This summer is the five-year anniversary of conference realignment that shook up college football. Nebraska announced in 2010 it would join the Big Ten. The dominoes of Utah and Colorado to form the Pac-12 followed that same summer.
At the same time, BYU made perhaps the most risky move of all by choosing to go independent. By 2015, the Cougars, Notre Dame and Army would be the only independents in Division I.
Here’s how and why the move happened.
Originally published in Athlon’s Pac-12 2015 Annual.
By Michael Bradley
Last summer, when schools throughout the Big 12 Conference were wondering about their athletic futures as Texas and its cronies wondered whether it made sense to go West, the idea of football bachelorhood seemed ridiculous. Why would anybody want to go it alone, when strength was obviously to be gained by affiliating with the biggest, baddest programs around? After years of sensible groupings based on geography and reasonable travel, ages-old rules no longer applied.
Colorado was a “Pacific” school. So was Utah. TCU would eventually join the Big East. The Rust Belt now extended to the Plains and Nebraska. And Hawaii was in the Mountains. There was talk of adding Rutgers to the Big Ten and Texas A&M to the Southeastern Conference — even though the Aggies were once proud Southwest Conference members.
Up was down. Hip-hop was Easy Listening. Dogs and cats, living together. All in the name of a secure home and access to BCS dough.
And then, late last August, BYU saw other schools’ craziness and raised them in absurdity. At a time when conference membership was everything, the Cougars declared their independence. They would no longer be part of a conference for football and were leaving the Mountain West for the West Coast Conference in every other sport. Some referred to the move as “bold.” Many thought it was crazy. And even BYU understands that the move is not a guaranteed success.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” Cougar athletic director Tom Holmoe says.
The culprit in all of this is television, that demon tube (or flat screen) that has spawned all of the seismic activity on the collegiate sports front. The Cougars have surplus programming and a large audience they believe wants it, and their old arrangement with the MWC didn’t allow them to get it all on the air. Holmoe insists the school tried to work out an agreement with its former league, but it just didn’t happen. It thought about returning to the WAC, its ancestral conference home. It knew the Pac-10 wasn’t interested. So, instead of complaining about not having control over its future, BYU decided to go alone.
“(The Mountain West) didn’t have the foresight to see what we wanted,” Holmoe says. “There were nine teams in the conference, with Boise State coming in. They knew we were unhappy with the TV arrangement, but it didn’t seem to matter.”
On the surface, it appears as if the Cougars are taking a huge chance, even if they do have an eight-year deal with ESPN to televise most of their home games and the freedom to assemble a schedule that suits them. There are only three independent teams in the FBS ranks. One, Notre Dame, has a special deal with the BCS and its home games on the Notre Dame Broadcasting Company, er, NBC. The other two, Army and Navy, have national followings, no need to increase endowments or win a facilities arms race, and bowl tie-ins that provide postseason homes if they earn as many as six wins. It makes sense for them to be on their own. But BYU? Now, you’re talking crazy.
Or are you? The Cougars have their own TV network, Brigham Young Broadcasting, which brings “family programming” to 55 million people around the country. The school’s 300,000-plus living alumni are scattered throughout the nation — particularly California and the Pacific Northwest — making that network ripe for growth. And through its affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU has a vast audience for its message and brand.
“A number of years ago, we said that we have this incredible resource in BYU Broadcasting that we could take advantage of,” Holmoe says. “But we weren’t able to. One way to do it was to go independent.”
Last year, when the Big Ten was looking to grow and was considering its options, it reached out — again — to Notre Dame. The Irish looked at their choices, considered the possibilities and stayed independent. From South Bend, BYU’s decision to go alone is not rash or ill conceived. In fact, it’s quite logical.
“To do this, you need a reason that is related to the school’s mission,” ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick says. “It makes sense for BYU, just as it does a Catholic school like Notre Dame.”
The Cougars are following the Irish model, since they will be rugged individualists only on the gridiron. Just as ND is a member of the Big East for all other sports, BYU will participate in the WCC off the football field. It is easily argued that the school has taken a step down from the Mountain West, until the secret weapon steps in. Without ESPN, BYU’s decision would be particularly ill-advised. But with the four-letter folks picking up all but one (Idaho State) of the Cougars’ home games this year and working to assemble a contract that highlights BYU, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and the rest of the West Coast Conference schools on the hardwood, the concept makes sense.
Of course, it all starts with football. That’s what brought ESPN on board. The network’s relationship with BYU goes back to the days when the school was the scourge of the WAC and was playing in the Holiday Bowl — and on ESPN — almost every year.
“I think people associate BYU football with exciting offense,” says Dave Brown, who helped put together ESPN’s football schedule for years and now runs the Longhorn Network. “People will play BYU, so we’ll get good games on our schedule.”
The Cougars’ 2011 home campaign isn’t going to inspire a run on the ticket office, but a six-year deal with Notre Dame has blockbuster potential. Texas visits Provo in 2013. Georgia Tech will be coming to town down the line, as will Boise State. “There haven’t been too many teams we have called that we haven’t been able to work out a deal with,” Holmoe says. Lining up quality opposition is the easy part. Balancing the schedule is more difficult. Swarbrick admits that it’s tough to put some easier games on the slate, particularly when the TV networks are asking for quality matchups. But he has learned to avoid loading the slate.
“Being independent gives you the opportunity to play anybody,” he says. “You feel obligated to take advantage of it. You have to find a balance. If you have a TV partner, you feel obligated to schedule good games.”
The Cougars will play good teams, on practically every night of the week, the better to get on ESPN’s main station and away from The Deuce, ESPNU and ESPN Classic. They will strive for excellence in order to qualify for BCS paydays. “We’re like any other college that’s ranked in the system,” Holmoe says of the BCS. And they will play basketball against the Zags and their WCC brethren, with a contract that could well be better than what the Mountain West had.
While Holmoe talks about the aforementioned “uncharted waters” of independence, at a time when everybody else is looking for the most secure home possible, he also says, “We didn’t want to wait.”
Brigham Young is moving ahead. Boldly. Confidently.
And, maybe, it’s just a little crazy. Then again, what in college athletics makes sense these days?