Over the past couple decades ever since BYU began dominating the old Western Athletic Conference in football many critics have pointed to BYU’s missionary program as a major factor in BYU’s success on the field. The reasoning behind the critics’ assertion is that the BYU players are on average older and more mature than their opponents due to the NCAA exemption in stopping the five year eligibility clock to allow for two years of missionary service. The fact is the picture that the critics have painted of BYU’s program and the mission exemption is a grossly inaccurate assessment of reality.
The Missionary Advantage is Only Interesting when BYU Is Winning
In 1984, BYU won its first NCAA football national championship. College football fans were left wondering: how did a little known team from the Rocky Mountains get so good? Some writers credited LaVell Edwards’s innovative passing attack, whereas other media members attributed the success to BYU’s age and maturity advantage. Either way, the team was a national powerhouse.
In contrast to the huge national success of those days, currently BYU is in the midst of three straight losing seasons in football, wherein very few, if any, articles referencing BYU’s unfair age and maturity advantage have been written. It is only when BYU wins that the missionary exemption becomes an issue.
There Is Only a Two-year Difference between BYU and Opponents
Several sports writers, college football fans, and opposing coaches over the years have compared the occasional 26 year old player that ends up on BYU’s roster to an overmatched 18 year old true freshman from an opponent. Of course, when you compare any fifth year redshirt senior to any true freshman on any team there will be a maturity and experience mismatch. If a writer, coach, or fan is going to make such a ludicrous comparison, he or she should at least find out how long a mission takes.
A current LDS mission takes a young man exactly two years. No less and no more. Thus, the average BYU return missionary athlete should be exactly two years older than their counterparts at other schools. If the truth be told, the only fair comparison between players would be between a 19 and 21 year old, 20 and 22 year old, 21 and 23 year old, 22 and 24 year old, etc. in the exact same year of eligibility.
Any twenty-six-year-old player that ends up on BYU’s roster would have enrolled full-time in school later than at age 18. To be fair, any player on any team can choose to defer his enrollment in school until a later age such as what Chris Weinke did at Florida State. The $64,000 question is whether the long layoff from competition will do more harm than good for an athletic career.
Missionaries Do Not Choose Where they Are Sent
The missionary program is often misunderstood by the media, fans, and coaches. The LDS church sends young men where they are needed in the world. The prospective missionaries, including top athletes, have absolutely no say in where they will go. Thus, some athletes end up for two years in South America or Africa where it is very difficult to maintain their body weights. On occasion, the digestive bugs and worms collected during the mission can cause permanent damage to their athletic careers.
Regardless of where a missionary is sent, it is nearly impossible to maintain a regular exercise routine. A missionary schedule is already regimented. Thus, the biggest challenge is finding the time and energy to exercise. Even if a missionary had the time and energy, he must convince his 24/7 companion to participate. The bottom line is that the likelihood of getting regular and quality exercise is slim.
By the time most football players return from their missions and rejoin the team, they need a minimum of one year to get in good enough to shape to retake the field. Often times, this extra year of getting in shape will burn a very unproductive year of eligibility. Even when they are ready for some game time experience, it has usually been at a minimum of three years and most often four years since their last competitive game.
A mission clearly affects any young man’s life priorities such as how important playing football is in the grand scheme of things. Therefore, some players come back having lost the killer instinct and the drive and passion to become a great player again. Furthermore, having had such a long layoff from football and lifting weights some players never regain their pre-mission physical form.
Contrary to popular belief, a mission does not provide any football experience whatsoever. Thus, a player might be more mature as a person for having served a mission, but he is definitely not any more experienced in football than his counterparts.
Management of the Program
Because BYU chooses to allow so many of its athletes to leave on missions, it has probably the most administratively difficult task in planning its recruiting of any team in the country. Although most missionaries leave at the age of nineteen, they can choose not to go or postpone a couple years until they are ready. Therefore, the BYU coaches are nearly always kept in limbo trying to plan for future recruiting needs. Regrettably, this is just the beginning of the administrative nightmare.
In many instances, BYU will recruit an athlete that is not yet ready to contribute as a freshman. Thus, he will redshirt a year, serve a two year mission, and finally get back in shape for a year before he is ready to contribute. A four year layoff from game experience makes players extremely rusty. This leaves BYU coaches planning four and sometimes five years ahead trying to anticipate team needs. Even then, some of the recruits do not pan out.
Another challenge BYU regularly faces is that it does not even always know if its own players will return to the team following a mission. For example, most recently BYU lost arguably the top overall recruit in the nation in 2002 in quarterback Ben Olson after he returned from his mission and decided to move on to what he believed were the greener pastures of UCLA. BYU must now re-recruit top players serving missions.
If all these challenges were not enough, BYU has the additional task of either temporarily or permanently losing immediate impact true freshman players to missions. As an example in the 2004 season, the true freshman wide receiver Austin Collie was named the MWC freshman player of the year. He would have played a major role in this upcoming season’s success. Unfortunately for BYU coaches, Collie left for a mission and is not scheduled to return until the 2007 season. There is always the risk that he could transfer elsewhere if he so chooses.
The missionary program negatively affects BYU’s team in other ways. BYU has been hurt by the NCAA rule that allows only medical redshirts if less than seven years have passed since the eligibility clock of the player started. In several instances, a fifth year redshirt returned missionary senior will get injured and will not be able to get a medical redshirt at BYU. In one such case in 2002, BYU lost its starting right tackle Ben Archibald, an Outland Trophy candidate, to injury on the first day of fall practice. At most universities he would have received another year of eligibility by the NCAA if he had not served a mission. Unfortunately for BYU, he lost his appeal because his seven year clock expired before the next season started.
The Choice to Marry Is Available to Any Athlete
As is noted annually by many sports writers and announcers across the country, there is a fairly large contingent of players on BYU’s roster. The media will cite this trend as a major advantage to BYU since the married players tend to be more mature and to follow a lifestyle more conducive to succeeding on the football field.
What many people may not realize is that there is nobody forcing BYU players to get married. Getting married is merely a lifestyle choice that many BYU players have chosen. There is neither a mandated age that LDS church members must marry nor a BYU rule to do so while in attendance.
Returned Missionary Status at the Skill Positions Is Not a Great Advantage
Steve Young, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielson, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, and Steve Sarkisian are some of the great quarterbacks to play at BYU. None of them ever served full-time missions. In fact, up until 2001 when Brandon Doman had a breakout senior year BYU had only marginal success with return missionary quarterbacks.
Moreover, the list of RM quarterback busts in that same time frame is much longer than the above list of great quarterbacks. Naturally, BYU hopes that current quarterback John Beck can buck the curse of being a return missionary quarterback.
Likewise, the running backs who have served missions have had limited success at BYU. In fact, the two most successful running backs in BYU history Jamal Willis and Luke Staley never served missions.
The logical deduction is that return missionaries are at a disadvantage relative to non-missionaries when playing at the skill positions. Nevertheless, BYU has the hope that this trend will change for the better since many of its current athletes at the skill positions are return missionaries. So far, the results have not been great.
Every School Can Recruit LDS Players
The two year LDS mission exemption is available to every coach and every team in the NCAA. Every team in the nation can choose to fill out its roster with scores of NCAA athletes planning on serving LDS missions. Instead of choosing this route, however, most opposing coaches will simply whine and moan about BYU’s supposed advantage of having older players on its roster.
The reality is most coaches will back off of recruits when they hear of mission plans. Many coaches are not willing to wait the four to five years it takes to receive any dividends for their investment in an LDS player. For that matter, a coach could already be fired by the time a player is ready to contribute. In fact, this failure to accommodate mission plans by other schools after showing initial interest has helped BYU tremendously. Every LDS athlete knows that they can serve a mission while at BYU without any hassle from the coaching staff.
Opposing coaches do not actually believe that accommodating a church mission will help their programs otherwise they would recruit LDS players more seriously and accommodate their mission plans. The unpredictability of how a mission will affect a player’s development, ala Shawn Bradley, scares off a lot of coaches. Regardless of the reason for coaches to steer clear of LDS athletes, the mission exemption option is still available to them if they wanted it.
Instead of whining about the unfair age advantage at BYU, if other football coaches in major programs truly bought what they are saying, they would recruit LDS players for their own programs. If the rule was only for BYU, only then would these coaches be justified in complaining.
The missionary program at BYU is a major challenge that BYU has learned to deal with over the past few decades. There are definitely mixed rewards and consequences of fielding older and mature, yet rusty players. Overall, the program probably reaps more logistical problems than any significant rewards by accommodating so many missionary requests.