For years, some rivals and many critics of BYU have cringed over the use by Cougar recruiters of ties to the LDS Church — pulling out the so-called church card.

Bronco Mendenhall appears to not only place that ace card on the table, but he's throwing the entire deck at recruits and parents.

And, apparently, they like it.

In the first big recruiting weekend of his 13-month tenure as BYU's new football coach this past Friday and Saturday, Mendenhall spoke boldly and direct about Cougar ties to religion and the mission of the university. He minced no words and cited Book of Mormon stories of the Title of Liberty, Captain Moroni and the 2,000 Stripling Warriors, the Sons of Helaman.

Speaking to 20 recruits, mostly LDS, and with more than half of them with parents in tow, Mendenhall made it perfectly clear over the weekend on his priorities for their sons, according to Cliff and Betsy Lark, parents of Pine View quarterback James Lark.

"In the course of two days, he told the group twice that his primary focus on his players is first, their spiritual welfare; second, academics and then their athletic development — in that order," Cliff Lark said.

How did it go over?

"I liked it," Cliff said. "It only confirmed why our son decided to go there."

"I can't speak for the other parents," said Betsy, "but I think they appreciated the approach."

Not to say previous football coaches didn't quote scripture, but Mendenhall has made it the focus of his campaign.

Saturday morning at a breakfast, Mendenhall had former Cougar running back Mark Atuaia and his cousins sing a spiritual number, setting the tone for the day. Mendenhall spoke to parents and recruits as a group and emphasized the school's honor code is expected to be adhered to.

"Don't mistake me, I want to win, but my emphasis will be on spirituality first," Mendenhall said. On Sunday, Mendenhall invited recruits and parents to a voluntary 40-minute church sacrament meeting in the Wilkinson Center where conditioning coach Jay Omer conducted and BYU president Dr. Cecil Samuelson, an LDS general authority, presided and spoke as did two current players.

It struck a cord with the Larks.

"Coach Mendenhall was pretty straight-forward," James Lark said, who hung around Brighton High all-stater Mike Hague, who also committed early.

"The atmosphere Mendenhall created was what you'd expect BYU to be and he didn't put on any air or pull any punches."

Betsy Lark said Mendenhall told the group he wanted the recruiting experience over the weekend to be different than any other they'd be exposed to. "He went out of his way to sell the difference. He said if anyone chose another school, he'd like to know what was different that made them decide to go another way."

With former missionary players approaching an all-time high 70, Mendenhall told the Larks and others a funny. When at New Mexico, he sat with Lobo coaches and wondered how they'd beat BYU with all their older players who'd been on missions. At BYU, he sits with his assistants and they wonder how they can win with older returned missionaries who may be out of shape or disinterested.

Mendenhall backs the unorthodox missions — most of his recruits in this class will depart his program immediately if not in a year. Something rival recruiters at Southern Cal discourage.

The football push didn't get pushed to the background, however.

Mendenhall told the cadre of recruits and their parents he's often asked how their sons would be prepared for the NFL.

Mendenhall pulled out a chart and showed only two other teams in the West had more players on NFL rosters last year, UCLA and Southern Cal. "And now that Brandon Doman left the 49ers to coach here, the University of California has tied us for third with 26 players right now."

He also trotted out the names of BYU Doak Walker, Heisman Trophy, Outland Trophy and Davey O'Brien winners, cited 21 conference championships, a national title and 24 bowl games and asked recruits to ask other recruiters to count down and compare.

Sure, it's all BYU spin.

But Mendenhall, the guy was direct as an Amway party-giver on 'roids.

Asked what three words they'd use to describe how Mendenhall came through, James Lark said "scary, straightforward and demanding."

Betsy: "Intense, direct and focused."

Cliff: "Honest, sincere and driven."

Tent preacher. Or the Terminator.

The Larks were told their son would be expected to be a standard bearer, a carrier of BYU's flag like the 2,000 stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon, Betsy said. "He told them he expected to live, play, work and fight like they did."

Mendenhall told the recruits not to judge BYU's coaching staff by what kind of car they were picked up in and the kind of hotel they stayed in while in Provo. "What you are going to experience here will be different than anywhere else."

Unlike the University of Colorado?

Unlike some bad headlines of 2004 involving BYU football players involved in sex scandals? It was those ugly incidents — not a win-loss record — that cost Gary Crowton his job a year ago.

So, Mendenhall apparently has a mandate.

He's set himself up as the Eraser Man of those misdeeds.

Yes, Mendenhall appears to have thrown the deck and played the R-card.

Unashamedly, he's identified this approach as his ace.

He may be speaking to the choir. Of 110 players in his program, only 10 are non-LDS.

Will he succeed?

The Larks hope so.

"As a parent, I appreciate his concern and approach, not for just developing our son as a football player, but beyond football," Betsy said.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com