(Editor’s note: Bryson Kearl is a diehard BYU fan, but as he was ramming his head into a New York hotel wall this past Saturday night, the following article came to him. It is a hard truth, but to him it is truth, nonetheless.)
I am really good at Tecmo Super Bowl. So good that I have won the Super Bowl in Tecmo with every single NFL team (in existence when the game was made). I have two advantages in the game. The first is experience. I have played thousands and thousands of games on Tecmo. The second advantage is that I am a human being. In other words, I am the Utah Utes of Tecmo Super Bowl.
Let me explain.
For those of you unaware, Tecmo Super Bowl is a football video game from the original Nintendo (NES). It was released in 1991, around the time when teams like the 49ers, Giants, Redskins, and Bills dominated the league. For me, TSB on NES is the GGEP (greatest gaming experience possible). That tells you both how much I love the game, and also how little gaming I’ve done in the last decade. (Note: Tecmo could be replaced with games like Madden for the sake of the following argument. I am using the example of Tecmo simply because it is my personal favorite.)
I used to play Tecmo for countless hours when I wasn’t in school, or when I was sick, or when the sun came up that day, etc. etc. I oftentimes played against friends or my brother, but more times than not, I played against the computer (CPU). I even had a friend who would come over to my house to watch me play the CPU for hours at a time. Occasionally I would turn to him and say, “Brian, are you sure you don’t want to play?” He always said no; I was that good. When I was a freshman in college I told someone how good I was and they told me they could beat me. He talked up a big game, and he even had the game ready in his apartment when we went straight there. By the time we kicked off I was legitimately nervous. I beat him by a score of something like 35-0.
The great thing about the CPU was that it never got sick of playing me. It never said, “I’m tired of this,” or “Let’s go do something else,” or “Wanna’ play Mario instead?” Accordingly, I developed a real rivalry with the CPU. There probably isn’t a single bad thing that a BYU or Utah fan has said to each other that I didn’t say to the CPU over the years of our rivalry. (And did I throw my controller from time and time and kick the Nintendo in disgust? You betcha’. But I always followed my tantrums by giving the NES a good blow.) But there is one thing I never called the CPU that this week I realized is an accurate thing to call it: BYU.
BYU is possibly the most unique school in the country. Obviously the honor code plays a big part in their uniqueness, but the fact that they try (and on occasion succeed) to compete in major sports like football despite the honor code is truly peculiar. Here they take athletes that could go to other schools and do virtually anything they want, and they convince them to come to Provo, UT and live what the outside world views a monastery lifestyle.
How do they pull this off? Well, for starters, they convince their athletes to—if I may steal a Mormon term—turn off the “natural man.” They teach them to maintain discipline in every aspect of their life. They attempt to turn their athletes into (what the outside world views as) something like a religious robot. Or, for the sake of my analogy, computers. The outside world views BYU as people who walk and talk in blind faith, almost as if they were programmed to do so. And in order to preserve a competitive sports program their teams kind of have to do that. Otherwise, they can’t play (read: Brandon Davies). True, some players frankly ignore the honor code, but only an outright hater would argue that the honor code doesn’t affect most players’ psyche.
It’s said that teams take on the character of their coach. Let’s look at an actual quote given by BYU’s football coach Bronco Mendenhall. As you read this ask yourself, “Does this sound like a football coach, or some sort of advanced robot, programmed to coach football?”
“We have a baseline established. Now there’s a clear reference point on truly where we are after working against someone else besides ourselves. It’s my job now, with this coaching staff, to diagnose exactly what the areas are that need improvement, the players that need improvement, the areas of game management that can be handled better.”
Thanks Bronco; couldn’t have said it better myself. If BYU athletes (and teams) are comparable to computers, this has never been as true as it is right now. And Bronco’s job security is far from in doubt, so it’s safe to assume the team will maintain this identity for the foreseeable future.
Enforcing and reinforcing discipline and focus, and diagnosing reference points and baselines works fine to a certain point, as evidenced by the success that Mendenhall has enjoyed to this point in his career. But clearly rivalry games are different from other games.
In Tecmo, the CPU clearly understands the game better than me. It clearly has skills I’m not even aware of, and it should certainly beat me more often than I beat it. And yet it almost never does. Why is that? Well, for starters, it is always conservative. To the extreme. It plays a certain, lifeless, yet calculated game with exactness regardless of the opponent or the conditions. It lacks the ability to match my hatred, determination, and blood lust that I clearly have for it. And how could it? It’s a computer. It simply lacks a killer’s instincts. And it can’t just all of a sudden acquire that instinct. It’s like the dork in Saving Private Ryan who knows both the English and German language with fluency, but doesn’t know the first thing about how to survive in a war when suddenly thrust into it. Book smarts—er—computer smarts are not street smarts. Football requires both.
Real life BYU players are not actually computers, true. But they come pretty darn close sometimes, or at least they put on that façade. They have to. And when you’re programmed one way for so long, and all of a sudden you’re facing somebody like Utah who has bloodlust at all times for you, it can cause you to freeze (yes, just like a computer). Sure you may appear to be amped and excited (and bloodlusty) on the outside, but inside you’re on unfamiliar grounds. We all saw that in the first drive of this past weekend’s game (and the second, and the third).
We also saw a complete lack of killer’s instincts the past two years (and in 2006) when BYU got ahead early. Rather than go for the kill, they played the numbers games like any computer would, all along not realizing that this was not a time for probabilities and conservatism. It was time to go for blood. The BYU football program trains computerized athlete missionaries, but rivalry football requires killers.
Utah gets that. When they get ahead on BYU, they don’t let off the gas. They jet into a higher gear and point the vehicle straight for Cosmo’s face. They simply aren’t constrained like BYU is. They are encouraged to let their instincts (their natural man) take over. To harness and manipulate the hyper-emotion that comes with a rivalry game. And as much as I hate to say this, they are very good at it. I know because I play the exact same way in Tecmo.
Anyone familiar with Tecmo can explain what it means when the CPU goes into “Hell no mode.” Hell no mode (HNM) is where the computers seems determined to beat you no matter what: Forcing multiple fumbles from you, all of a sudden becoming twice as fast as you (or going into “Bo Jackson speed”), calling your play five times in a row, and so forth. Sometimes the CPU is just too good.
Sometimes when the CPU goes into HNM, I can’t avoid losing. There are limits on how much my human advantage can do for me. And so it is with the BYU-Utah rivalry. Sometimes BYU is just too good for Utah to beat, regardless of the natural advantages Utah has in the game.
Quick, think of the last time BYU beat the Utes even though Utah was the favorite. Okay, what did you come up with? You probably couldn’t think of anything, could you? When BYU is better than Utah, they have a chance. When they are either even or Utah is better, Utah will win (and has won for two decades now). Just like in Tecmo.
The last time BYU blew out Utah was 1996. That year BYU went 14-1 (best record in the nation), and finished the season ranked #5 in the nation. The time before that was when Ty Detmer hailed as the singular most dominant QB in the nation. And before that BYU was always way better than Utah.
Here’s where the bad news comes for BYU fans. The bridge between BYU and Utah that once existed is gone. With Utah’s recent success, and with their Pac 12 residence, they are probably never going to be that much worse (or worse at all) than BYU. In other words, BYU may never blow out Utah again, but Utah is certainly in a position to repeat 54-10.
Utah’s program is built to beat BYU. The Utes put out a team of fast athletes, while BYU has talented, disciplined—yet rarely fast—players. If you’ve played Tecmo, you probably know all too well about Bo Jackson. The makers of Tecmo (partially accurately) made Bo Jackson way faster than everyone else on the field by a lot, giving anyone who picked the Raiders as their team a real advantage. Well, like in Tecmo, the speed issue causes real problems for BYU.
Add it all up and the future “Holy Wars” look bleak for BYU. With Utah’s emergence as a national power, the natural human advantages Utah has (that BYU desperately lacks), and Bo Jackson, BYU will always be an underdog against Utah under the current regime. BYU, like my dusty old NES, has seen its best days come and go. Sad, but true.
Bryson Kearl is a BYU alumnus. His favorite team to play with on Tecmo is the Buffalo Bills. Like his Cougars, the Bills have mastered the art of ripping their fans’ hearts out at the most inopportune times.