College Sports

BYU, Memphis focusing on avoiding distractions at Miami Beach Bowl

Miami Herald Staff

The cool of sophistication versus a neophyte’s excitement.

That’s the matchup slowly revealed by Thursday’s Miami Beach Bowl’s media conference at Marlins Park, framed by a why-you-live-here vista of downtown Miami’s condo columns to the east and the just-laid football field to the west. Putting proper names to teams, it’s Brigham Young against Memphis, Dec. 22 at 2 p.m.

Cast against type as the worldly cats are the Cougars from BYU, the Mormon school surrounded by Utah mountains. As one of 12 programs bowl-bound for a 10th consecutive season, BYU pocket schedules and poster schedules should just include “bowl to be determined.”

And 8-4 BYU knew it would be Miami Beach Bowl-bound as long as it reached bowl eligibility. The independent school struck a deal with the new American Athletic Conference-owned game before the season.

Meanwhile, only one player on 9-3 Memphis — Alabama transfer fifth-year senior Keiwone Malone — has bowl experience. The school’s most recent bowl was another inaugural bowl game in a domed Florida baseball park, the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.

“We have a mature group,” Memphis coach Justin Fuente said. “Just because they haven’t been a part of this kind of success before doesn’t mean they won’t be able to handle it. We do have quite a few seniors and a core group of leaders.”

Fuente said the team refocused itself after its last loss, 28-24 to Houston, which helped run off the six consecutive wins that got Memphis into a three-way tie for the American Athletic Conference title.

But BYU’s sophistication in this setting goes beyond mere postseason been-there-done-that, got-the-bowl-goodies.

Provo’s nothing like Miami or South Beach. But Provo’s not like many places a Mormon man goes on his two-year mission of service. A mission can take a young man anywhere from Miami-Fort Lauderdale (where two players on BYU’s roster did their missions) to Mozambique.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe, after expressing anticipation of diving into good Cuban food, pointed out that many of his players speak fluent Spanish from their missions. Over 75 percent speak a second language, estimated coach Bronco Mendenhall, and 80 percent have been on missions, which is why the Cougars tend to field a roster older and more married than other schools.

“There’s maybe a maturity benefit,” Mendenhall said. “But that’s also now including their wives coming, which can be an extra distraction as binkies, bubbies and strollers start coming on the plane. We have some unique challenges that way, as well.”

With an average of 43 married players per team, Mendenhall said the typical BYU bowl travel party numbers well over 300. This year, he said, the team will come in Wednesday for the Dec.22 game while the wives will come in Friday instead of flying with the team.

So perhaps the team more likely to get snagged by South Beach — everything but the Miami Beach Bowl game will be in Miami Beach — isn’t the team from the open west but the team from a southern urban center.

That’s not necessarily an idle concern. When Clemson returned to the Orange Bowl last year, some players admitted getting to sucked into the South Beach holiday atmosphere before they got routed by West Virginia two years before.

“Many of our kids have never seen the ocean before,” Fuente said. “We have a bunch of kids from the Mid-South who haven’t traveled very much. I know they’ll be excited to enjoy the weather and the view and the scenery. Part of what we’ll stress will be there is a time to enjoy the things that come with a bowl game. There’s also a time to go to work. We’ll have to do a great job balancing those things in order to prepare for a football game.”