BYU’s’ Quest for Perfection’ questioned by some, praised by others

The Salt Lake Tribune – Jay Drew – November 20, 2008 – PROVO – Along with winning 31 of his last 34 football games, Brigham Young University’s straight-laced, youthful-looking football coach, Bronco Mendenhall, has become rather adept at picking slogans.

You know, those catchy phrases that are often associated with political campaigns, words such as “Raise the Bar” and “Fully Invested.” The McCain campaign could have used this guy.

The success he has had with those notwithstanding, when Mendenhall, after back-to-back 11-2 seasons, rolled out his latest motto for Cougar players and their fans to rally around – “Quest for Perfection” – before the season it was met with more than a few raised eyebrows.

And those astonished looks didn’t just come from rival Utah fans, who enjoy mocking anything that comes out of Provo, almost to the point of obsession. They gleefully proclaimed it couldn’t be done, then gloated far and wide when the Cougars were pummeled by TCU a month ago while their own team continued to cruise along perfectly.

Many BYU fans also questioned the bold approach, even after being told by Mendenhall dozens of times that it was meant to signify a two-pronged quest – the part about living right off the field even more important than going undefeated on the field.

Which brings us to the here and now.

The Utes are perfect (11-0) and the Cougars are close (10-1) heading into Saturday’s

And Mendenhall isn’t apologizing.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said Monday, while acknowledging that the slogan brought some unintended attention and scorn, in some quarters.

“The intent was to just simply move our program forward.. . . But possibly I could have been wiser to assume where the world is, and where our intent is, because it [has] a dual meaning, and we were [eager] to be great on the field. But as I have said so many times, this is really about who we are trying to become. But to say it didn’t add pressure would be wrong. I think it probably did.”

For their part, BYU’s players have said all season they haven’t minded the approach, and at one point quarterback Max Hall wondered if “Quest for Mediocrity” T-shirts would have been more palatable, but 10 times less provocative.

“Doesn’t every team want to go undefeated?” he said. “Isn’t that everyone’s goal? What’s wrong with just saying it?”

Well, because it is almost impossible to attain – both on the field and off, says John F. Murray, a renowned sports psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla., who has worked with dozens of professional athletes and teams.

“I will say very directly that coach [Mendenhall] may have made a mistake here,” he said after getting a quick rundown on the situation. “The focus on perfection, or perfectionism, often backfires.”

Murray has developed a “Mental Performance Index” for sports, which shows the degree to which a team achieves perfection in a particular game. He says studies of past Super Bowls shows no team has scored above 61 percent in one game.

“I would have called it Quest for Excellence,” he said. “I would have said we try to get better every week so that at the end of the year, we are peaking or playing better than we did the previous week.”

But Rich Gordin, a sports psychologist based at Utah State University who has worked mostly with professional golfers, including BYU graduate Mike Weir, said it would be ludicrous to say Mendenhall made a mistake, except for the possibility that it may have made the Cougars more of a target than they already are.

“What are you trying to be perfect at?” Gordin said. “[Slogans] are good if the organization buys into it.. . . but you do not want to serve other teams some fodder, either.”

So, what kind of impact is the slogan and the resulting praise and/or derision going to have on Saturday’s big game?

Not much, Gordin said.

“The team that responds best to adversity is going to win.”

Hmm. Maybe that’s next year’s theme.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.