BYU just completed a successful basketball season, finishing as co-champion of the Western Athletic Conference regular season play and champion of the WAC post-season tournament. An overall record of 25-7 and a berth in the NCAA tournament under head coach Roger Reid enhanced the Cougars' reputation as a fine basketball school on the intercollegiate level.
As sometimes follows such success at the Y., the question is raised by some as to whether basketball players who interrupt their collegiate careers by serving two-year missions for the Church have an advantage over players not involved in the missionary program."No," said Terry Holland, former University of Virginia hoop coach who guided the Cavaliers' program when Ralph Sampson was one of the nation's top collegiate players in the late '70s and early '80s. "Oh, there may be some cases where the boys may get a little bigger and stronger, and that might give them a little advantage, but if so it's very slight."
Holland made the comments at the recent Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament in Fort Collins, Colo., as a television color commentator for ESPN.
Through the years, some coaches in the WAC have grumbled about the number of returned missionaries on the BYU team, but Reggie Minton, head basketball coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, isn't one of them.
"I recruited Bryce Morgan, a young Mormon boy out of Nephi, Utah," Minton explained, "and I knew he wanted to go on a mission. That's his belief and his faith. The academy makes allowances for this. He should be home soon, and I'm looking forward to having him on our team."
Minton said the only time you hear gripes from other coaches "is when the [returnedT missionaries are playing well and BYU is winning. These same coaches go out and recruit junior college transfers, which is permitted by the rules. NCAA rules also provide for young men who want to serve missions to interrupt their eligibility for this two-year period. Rules are rules. It's no problem for us at the academy."
Don Haskins, a 31-year veteran coach at the University of Texas at El Paso, and the only WAC coach with an NCAA championship ring, isn't concerned with the returned missionary players.
"It's no problem for us. These kids are involved in service when they're on missions, and service is surely all right. I've never had a Mormon kid on my team, but if I had some of those boys, I'd certainly let them go on missions, and I'd be glad to have them back."
And what does coach Reid think about coaching returned missionaries?
"Mentally and emotionally, the returned missionaries are easier to coach," he said. "They are more mature. Physically, after serving for two years and not having played a game, it hurts. So you have to weigh the emotional factor against the physical.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'd have every boy who plays at Brigham Young University go on a mission. I love the missionary program; I support it. My own son is on a mission, and missions are a lot more important than basketball."
Four returned missionary players - two from BYU and two from the University of Utah - were asked whether serving a mission hindered their basketball careers. The University of Utah, which received a berth in the National Invitational Tournament at the end of the just-completed regular season, had five returned missionaries on its team this season.
Craig Rydalch - The University of Utah stalwart from Oakley, Utah, was emphatic in answering the question: "Not at all. I needed to go. I served in the England Manchester Mission, and it was a blessing for me. I learned the work ethic. If you're going to be successful in the mission field you've got to give 100 percent. My mission prepared me to play for Coach Rick Majerus, who demands 100 percent. The mission also prepared me for a position of leadership on the team. I would do it again."
Rydalch will graduate this spring in sociology and mathematics. He and his wife, Kenna, are expecting their first child in May.
Nathan Call - Considered by many as the best point guard in the WAC, Call served in the Bolivia La Paz Mission: "Although it took me about a year to get back into shape physically, my mission has really helped me in my basketball career. It taught me leadership and to work hard, which is so helpful in playing basketball."
Call, from Mission Viejo, Calif., is majoring in sports business and has a year to go before graduating. He plans to be married this summer.
M'Kay McGrath - McGrath, the University of Utah's tough and gutty team leader, served in the Iowa Des Moines Mission: "When I returned from my mission, it took me about six months to get back into shape physically. It was pretty tough, but it was worth it. Two of my goals were to go on a mission and play college basketball. I'd encourage all young men to have a mission as one of their goals. Among other things, my mission helped my basketball career, and I'm thankful for it."
McGrath grew up in Thatcher, Ariz. His family moved to Mesa, where he attended high school and Mesa Community College. He and his wife, Angie, were married last summer in the Salt Lake Temple. A member of the National Honor Society, he will graduate this spring with a major in communication.
Mark Heslop - Serving in The Netherlands Amsterdam Mission, BYU's three-point shooting ace Heslop learned two languages, Dutch and Flemish. Flemish is a Dutch dialect spoken in northern Belgium: "There is nothing to compare with the growth and development you receive when on your mission. I wouldn't trade anything in the world for the experience. It helped me get my priorities straight. When I returned, it took a little time for me to get in shape physically, but my basketball career was enhanced by my missionary experience."
Heslop, from Ogden, Utah, is a member of the National Honor Society and was Academic All-WAC last year. He and his wife, Jennifer, were married in 1989. He will graduate this spring with a major in business.