now than another time? I don't think so."
Added Felhberg, a former All-America wrestler at BYU: "Our athletes conduct themselves as well or even better than they did when I was an athlete here. They're human but not appreciably different than the rest of the student body. Overall, they conduct themselves better than the student body at large."
The Cougar AD said athletes at BYU "are held to a higher standard because they're so visible. They need to understand and accept that."
According to Fehlberg, those who sign letters of intent with BYU know what they are getting into, adding that during the recruiting process coaches are "up-front" about the school's strict standards. He doesn't see the honor code as a liability but rather an asset to the school's recruiting efforts. "It sets us apart from others. It's a selling point," he said. "We have to use that to distinguish ourselves from others. A lot of kids want to come here because of our standards."
Prior to each season, BYU administrators and coaches meet with players to remind them of their commitment to the school and their celebrity status. "We make sure they understand those things," said Fehlberg. "They don't just represent themselves. A lot of athletes talk about how they don't want to be a role model. That doesn't happen here. That moral trip is hung on them."
BYU officials stress that when athletes have problems, the school deals with them in the same way it does other students. "The honor code office is working diligently with them," said Jenkins. "There is an effort made to work with students and help them realize their mistakes and help them do whatever is necessary to correct them."
Hale explains the school will soon establish a new program called Champs Life Skills, sponsored by the NCAA, as a way to help student-athletes handle off-the-field, out-of-the-classroom experiences more effectively. Athletic departments around the nation are implementing the program, and BYU will tailor it to the school's unique standards. "It will be a great benefit to student-athletes," said Hale.
Cougars behaving badly
Jan. 1998 - Jaron Dabney, WAC Freshman of the Year as a return specialist and receiver, was cited for shoplifting, a class B misdemeanor, for stealing a $59 designer shirt at a store located in University Mall. After initially denying the incident, he later recanted. Dabney issued a public apology and has been suspended by the school, though he will be allowed to participate in spring drills.
Sept. 1997 - Police investigated the car accident that claimed the life of sophomore cornerback Terrence Harvey, just days after the junior-college transfer made his first start for BYU. Teammate Tony Fields was driving the car and did not sustain any major injuries while another teammate, Roderick Foreman, suffered a hand injury.
The trio was returning from an outing at the home of a BYU professor in Springville when the car rolled over on I-15. Police determined the vehicle driven by Fields was traveling at least 90 mph and investigated the possibility that the driver might have been racing with another car that was not directly involved in the accident. According to the police report, Fields was weaving through traffic in the middle and right lanes and swerved to avoid colliding with a semitrailer. No charges were filed against Fields.
Feb. 1997 - Not long after completing his eligibility at BYU and catching the game-winning touchdown pass in the Cougars' Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State, receiver K.O. Kealaluhi was charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor. According to the police report, Kealaluhi head-butted, punched and wrestled an opposing player to the floor during a city rec basketball game.
Feb. 1997 - Sophomore linebacker Derik Stevenson pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in a parking lot fight at Snow College following a male beauty pageant. Stevenson fired a gun five times in the air trying to break up a fight between a friend and a group of men.
Stevenson was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on school premises and an amended charge of attempted threatening with or using a dangerous weapon in a fight.
Oct. 1995 - Itula Mili and Mike Ulufale were suspended for four games during the season for unspecified honor code violations. They allegedly stole equipment and clothing from the school and tried to sell the items.
April 1995 - A 19-year-old Payson woman claimed she was raped by five BYU football players at one of their apartments in southwest Provo. The players said the sexual relations were consensual and that it had happened before. All five were dismissed from school for honor code violations, including defensive backs Greg Steele (who had previously played for the Cougars), James Heggins and James Humes (both JC transfers); receiver Horace Tisdale, a redshirt freshman; and running back Tony Hicks, who had never played for BYU.