BYU finds itself in an unusual position this week. The Cougars are not only in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years, but also may be on the verge of becoming America's team.
The BYU fans are in New Orleans today for a game against Florida that is a matchup of contrasts on so many levels. (Free marketing idea to potentially frustrated Big Easy establishments: sell alcohol-free Jimmercanes. BYU Nation will buy anything with the word Jimmer attached). And America may be pulling for the Cougars.
It's not just the power of Jimmer Fredette, a player with a name that's fun to say and who gives every average looking, not so tall, not uber-athletic person absurd hopes and dreams. Jimmermania is indeed a seductive power, but that's not BYU's only attraction.
BYU stood up for something, stuck to its guns and its morals, no matter the consequences, when it suspended its second-best player, Brandon Davies, for violating its honor code in early March. Ranked third in the country at the time, and with the NCAA tournament and unprecedented riches and exposure beckoning, BYU chose the non-hypocritical path. And, in this age of college sports, that's so unusual that it's actually shocking. And something that weary sports fans can applaud.
When there's money to be made, that's all too often the precise juncture when collegiate programs forget their stated purpose, ignore their values, look for loopholes, postpone tough decisions, succumb to temptation. All you need do is look around the broken landscape: Tennessee, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon. Stolen laptops, adults in denial, absurd lies, players for sale, officials in blinders.
So even if you think that asking young men and women to obey a strict honor code is an antiquated concept, even if you're not a member or fan of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even if you feel sorry for young Davies, you can probably appreciate BYU's position.
"If you've been at BYU, you know they recruit off the honor code," said one of the school's more famous alumni, Steve Young. "There's no bait and switch. It's very out in the open, very clear. It's compassionately administered, yet it gets administered."
Athletic Director Tom Holmoe feels compassion. He's known Davies for years; Davies was a classmate of Holmoe's children at Provo High. He feels sad when he sees Davies on the bench, unable to play with his teammates.
"But people ask me if it was a hard choice and it really wasn't," Holmoe said. "I don't want to be cavalier. But the choices were made years, decades, before. It was just a matter of carrying it through."
Holmoe said BYU upholds the honor code all the time, in various sports. A year ago, the football team's all-time leading rusher, Harvey Unga, was in a similar situation. He withdrew from school for breaking the honor code, and a few months later married his girlfriend after the birth of their first child.
But because it happened in the offseason and because BYU wasn't making national news or bidding for a potential national championship, the suspension was largely ignored.
The Davies situation overshadowed Jimmermania for a time, as observers wondered if the team could rally from the blow. The Cougars struggled, losing to New Mexico at home in the first game after Davies' suspension and to San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference final.
"It did look like it could collapse the team," said Young, who will be watching from home tonight, hoping to relive the moment from 30 years ago when Danny Ainge's last-second basket put BYU in the Elite Eight.
BYU has won two NCAA tournament games, with Davies applauding in street clothes from the bench. BYU's victory over Gonzaga in Denver only added to Fredette's legend. He scored 34 points, got enough help from his teammates, and gave the Cougars a renewed sense of confidence going into tonight's game against Florida, a team BYU beat in double overtime in the first round of the 2010 tournament.
"It's been a hard thing behind the scenes," Holmoe said. "It's something they had to work out between themselves."
BYU has always been something of an outlier in college sports, Provo a distinctly different place from Gainesville or Columbus or Los Angeles. Young would joke to visitors who were surprised that the BYU campus was fun, explaining: "It's because we have to work for it."
On the biggest stage in college basketball, BYU didn't take any shortcuts.