BYU-Idaho is a rarity. It is a school without a mascot.
When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints transformed the school from a two-year college to a full-fledged university in 2001, it also took away its athletics programs. But the change from Ricks College to Brigham Young University-Idaho stripped the Rexburg, Idaho, school of more than just sports. It also wiped out its identity.
Vikings no more
With its academic metamorphosis, BYU-Idaho elected to remove all reference to its former mascot, the Viking.
Gone is the beloved Thor statue. Empty and nameless is former Viking Stadium, past proving grounds for aspiring Division I football players. Only echoes remain of raucous basketball games in the John Hart Building.
Sadly, many of the school’s alumni are unaware of the fact that the school no longer has a mascot. And while those stalwart grads of the past will likely always consider themselves proud Vikings, those on the chilly campus today or anytime in the last 13 years are left to call themselves just plain BYU-Idaho students.
None can blame the LDS Church or the institution for making a decision to focus the school’s monies on academics. After all, fans and media alike collectively lambaste the NCAA, conferences and schools across the country for paying only lip-service to the academic needs of campus compared to athletics.
BYU-Idaho boasts a unique academic mission, a unique religious focus and a unique campus environment, all helping it deliver amazing results that were the subject of a book that caused serious buzz in the academic world. By all accounts, the move away from traditional campus life has been a heralded success. Few would argue for altering that course.
But could the school enrich students with the solidarity and spirit that comes with athletics without changing its academic and religious environs?
Rise and shout?
Outside of Utah and Idaho and the church, very few truly understand the difference between BYU in Provo and BYU-Idaho. They recognize the BYU part and lump them together — for better or worse.
So, why not embrace that?
Would BYU-Idaho students, alumni and the greater Rexburg area support being Cougars? Ricks College graduates of the past will probably always consider themselves Vikings, and rightfully so. Would current students and recent BYU-Idaho alumni, however, be willing to raise their colors high in the blue? And would BYU down south welcome them with open arms?
Steve Davis, Director of Alumni at BYU-Idaho, has organized large gatherings where students and alumni can watch BYU sporting events together.
“We are always excited to celebrate the positive events happening at BYU and are grateful we share the name of the flagship university for the church. It is safe to say that a majority of our students and alumni love to follow, cheer on, and even rise and shout with our Cougar friends,” Davis said.
A large portion of BYU-Idaho students and alumni have parents, siblings, friends and others who have attended BYU in Provo. Many of these students grew up Cougar fans or describe themselves as such already, so the support isn’t a big surprise.
Lisa Welch is a communications student from Belle Mead, N.J. who grew up rooting for the Cougars before attending BYU-Idaho.
“As a BYU-I student, I would love it if we adopted the Cougar mascot and BYU athletic teams to root for," Welch said. "I already feel like many of the students do that because they have friends or family that go to BYU and they feel attached to BYU athletics by going to a BYU sponsored school.
“If BYU-I were to support BYU athletics, I feel like the student body could become more unified and excited, we would all have something in common. I don’t think it would change the academic or spiritual environment too much.”
There is also quantitative evidence the students have a rooting interest even while at BYU-Idaho.
According to Davis, the BYU-Idaho Alumni Office arranges to broadcast marquee BYU games on a 20-foot screen in the Manwaring Student Center a few times each year. In 2012, more than 1,000 students and alumni viewed BYU-Utah in football, and more than 900 showed up to watch the Cougars play Boise State.
Students with interest in collegiate athletics spectatorship may find their experience at BYU-Idaho enriched if they have Cougar teams to cheer for and friends to cheer with. Those without any interest probably won't care, so long as athletics don't detract from the unique spiritual and academic environment the school incubates.
Expanding the Cougar footprint
Eastern Idaho is part of the “Mormon Corridor,” the band of Western communities from California to Montana settled by Mormon pioneers, and religious solidarity still binds eastern Idaho to Utah.
That could serve as fertile soil for growing a new base of Cougar fans.
There are more than 250,000 potential Cougar sports fans in the area right now and many more across the country (and world) over years to come as BYU-Idaho alumni proliferate and the school continues to grow. BYU-Idaho simply slapping the Cougar mascot on some golf shirts, knit caps and parkas, however, won’t deliver real fans. The schools need to work together to build bridges.
For instance, BYU basketball could annually play Idaho State, Boise State or even an exhibition game in Rexburg’s aforementioned Hart gym, which holds about 4,000. It could be done without dramatically impacting BYU’s home schedule and would certainly sell out each time.
Sending the football practice squad up to Rexburg on a weekend to play the Air Force JV team or a JuCo exhibition would give those players some live-game experience and would provide Rexburg residents with a great Saturday outing.
And more simply, following BYU sports would offer the student life office chances to organize and participate in games through remote viewership or even sanctioned road trips. Such concessional outreach would annually bring interest in the program to the area and serve to plant the seed for future members of Cougar Nation.
What’s to be, they say will be
In the end, a decision to create such an arrangement is far more a political issue than a practical one. BYU-Idaho must have a compelling reason to supplement its students’ experience with athletics, and BYU in Provo would have to be swayed by a legitimate business case or an ecclesiastical mandate before it would make that kind of outreach.
But the fact remains, the world doesn’t see these institutional differences and assumes BYU-Idaho grads are Cougars. Why not embrace it?
Athletics can instill a tremendous amount of school spirit and provide students needed reprieve from the rigors of private school education. The Rexburg community was a fantastic support to Rick’s College athletics programs and still feels an unfilled void 13 years after their cancellation.
This seems like an ideal way to create unity in the church’s institutions of higher learning while uniting two alumni bases that have been heretofore disparate.
Cougars, after all, are native to Eastern Idaho as well.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company