PROVO — For BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, there was something familiar, and inspiring, from what he saw from his players Tuesday, the first day of fall camp.
And it didn't necessarily have anything to do with their performance in practice. It had to do with their attire.
For the first time since the 1998 season, the Cougars donned their traditional white "Y" helmets and Mendenhall, who spearheaded the return to the new-but-old look, was pleased.
"It looks right. It feels right. It looks like BYU," he said. "When I think about the great teams at BYU and the great coaches that have coached here, they look like that. My intent now is to ensure that we play like that and that these kids live in a way that represents that symbol wherever they go."
The Cougars, who are coming off three consecutive losing seasons, are hoping that change in appearance symbolizes a metamorphosis within the program — a return to winning.
"It doesn't matter what you look like. You still have to play well to win games," said senior center Lance Reynolds, Jr. "But I do think that it's going to be a constant reminder to us of what happened here at the past and how to get back to it."
"The coaches emphasized it a lot, all the great players who played here and the great traditions," said linebacker Cameron Jensen. "We need to bring that back here. We've forgotten that the last few years. We need to lean on the past and bring it back."
BYU is trying to forget the recent past, though. Last season, the program, and the university, suffered a black eye in the form of negative publicity stemming from rape allegations during fall camp. The Cougars wound up going 5-6, including a season-ending 52-21 drubbing at the hands of arch-rival Utah. A few weeks later, coach Gary Crowton was fired and replaced by Mendenhall.
Since his hiring, Mendenhall has been extolling the rich tradition that existed under legendary coach LaVell Edwards. Mendenhall's desire is to re-establish that winning attitude at BYU. Among the changes he implemented was ditching the blue helmets, which the Cougars wore for six seasons, for the traditional white helmets — the ones BYU wore when they won the 1984 national championship; the one Ty Detmer wore when he won the 1990 Heisman Trophy.
"It's something the players have wanted for a long time," said BYU quarterback John Beck. "I remember during Coach Mendenhall's second or third week as head coach I asked him, 'Do you think we can go back to the old jersey?' He got a smile on his face and he said, 'That's already been taken care of.' The excitement around it has been great. Coach Mendenhall has definitely made us earn it. He knows it is special to wear this. He's made us work hard for it. When you wear this helmet, when you represent this school, you have to focus, you have to be disciplined and you have to want to win. You have to give phenomenal effort, not only in games, but in practice every day."
Before BYU's veterans participated in a two-hour practice Tuesday afternoon, 25 newcomers went through drills in the morning. One of those newcomers, junior college transfer Justin Robinson, said the three straight losing seasons are history.
"There's definitely a turnaround. I wasn't a part of the losing seasons, but everybody walks around with that motivation that we're already winners," he said. "We're going to be winners once we get started. I think that's what Coach Mendenhall's trying to get in our heads — that we're winners no matter what. The past is in the past. This is the present. This is where we start. Everybody's upbeat, excited and ready to go."
On Monday night, the eve of the beginning of fall camp, Mendenhall took the team to LaVell Edwards Stadium and told his players to spread out on the field, lie down and close their eyes. With the audio of great games from the past (such as BYU's 1990 upset of Miami) playing on the public address system, he asked the players to visualize themselves being part of those moments.
"It fires you up," Jensen recalled. "You remember the great traditions this university has."
"It was really good, seeing yourself play and keeping the legacy alive," said freshman receiver Luke Ashworth. "It was a cool experience."
This is Mendenhall's first fall camp as a head coach after spending the previous two seasons as BYU's defensive coordinator. He is still trying to acclimate himself to the head coaching role.
"My perspective is completely different," he said. "I find myself thinking about, is the equipment is being managed right? Are the trainers doing what they're supposed to do? Who are those guys watching practice from across the gate? I find myself thinking about things I never thought I'd think about during practice. I'm not quite sure how to deal with it yet."
Mendenhall has laid out what he expects out of his players.
"My first expectation is alignment," he said. "Are these young men living, behaving and competing in a way that represents this place and the tradition that it has? I expect them to do their best every day. That's where we'll start. I'm not going to put a win-loss total on them. I'm not going to say anything else other than, I expect their best. The result of that should be something that is a special outcome."
The Cougars open the season Sept. 3 at home against Boston College.