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Embracing a New Reality at BYU: Confronting the Tension head-on

PROVO, Utah — In Provo, Utah, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built a 22,000-seat temple – a gigantic arena about a half-century ago. It required a 2.5-million-pound roof to be lifted over two weeks, requiring 38 hydraulic jacks. This would stand as the largest on-campus facility in the United States and would cover three acres at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

The Latter-day Saints knew this new arena had the potential to draw in large crowds because it would bring the teachings of the church founder, Joseph Smith, and a strong Brigham Young University basketball team led by a Yugoslavian atheist named Krešimir Ćosić. They knew it would be a place that could draw a crowd.

BYU had at least three non-Mormons on the Cougars’ 1970-71 team, including Ćosić. By the time the J. Willard Marriott Center opened for the ’71-72 season, he was a full-blown sensation.

BYU’s aspirations in athletics have always been influenced by the talent outside the church. At the university, nearly 98.5 percent of the 32,000-student undergraduate enrollment is Mormon. Students must also follow an honor code that forbids certain activities such as sex, alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, profanity, and same-sex relationships, as well as no beards.

BYU men’s basketball has traditionally been focused on landing the best church member talent, with a few non-member players and return missionaries.

On-court success is crucial at BYU not for banners, but for the mission. Church leadership takes an interest in athletic programs because it believes winning begets attention, which begets interest, and that spreads the word.

As the new head coach at BYU, Mark Pope has the task of understanding how to balance the needs and expectations of the church with those of modern college athletics.

Pope’s approach to coaching at BYU requires a concept of something bigger than himself, said Keith Vorkink, university advancement vice president, who oversees BYU athletics.

The program includes some international players as well, including Aly Khalifa, a center from Alexandria, Egypt, and Fousseyni Traore, from Bamako, Mali. Both bring diversity to a school that’s more than 80% White.

The coach maintains an ever-moving, ever-cutting, ever-shooting offense, and encourages a deep understanding of faith and education. Pope believes that winning games is about aligning with the greater mission and is a vital aspect of coaching at a church-owned and operated university.

The Cougars have joined the Big 12 and are now navigating new territory that includes name, image, and likeness opportunities, as well as transfer portal transactions. They are facing college basketball’s best league in a changing world. Pope and the Cougars are faced with navigating these changes in addition to upholding the traditions and values of the university while continuing to challenge perceptions.

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