There is nothing natural about staring up into a bright light while lying flat on your back in a dental examination room. The mind quickly races to worst-case scenarios, including past nightmares of pain and anguish that the brain has fostered and exaggerated for years.

As an inheritor of soft teeth from my mother’s side of the family, and a long history in the chair, each six-month visit brings the same trepidation I experienced as a young boy. But today was different. This time, while gazing into the light, I actually saw the light — these dental cleanings aren’t much different from what BYU coaches must endure each offseason.

The X-ray

The cleaning starts with an X-ray so the dentist can get a broad picture of what’s going on in the mouth. For a coach, like softball’s Gordon Eakin, who just earned his 800th victory last week, this is his time to take a big-picture look at his team prior to joining the Big 12.

“How are we doing?” the hygienist asks me. “Any areas of concern?” The questions aren’t too different from what Eakin must ask himself. Questions like, how did we do? How can we get better? What parts of the team warrant the most attention?

Baseball coach Trent Pratt just wrapped up a season that featured the WCC’s top offense, including the conference Triple Crown winner in Austin Deming (the league leader in batting average, home runs and RBIs), while the team finished seventh and outside of this week’s conference tournament. An X-ray of his program will indicate the areas that need fixing, including the bullpen.

The probe

After looking at the mouth, it’s time to check the gums. With a prickly device called a “probe,” the foundation supporting each tooth is inspected. The best gum measurements are between one and three. Anything four and over is concerning.

It’s the opposite for recruiting, where kids who are rated a four or a five are celebrated, while a class of too many ones and twos are not.

The gums are where the teeth develop. The foundation of a program is where the kids develop. A healthy evaluation is the best way to stave off a root canal for either one.

This is where coaches scour themselves, their core philosophy and their respective staffs. Did they do enough to put their athletes in a position to be successful? If not, what can they do differently? Should they add a coach? Who should they recruit?

Kalani Sitake’s defensive football staff underwent significant changes in the offseason to strengthen its foundation ahead of the most daunting schedule in school history.

The scaler

With the gums inspected, next comes the removal of plaque and tarter from each tooth. This requires a sharp tool called the “scaler.” With a steady hand, the hygienist uses the device to scratch away the elements that can threaten a tooth’s performance. It can also find cavities, that when detected early can be an easy fix.

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Mark Pope and his staff have the basketball team engaged in summer workouts. This is where they can teach in a conducive environment to soften flaws through fundamentals. As each tooth gets one-on-one attention by the scaler, each player can get the same by a coach, and both can come out stronger and better prepared for the months ahead.

The tooth portal

Just as athletic rosters can be bolstered by departures and arrivals in the transfer portal, so too can the mouth. If a tooth is struggling to survive in the gums of its owner, it can be bolstered by a “crown” to save it, or it can be extracted and replaced with outside teeth called “implants.”

If done right, no one can tell the difference, but the teeth perform better.

BYU lost several athletes to the transfer portal, but the Cougars have also gained players that they hope will make them better, including Kedon Slovis (football), Aidan Robbins (football), Jenna Isai (basketball), Aly Khalifa (basketball), Brett Hansen (baseball), Ellie Walbruch (soccer) and many others.

Polish and floss

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With the work complete, and the sharp tools put away, it’s time to polish and floss. This is the mouth’s version of putting its best foot forward. Smile with what you have. That’s what BYU’s coaches will do as they roll out rosters determined to compete in the Big 12 starting Sept. 14 when soccer hosts TCU.

A healthy mouth and a robust athletic program in a new conference require the same kinds of attention — regular checkups, constant maintenance and a trusted dentist/athletic director. Tom Holmoe oversees BYU sports, just as Dr. Chris Hammond runs his dental practice. Both are in the business of fostering smiles amid challenging circumstances (including schedules).

Fluoride and goodbye

Restoring the chair to its upright position and removing the overhead light are signs the visit is just about over. The teeth are deemed cavity-free and receive a parting coat of fluoride. The next visit is booked for Dec. 4, nine days after Sitake’s regular-season finale at Oklahoma State when the process will start all over again.

The mouth is Big 12-ready. Now, if I can just keep my foot out of it, I’ll truly have something to smile about!

BYU head softball coach Gordon Eakin talks to his team after their win over Iowa State on Saturday, March 26, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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