As unlikely as this will sound to cosmopolites, Brigham Young University, hidden off there in Utah, has more pretty girls on its campus than any other place in the whole world. This includes such competition as Hollywood and Vine, where the girls are too painted, and Radio City Music Hall, where the routine is too perfect. And nowhere is the BYU charm more evident than at Cougar basketball games, where some of the prettiest coeds on campus dance (imperfectly) and lead the cheers at half time, a program guaranteed to make the evening worthwhile, win or lose the game. The swirl of brief blue skirts and flags and flashing teeth is so stunning that it frequently delays the half-time run on hamburger stands until after the teams resume play. This situation has never done much for professional basketball scouts, but it would drive a Minsky's scout wild. "You know what this is?" shouted one sportswriter who came to watch them play and stayed to see them dance. "All this is a big, wild, wonderful, gigantic peep show!" By last week it was becoming clear that BYU may be off to its best year ever. That is, the team has won a little and lost a little, and the girls have won them all.
This adoration of the campus cream-puffs is not to imply that Brigham Young loves its basketball team less. Absolutely not. Never was any team so loved and never were 12 gangly men treated with such tender care. They are celebrities. Students seek them out. Their training-table menu starts with steak, is laced through with uncarbonated green punch (Mormons do not drink anything stronger than uncarbonated punch) and ends with orange sherbet. The team physician is a basketball nut who hovers just a groan away. Respect fills the air. But all this basketball excellence is strange and new. With potentially the best team the school has ever had, Brigham Young wants a national championship badly. Failing that, it will settle for a national something.
"So much for the choreography," said one professor, rubbing his hands together after last week's 112-71 slaughter of Ohio State. "So we've always had beautiful girls. In fact, we could two-platoon the whole world with beautiful girls. All right. Now let's take this basketball team to the top."
In winning five and losing two the BYU team has looked terribly good and terrifically bad, but it is clearly starting to play well as a unit. The Cougars run so fast they become a sort of blurred blue-and-white background for those jumping-up-and-down dancing girls, and this season the customers hardly know which to watch. The 12-man lineup is really two teams—one of them the intact freshman crew from last year that beat all comers in the mountain country while averaging 109 points a game. The first string is faster and better. Play in the six-team Western Athletic Conference has not started yet, but already Jack Gardner, coach of archrival Utah, says BYU will win the title. He does not mean it, but at least he says it. So much for first place. Who will come in second? "Well," says Gardner, "I'll pick BYU's second team."
Brigham Young began to believe in itself when the team opened the season with two victories over Oregon. It lost twice to Wichita—who wouldn't in Wichita?—and then came back with two wins over Santa Clara. And last week the Cougars chewed up Ohio State while tying the school's single-game scoring record. Now the confidence and enthusiasm of the whole campus has spread through the team, too. They come out on the floor all loose-armed and relaxed, with the contemplative look of men who have just been at prayer, which they have. Six-foot-eight Center John Fairchild wears a faraway air as though he were listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on an invisible transistor radio—and the effect is purest deception. He wears the same bemused look when he is flipping his surprisingly high, twisting jumper into the basket from 25 feet out, or plain-facedly murdering everybody within elbow distance on rebounds. But then, almost everything about Fairchild is different from what it seems. Around the campus he wears two pairs of sweat socks, boxer shorts over his jockey shorts, an undershirt and a battered sweat shirt under a tab-collar dress shirt—and still manages to look skinny.
All the other Cougars are as sneaky. BYU opponents so far this year have not been able to scout Playmaker-Guard Jeff Congdon because his early-Cousy style of play still has them confused. Congdon stands 6 feet 1, weighs 195 pounds, sets the patterns, directs the break and passes off the ball with roughly the velocity of a carbine shot. Against Santa Clara and Ohio State he hit most of his targets (plus a few of the spectators) on a dead run, threw a couple of passes into the rafters and on one key play doubled up the referee with a hard shot to the stomach. The BYU bench includes Center Craig Raymond, who may be the only 6-foot-11 player left in America who is not quite good enough to make a first team. Head Coach Stan Watts, an outwardly calm man full of inner demons, admits that his boys are still ragged. "But they have the spark," he says. "The spark of greatness. If they ever really catch fire they will burn the ground bare for miles around."
In the Cougar dressing room Fairchild daubs green skin lubricant on his blistered ankles, pastes patches of bandages over the ointment, tapes thick felt pads to the bottoms of his feet and then plasters a big padded bandage across his kidneys. "We play rough," he explains. "But we're not worried about this season. Not worried. After every game I just quietly go to bed, and I shake until 2 o'clock and then I go to sleep."
There is reason to believe that Coach Watts shakes until at least 4 o'clock. This growing fighting mood is something new to Brigham Young University. The school has sat tightly and quietly for years because it has wanted it that way. It is an all-Mormon school, and the Mormons had enough trouble with the rest of the country back in the days of cowboys and Indians, lynchings and religious persecution. The school was founded in a mood of seclusion and peace, and that's the way it has been.
Brigham Young lies hidden in foothills, with Utah's Wasatch Mountains on one side and several thousand acres of peaceful valley on the other side, and somewhere down there is a village called Pleasant Grove. It figures. The 17,800 BYU students never stir up trouble, and they would not dream of staging a demonstration for civil rights. Aside from basketball, last month was about as wild as it gets: one undergraduate stayed in a dormitory shower for 47 hours and claimed a new record for this sort of thing. Of course, it may be a little early in the season to claim a national championship for that, too.
In the athletic office, Publicist Dave Schulthess leans back and looks out his window at the changing classes. There are no signs, but the students are all walking on the sidewalks and not on the grass. It is a conditioned BYU reflex. "Sometimes it gets so peaceful here," says Dave gravely, "that weaker professors have been known to crack under the lack of pressure. They come running into the dean's office and scream something like, 'Where's the action?' and threaten to resign." When this happens the standard procedure is to send the prof outside just at dusk to watch the sun setting behind Mount Timpanogos, which lies huge and still beyond the new dormitories and football stadium. Looking at the mountain never fails to bring on a feeling of great inner calm, and over the years it has saved the school millions of dollars in salaries.
But money has never been much of a problem anyway. Mormons pride themselves on being a thrifty folk—the steady members give 10%, of their income to the church—and they are funneling millions of dollars into the BYU building program. "Everywhere you look you see $5 million units," says Schulthess. The athletic plant covers exactly one mile of new construction, and it may not stop until it reaches the state line. There are a new field house, football stadium, physical education building and indoor baseball diamond, and the indoor track has 110 yards of straightaway before it curves.
With all this, the school wants winners. President Ernest L. Wilkinson—who is 66 years old, has had a heart attack and still does 50 push-ups every morning before breakfast—is the driving force behind the BYU change. At one point not too long ago he wanted everybody to ride bicycles around the campus to stay healthy, but now that is not enough. In recent years he has discovered sports and has panicked the athletic staff. Wilkinson took to firing coaches—he may be the champion of the West at firing them—and then sidelined the athletic director to a new job that is about the equivalent of passing out towels. He brought in a new man who is listed as athletic director but who is referred to as the chief executioner.
"We participate in nine sports here," says W. Floyd Millet, the new athletic director. "We are going out for all nine of them to win. Football has been at a low ebb. Well, all that will change. Yes, sir. We have a new coach. We have a new wrestling coach and a new swimming coach, too. And basketball will be better from now on...."
And in his smaller office next door Coach Watts sits and worries and often looks up at his oil painting. It shows two cougars—the mountain-lion symbol is all over the campus—in a sedate pose. One is standing, the other has its paws tucked under like a pussycat. There is a cougar oil painting in the new athletic director's office, too. It shows two cougars who have just killed a deer, and one of them is busily tearing out its entrails. There is a lot of blood.
"Sometimes I wonder about all this," says Watts, poking moodily at the papers on his desk. "The pressure is on to produce a winner, and they say that if I do not, this is my last year. How's that for pressure? The students, the faculty, the alumni are after me, and it's ruining my health. Some of the alumni members give us something like $25 a year, and they want to run the team. Why don't I start Raymond with Fairchild? Why don't I play them both in a high-low post?" Watts peers over the top of his glasses. He dresses in a suit-and-dark-tie style that might be called early Kiwanian, and he is one of the last of the real gentleman coaches. "I have given this school 16 good years," he continues. "And now this. I have a year-to-year contract. At most schools this size they give you a three-to-five-year contract and you don't have to listen to the howls of the alumni. I almost quit last year, but then I took another look at these kids. They are potentially the best ever. So I decided to stay on once more around to see if I am over the hill or not. We could do it this year. You know"—swearing comes hard for Watts, and he searches his mind for something blasphemous—"you know, I'd like to produce a conference champ, possibly a national champion, and then tell them all to go to, uh, hell."
Watts has produced three conference titlists and one NIT winner in his 16 years at Brigham Young, but the last seven years have been lean. Last season the Cougars were third in the WAC; they were second the year before that and second the year before that. Now the squeeze is tightening as conference play nears. Watts has Fairchild, who wants to be an All-America in spite of that sleepy-eyed stance. He has Raymond, who is playing better and more each game, and Congdon, who is learning to throw the ball away less often. The nine others are adding poise.
In the team dressing room Watts chalks out the plays on the board and goes through the standard Brigham Young University pregame ritual. "Let's go out there and be vicious," he says professorially. "That doesn't mean dirty. Just vicious. Vicious, vicious, vicious. Any volunteers for prayers?"
The coach and Cougars all kneel on the tile floor in the pile of orange peels and bandages and towels with Brigham Young stenciled across them in blue. "Heavenly Father," begins one of the students, "we thank Thee for these fine, healthy bodies." Out on the field-house floor the band is thumping and those lovely girls are twirling and the sound of the cheering comes through the walls. "And, please, keep us safe from injury and protect our opponents," the student finishes. They all rise, cheering, and head out for another game. This may be the year for Brigham Young, the year for a national something. The potential is there. The pressure is on.
And after every game Stan Watts goes outside, alone, and looks at that crazy mountain.