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BYU's pregame firesides catching on

Walter Kahaialii is a 6-foot-3, 320-pound BYU freshman offensive lineman from Maui, and he can look imposing, almost threatening.

But when spiffied up in a suit, shirt and tie instead of pads and a helmet like he was in Orem Sunday night, and his angelic voice is melodically belting out the words of Janice Kapp Perry's religious canticle "Learn of Me," even the most hardened agnostic can get a chill to the soul.

Star running back Harvey Unga, another freshman, gets up and delivers a sermon on forgiveness for self and others. His tone is full of humility as he calls his father, Jackson, the kindest, most forgiving man he knows.

Kahaialii's touching refrain. Unga's plea. All a design by BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall to put the wheels of BYU's program on firm pavement and cleats of players on grounded soil.

It's the fireside program, a way for players to explore who they really are and share experiences in public. While Sunday's fireside was not part of Mendenhall's formal night before the past 28 games, it was his guys, doing what they do.

A major part of this story of mixing football and what makes the Cougars tick is chronicled in a new DVD entitled "Tradition, Spirit, Honor," distributed by Deseret Book.

"If the spiritual nature that we carry with us isn't first and foremost in our lives, then I don't think our priorities are correct," Mendenhall is quoted saying on the cover.

The DVD, which lasts 40 minutes, involves segments with LaVell Edwards and 2006 stars John Beck, Cameron Jensen, Jonny Harline and Curtis Brown.

"Football does mirror life," said Edwards, who points to ebb and flow of life with its ups and downs as a familiar parallel to the game. It doesn't hurt to have an anchor for both.

That may be the exact experience of Mendenhall and the BYU team, once mired in subpar seasons from 2002 to 2005.

It all started two years ago, about this time of the year, after the rookie coach experienced an emotional 51-50 BYU overtime loss to TCU in Provo. The next week the team left for San Diego unprepared emotionally and mentally, minds still on the TCU loss, and they promptly lost to the Aztecs 31-10.

Mendenhall says the 2005 SDSU game made his staff and players grow up. It was in that game he took his greatest stride as a rookie head coach, the time of his greatest self-evaluation. That week also marked the last time Mendenhall let somebody reject something he felt as inspiration.

Leading up to that Aztec game, Mendenhall contemplated how BYU's roster listed nearly 70 former LDS missionaries who'd lived in every corner of the world and how he could use that to build character and serve others.

Mendenhall decided he'd plug into their experiences and schedule firesides the night before every game — home and away — where they could tell their stories to communities near and far.

It was part of a plan Mendenhall envisioned for players to give more than they got out of football by giving service. In the end, he believed, it would make them successful, if not on the field, then simply as men.

But when Mendenhall's staff called LDS Church leaders in San Diego to schedule this first fireside, they were turned down. Reasons were many including the belief that youths in the area had their own football games and activities Friday night.

Mendenhall returned back to Provo and vowed he'd never let the idea of firesides be rejected again. The next week at New Mexico, a fireside gathered a meager 15 locals, but his team mounted an emotional 27-24 comeback in Albuquerque.

Since that UNM game, the Cougars have won 21 and lost seven. Since that trip to New Mexico his team has presented firesides from Boston to Tulsa and from South Bend to Colorado Springs. They have steadily grown to where meeting houses are filled.

Mendenhall is keenly aware of the criticism he's received for quoting scripture at press conferences as well as unashamedly emphasizing the importance of character and spirituality in his players.

He's asked his players to build themselves inside as well as out, asking team members to chart and provide hours of community service each week. These firesides are a part of it.

Some accuse him of wearing his religion on his sleeves as a BYU coach.

Well, he's also backed it up when his athletes waver off what he calls a path of personal responsibility to the team and the school. He calls it simple accountability.

In this past year, Mendenhall has suspended at least a dozen players from participating in practices or games. One player was dismissed from school for breaking team rules. That dozen players included six freshmen suspended from practice a month ago and starting offensive guard Ray Feinga just last week.

Asked last week about this kind of leadership and what he believes stands out or is the message, Mendenhall said he didn't set out to make it anything, although marketing people would brand it something or other. He sees it as a system where people do what they've signed up to do, then they are held accountable.

It isn't lost in translation. Since San Diego 2005, his football team has set a mark for MWC road wins with nine straight, starting with that game in Albuquerque. Also, at UNLV two weeks ago, BYU set a league mark for consecutive wins in MWC play (11) and have not lost a conference game since the 41-34 overtime loss to Utah on Nov. 19, 2005.

So, has all Mendenhall's mix and mantra worked?

"I won't know for a while," he said.

"The outside world gauges it in wins, but that's not the way I gauge it. I gauge it on the personal development of each young man and that part sometimes takes a lifetime to know if it has been transferred or not."