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BYU looking for respect, exposure on three East Coast trips

PROVO — Does retiring BYU football coach LaVell Edwards know how to go out with a bang or what?

Most people travel AFTER they retire. Not Edwards. He and his Cougar football team will travel 10,874 miles during the 2000 season.

Talk about a farewell tour. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "Air Edwards." For this year, the BYU fight song should be changed from "Rise and Shout" to "I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane." Or, considering Edwards is a huge Willie Nelson fan, "On The Road Again."

Here's the deal. The Cougars will make trips to Florida, Virginia and New York — all before Oct. 1. That's a lot of frequent flier mileage for a program that has played only a handful of regular-season games on the East Coast in its history.

What's more, two of those three cross-country expeditions take place at the beginning of the season in back-to-back weeks. The Cougars leave for Jacksonville, Fla., for the Pigskin Classic against Florida State, on Wednesday and return home Sunday morning. Then they depart the following Thursday morning for Charlottesville, Va., for a date with Virginia. In late September, the Cougars visit Syracuse. (It will mark BYU's first-ever visits to Jacksonville, Charlottesville and Syracuse.)

So, will jet lag be a factor this season?

"I don't know why people make such a big deal about flying around in an airplane," said BYU fullback Kalani Sitake. "A charter flight is like sitting in a hotel room. It's not a big deal. We're big boys."

If nothing else, it will be a new experience for running back Brian McDonald, a junior college transfer who hails from Buena Park, Calif. "The furthest east I've ever been is Indiana," McDonald said.

Not only will the Cougars cross the Mississippi River three times, they'll also host one team from the state of Mississippi — Mississippi State — in the home opener Sept. 14 (BYU returns the favor next year by playing in Starkville, Miss.). In all, BYU will face two Atlantic Coast Conference teams (Florida State and Virginia), a Southeastern Conference foe (Mississippi State) and a Big East opponent (Syracuse).

This isn't coincidental, however. Because BYU is owned and operated by the LDS Church, church and school officials want the Cougars to play in as many parts of the country as possible as a way to showcase not only BYU, but also the LDS Church.

Plus, the Mountain West Conference has issued a mandate for its member schools to play a non-conference schedule against the nation's elite teams.

But this season, BYU may have gone a little overboard, Edwards admitted at the MWC football meetings earlier this month. "Two of these types of games are enough for us," he explained. "Four is too many."

The contests against Virginia and Syracuse were set up in the last few years. BYU agreed to add powerhouse Florida State to the mix last fall — at a time when the Cougars were nationally ranked and had an 8-1 record. BYU was approached by the Pigskin Classic officials, who coveted a matchup between a pair of college football coaching legends, Edwards and FSU's Bobby Bowden.

"We looked at it. We knew it would make things tougher," Edwards said. "But how many chances does anyone get to play Florida State? It was too good to pass up."

"LaVell has never backed down from a challenge," said BYU athletic director Val Hale.

Also figuring into the decision was the fact the NCAA is going to phase out preseason games like the Pigskin Classic and Kickoff Classic in a couple of years. Athletic director Val Hale knew this opportunity may not present itself again. Plus, a $650,000 payday doesn't hurt, either.

Edwards is looking forward to not only the Florida State game, but the other non-conference battles as well. The schedule itself shows how far his program has come during his 28 years in Provo.

"It's exciting," Edwards said. "Thinking back to when I first came here, to when we were playing games where the Richards P.E. Building is, with the likes of Western Michigan — who beat us — and other teams like that. Now after all these years we're playing teams like Florida State."

His players, none of whom was alive during the Western Michigan days, see the benefits of traveling to new locales, too.

"We get to play where the Jacksonville Jaguars play," Sitake said. "We get to play in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. This is why I came to BYU."

"I get shivers just thinking about all the places we're playing this year," safety Tyson Smith said. "It's something you'll be able to tell your grandkids about. We'll be more excited than nervous for those games. The coaches are going to have to calm us down. It's a great opportunity for us — a chance to put BYU on the map nationally."

The way Hale sees it, those tough games, especially the ones on the road, are a boon for the program.

"We rarely get back there to play in that part of the country," he said. "If we win any of those games, if we show well in any of those games, it's going to really help our respect and credibility in that part of the country. I happen to think this schedule is going to be a great thing for us. How many people out there who vote in the Top 25 poll think BYU's going to beat Florida State? Probably none. So let's say we lose that game — maybe we lose it, maybe we don't — but if we lose it and keep it respectable, I don't see how it can hurt us."

Hale believes BYU's other non-conference games are winnable. He pointed out that Virginia won't have running back Thomas Jones (who rushed for 210 yards against the Cougars last year in Provo and is now in the NFL). Mississippi State had the No. 1 rated defense in 1999 but must replace eight defensive starters. Hale feels the Cougars have a good shot to beat Syracuse, too.

"We may lose some, we may lose them all, but we may win them all, too," Hale said. "If we can play well and win a few of those games, the national respect we receive will be tremendous. The reason we enjoy the respect we do on the national level is that we haven't been afraid to play in those games. And not only have we played them, we've won our share."

After Sept. 30, BYU will only have two road games remaining — Colorado State and Utah. BYU will take a short bus ride from Provo to Salt Lake City the day after Thanksgiving as the Cougars meet coach Ron McBride and the Utes in Edwards' regular-season finale. Perhaps a bowl invitation will be waiting in December (the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, perhaps?).

By the time the 2000 season is over, Edwards will probably be looking forward to retirement and some vacation time. Just don't expect him to board an airplane again for a while.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com