20 years of covering BYU football



Jeff Call

Jeff Call

It seems almost laughable now, looking back. But it is nonetheless true.

When I started covering the BYU football team as a student reporter in 1993, representing the venerable Daily Universe, I would on occasion call legendary coach LaVell Edwards at his home in Provo to ask him what I deemed to be very important questions.

Amazingly, LaVell would pick up the phone (although he probably wouldn’t have done so if Caller ID had been invented back then). Not only that, but he would graciously answer my questions. Other reporters covering the team had similar experiences.

Can you imagine what might happen to me, as a sportswriter for the Deseret News, if I were to call coach Bronco Mendenhall at his home today? Or on his cell phone? I’m not sure what he would do, but I have a feeling that the next time he saw me, he would probably give me the same look he gave that infamous “Suspenders Boy” up at Rice-Eccles Stadium last fall.

Back in 1993, I would routinely call LaVell at his office on campus as well. His secretary, Shirley Johnson, would answer and, if LaVell were available, he would talk to me. Back in 1993, I would collect players’ phone numbers like a squirrel collects nuts so I could do interviews during the day, outside of practice.

These days, all interviews with coaches and players are scheduled well in advance with the school’s media relations department. Before being granted an interview request, reporters are required to undergo a thorough FBI-like background screening process, submit to a lie detector test and give blood samples (OK, I made that up).

It’s been 20 years (20 years!) since I started covering BYU football. When I started out, I attended practices and there would be hardly any other reporters around. Usually, it would be me and someone from the Provo Daily Herald. As a reporter, I felt like I was relaying information from the front lines, knowing that readers would be hanging on every word.

Those were simpler days.

Back then, there weren’t many ways to get reliable, in-depth information on BYU sports. Newspapers were the main source of coverage. Today, most newspapers are struggling, evidenced by the number of layoffs we’ve seen in recent years.

Two decades after I started covering BYU football, everything has changed dramatically. Whenever there are opportunities for media availability at BYU, a large army of reporters show up and crowd around Mendenhall and his players, creating a mosh pit of sorts. I’m still learning the skills required to jockey for position amid the masses so that my tape recorder can capture quotes. There have been times when I have gotten caught in the back of the throng, seemingly a zip code away, and I just hold up my tape recorder in hopes that it picks up something, because I can’t hear Bronco. I can only see his lips moving, and I’m no lip-reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hit in the head by one of those TV cameras, as the cameraman shoves me out of the way to get a better angle.

Who said journalism isn’t a contact sport?

That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen — the proliferation of media that covers the Cougars. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a bevy of all-sports radio stations and websites, plus the growth of BYUtv, which seems to have 10 reporters of its own at every practice and game.

My, how times have changed. Back in 1993, reporters who covered BYU games could go into the locker room afterward and get one-on-one interviews with players. That’s how I got to know guys like Chad Lewis, Hema Heimuli and Tim Nowatzke so well, by pulling up a stool next to them and asking them to not only break down the game, but also finding out what made them tick. I was always surprised how I could get the naked truth about a game from a player wearing nothing but a towel.

That policy of going into the locker room ended in the mid-1990s. Now, locker rooms are off-limits at BYU. These days, players and coaches are herded into the interview room adjacent to the locker room for a press conference in front of bright lights, cameras and tape recorders. That’s why all of the media outlets essentially get the same quotes. Most of those quotes you hear on the 10 o’clock news are the same ones you see in the newspaper or on the Web.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not complaining. I totally understand why things have changed. In order to accommodate all of the media that request credentials, it has to be done that way. Fortunately, BYU’s media relations department has been great about helping us schedule additional, exclusive interviews. But one-on-ones are tougher to come by.

In many ways, the fans are the ones who have benefitted most from the changes. Nowadays, thanks to technology, there are so many ways for fans to obtain information and discuss BYU football in the form of message boards, Facebook and Twitter.

Back in 1993, Twitter was just the name of some boy’s pet iguana in Cupertino, Calif. Now, Twitter is the social media tool of choice for millions of people. (And, yes, I’m shocked that Bronco has his own Twitter handle.)

I still love my job. Not many people can say they get paid to watch sporting events. But it is much different than it used to be.

Speaking of different, think about all of the changes in the BYU football program over the past two decades.

When I started covering BYU, Edwards was the only head coach for the Cougars I knew anything about. Since Edwards retired in 2000, BYU has had two head coaches, and scores of assistant coaches have come and gone (anybody besides me remember Mike Borich and Todd Bradford?)

The school has built a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility and Student Athlete Building. The Cougars changed their colors from Royal Blue to “The Deepest Shade of Royal Blue.” They left the Western Athletic Conference to help form the Mountain West Conference. Then they left the Mountain West to go independent. They signed an exclusive contract with ESPN.

Since 1993, the BYU-Utah rivalry has truly become a Rivalry. In fact, 1993 was the turning point as the Utes booted a 55-yard field goal that year to beat the Cougars in Provo for the first time since 1971. Since 1993, Utah has won 13 games while BYU has won seven. And the rivalry has produced some of the zaniest, most memorable games ever.

Back in 1993, who would have guessed that the Cougars and Utes would actually stop playing? That will happen next season as the rivalry goes on hiatus.

Which makes me think, what will BYU football look like 20 years from now? I can’t even imagine. And I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.

I just hope I’m still employed in two decades.


Jeff Call has covered BYU sports since 1993, including the past 16 years for the Deseret News. He, his wife and six sons live in Cedar Hills.

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