A few hours before the BYU men’s basketball team took the court to battle Gonzaga in Spokane last month, a special guest from Provo appeared at a lunch that turned into a Cougar pep rally.
BYU Senior Associate Athletic Director Brian Santiago spoke to the local chapter of the BYU Management Society on Jan. 14, delivering an insightful address on the state of Cougar Nation. The presentation at the LDS Institute building in the University District less than two miles from the Gonzaga campus served as a prelude to Santiago’s school edging the hometown Bulldogs by a single point at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“It’s nice to have face-to-face time,” said Santiago, who joined BYU as an assistant men’s basketball coach in 1997 before moving into athletic administration in 2001. “It’s great to come to the Northwest where we have a good, solid group of alums and catch people up on what’s going on with Cougar sports.”
From the time the Cougars joined the West Coast Conference in 2011, the BYU vs. Gonzaga matchup has developed into what is arguably the league’s most celebrated rivalry. The Zags hold the all-time series lead, 8-5, although the Cougars have left Spokane the last two seasons with gritty upset wins.
“The reason I think this rivalry is so good is that you have a lot of respect between both programs,” Santiago said. “That includes the coaching staff, the administration, the players, the fans. Both programs have a strong history. It’s just a very healthy rivalry.”
The two teams will meet again in Provo later this month on “Senior Night” for the Cougars. The BYU senior trio of Kyle Collinsworth, Nate Austin and Chase Fischer will be honored in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 21,000 on Feb. 27 at the Marriott Center.
“Gonzaga is our biggest draw of the season,” Santiago said. “This is a game that could have conference championship implications. It could be for all the marbles.”
While basketball is currently in the air, talk of an autumn sport was also heard at Santiago’s appearance. Santiago said the storied BYU football program has received “a huge infusion of energy” with the arrival of new Head Coach Kalani Sitake. The native of Tonga and former BYU running back was hired in December after longtime coach Bronco Mendenhall took over at the University of Virginia.
“Kalani came in with great enthusiasm and a positive vibe that has electrified Cougar Nation,” Santiago said. “And that’s not a knock on Bronco. He did a great job in time he was here.”
Mendenhall compiled a 99-43 record in 11 years at BYU. Sitake returns to Provo after stops at the University of Utah and Oregon State. He becomes only the fourth BYU head football coach since 1972.
While Cougar football continues to compete as an independent program – playing one of the most demanding schedules in the nation – Santiago said sports like basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, golf and cross country have found a home in the WCC. In addition to Gonzaga’s Jesuit roots, every other school in the league has a connection to a Catholic tradition.
“We have a great relationship with the WCC,” Santiago said. “It’s been especially nice to be in a conference where you are respected for who you are and for your beliefs.”
According to WCC coaches like Mark Few, BYU’s addition has raised the overall prestige of the conference. The Cougars have won 14 national titles in various sports and are accompanied by a considerable level of support regardless of where they compete.
“A lot of road games, we’ll have more fans than the home team,” Santiago said.
When it comes to sports like swimming, volleyball and track and field, BYU is part of a conglomeration of West Coast schools known as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The lineup includes prestigious programs like Stanford, USC, Arizona and UCLA that participate in sports not facilitated through the Pac-12 Conference.
Regardless of the league affiliation, BYU trademarks – like not playing or practicing on Sundays – have been respected in the WCC and MPSF. Santiago said the school housed along the Wasatch Front strives “to be nationally relevant while doing it the right way, the BYU way.”
“We have to be totally aligned with the mission of the Church,” Santiago said. “The most important thing for us is to prepare our student-athletes to go out and make a difference in the world, to make sure they develop emotionally, physically and spiritually. It’s also important for us to be very good. When we win at a high level and do it the right way, there are a lot of people interested in BYU and we see that as a window to the Church. It opens doors.”
BYU’s connection to the Church also means many athletes putting sports on hold to share the message of the restored gospel. The current football roster of 125 players includes 80 who have either returned from their missions or are planning to serve. On the men’s basketball squad 12 of 15 have or will wear the missionary nametag.
“It says a lot about our coaches that they are able to manage their rosters knowing that student-athletes will be coming and going,” Santiago said.
While not all the BYU fans who heard Santiago speak in Spokane last month were able to root the Cougars on that evening against the Zags, the opportunity to receive a first-hand report from Provo was reason enough to cheer.
“Brian was great,” said Jason Hainsworth of the Spokane BYUMS chapter. “I contacted him just four days before the game and he was willing to come meet with us. He has been very gracious to all of the BYU fans here in Spokane. The thing I most enjoyed about the lunch was the passion and excitement that Brian has for BYU. He said we had a good chance to win the basketball game and he was right. Everyone who attended came away impressed and excited about BYU sports.”