BYU Football: Every Fan's Greatest Hopes, Worst Fears of Football Independence

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BYU Football:  Every Fan's Greatest Hopes, Worst Fears of Football Independence
Will BYU continue to fill LaVell Edwards Stadium despite mediocre schedules over the next 2 years?

July 1 was a day of mixed feelings throughout the world of college sports and NCAA athletics in general, particularly for BYU fans since their athletic program is entering a great unknown being a football independent and being part of the West Coast Conference for men’s basketball and most other sports.

Many BYU fans are happy their beloved Cougars have exited the MWC and their paltry TV deal that drastically limits their exposure as well as revenue stream compared to similarly sized and supported athletic departments around the country.

It is, however, uncharted territory historically for BYU. Indeed, many are glad to be free of the MWC, the lack of satellite carriage, terrible grade school style broadcasting from a league channel that had merely become an extortion point for the Comcast Cable TV cartel throughout the TV markets of the MWC footprint.

BYU fans also cheer the inclusion of foes like Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State and Utah on immediate future schedules; they also look with disgust when they see the dregs of NCAA Division 1-FBS in the form of San Jose State, New Mexico State and Idaho firmly on their schedule for 2011 and 2012 in significant numbers.

Rumors circulated that Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State and other BCS-level powers are interested in scheduling home-and-home dates in the future with BYU and that interest is so high there will never be a need for BYU to ever consider joining a BCS level AQ league in the years ahead. 

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Utah will be bringing in far and away more marquee opponents than BYU will for at least the next 2 years.

Then BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe promptly denied such talk on a local sports radio show.

Utah athletic director Chris Hill moved quickly with Holmoe and scheduled a September 2011/2012 home-and-home with BYU for the immediate post-MWC years. Then Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott announced a policy of wavier requirements for any OOC game scheduled after Oct. 1 requiring a unanimous vote by all other league athletic directors.

To date, Notre Dames’ series with USC and Stanford are the only post-October dates agreed upon and effectively waived over the rule. Holmoe said he doubts BYU and Utah could get such a similar accommodation given the Pac-12’s agenda to make Utah/Colorado a season-ending rivalry as it was prior to 1962.

The roller coaster of hopes and fears I’ve described above have been played out in user comments and blogs in both major Salt Lake City newspaper sites ("The Salt Lake Tribune" and "Deseret News") as well as the sports sections of all the local TV station sites. Utah fans jabbing at BYU fans touting that the “No Sunday Play” policy of BYU will always preclude them from joining a bigger league,  BYU fans jabbing back at Utah fans telling them they will never be competitive in the Pac-12 and touting BYU’s history somehow makes them more worthy of attaining membership in such a league.

Both ranking high in the “crock of malarkey,” a word only used to stay civil, which both sides of this rivalry rarely are, sad to say. I think everyone gets the gist of it and—if they’re like me—are sick and tired of all of it.

Pac 12 Commissioner Larry Scott has made it clear that Utah was invited to the league based as much or more on its academic merits as its athletic accomplishments.

Let’s get some reality in all of this even though much of it is hope and fear. 

First of all, Utah was invited to the Pac-12 largely based upon its academic makeup and merits as much as or more than its athletic accomplishments. Pac-12 commissioner Scott pointed out on Utah’s Pac-12 induction day the fact Utah does half a billion dollars in research level academics is a fundamental part they were included in the Pac-12 alignment. 

Business savvy dictated that Scott try the Texas route first for a Pac-16, but all along I’m certain he calculated Colorado defecting from the Big-12 and pulling Utah up from the MWC as his most likely scenario.

BYU fans need to get it straight: The Pac-12 WAS NEVER an option for the school. 

Next to the Big-Ten the Pac-10/12 has historically been dominated by AAU affiliated major PhD-awarding universities doing multi-million, and in some cases multi-billion, level dollars each year in research. Utah has had more than 70 PhD programs for several decades and has been home to a highly ranked medical school and hospital as well as bio-technical research facilities. 

BYU, on the other hand, has only 25 doctoral level programs including law (JD) and education (Ed.D). University presidents and chancellors make the determination on who is affiliated with them in league play in intercollegiate athletics, and a religious school with as few doctoral level candidates enrolled was just never an attractive feature despite an impressive athletic resume over the past half century, as well as significant numbers of highly qualified undergraduates for such schools to easily draw from each year for their programs.

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BYU is, however, academically respected in higher education circles since it does have an undergraduate student body that any president of most AAU affiliated universities would in fact envy. BYU also has faculty that are heavily involved in peer-reviewed research and are often recognized and cited by various academic circles. While some come and go (Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee was an associate dean and on the law school faculty at BYU from 1973-1979), yet many choose to remain in Provo and still further build the academic reputation of BYU. Increasingly faculty recruitment at BYU includes research ability and skills for a future emphasis in all colleges and academic departments. 

Most observe the academic environment at BYU is gradually changing, and as BYU-Idaho in Rexburg evolves into a solid four-year school Provo will become more of a post-graduate destination for an increasing numbers of the 30,000-plus student body. Without question, BYU has the faculty and the student body access to become a tier one research university, and there is little doubt there are many university presidents at top-level research universities around the U.S. who wonder: Why not BYU?

On the athletic side, there is little doubt that when Texas and Texas A&M got together with all of the Big-8 presidents back in 1993 when they decided to bolt the Southwest Conference, all of these school leaders were highly interested in inviting BYU, and later then BYU President Rex E. Lee made it known they did inquire of the possible inclusion of BYU. By most accounts some members of Texas Legislature along with then-Governor Ann Richards intervened to influence the makeup of the new league. 

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But also while confirmation isn’t available many speculate those in the LDS Church leadership hierarchy who govern BYU were fearful of letting BYU go it without Utah at that time, since Utah-AD Chris Hill as yet had the time to build Utah into the athletic powerhouse many felt it could become.  But because of this history, many feel BYU will one day become part of a re-expanded Big-12.

Also on the side of fears is if this independence move isn’t successful over the next decade, where does this potentially leave BYU? A four-hour drive north on I-15 to the West Yellowstone turnoff in Idaho Falls will eventually take one to Rexburg to the BYU-Idaho Campus (Ricks College, once upon a time), and seeing an empty unused stadium and a once-proud and consistently highly ranked JUCO program will send shivers down one's spine.

Most troublesome is the “what-if” feeling many in the community have that just maybe BYU-Idaho could have succeeded as a division 1-FCS program eventually in the Big-Sky Conference. 

The announcement of the course in June 2000 to drop athletics came suddenly and took the community by complete surprise. Monetary reasons were the primary factor cited, but many in the community I sense feel that a small, yet powerful few of the senior LDS Church leaders just didn’t want another church school athletic program competing with nearby state sponsored programs. Some not so thinly veiled words from a few church leaders at that time suggested BYU in Provo could one day face a similar end. 

The mothballed stadium at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg sits empty and rarely used with no athletic programs at the school.

 The Crystal Ball on what to expect in the next few years is murky at best. A few too many BYU fans keep thinking independence is the only way to go, but then again there are a large number—including myself—who feel that sooner than later a conference will come calling for BYU. 

Just over a month ago an Internet rumor suggested that along with the myriad of scheduling opportunities BYU was getting, the Big East had inquired of BYU's potential interest in a football-only membership. While this is purely speculation on my part, I for one would not be the least bit surprised if it happened. The Big East has first tier rights coming up next for renegotiation (2013) and it needs to position itself for power. While being even more moronic than TCU as a geographical outlier, BYU is a school that could help add to the bottom line of the Big East. I think this is good for BYU to get such notoriety even though it is merely an Internet rumor since as "Deseret News" reporter and columnist Brad Rock did make it clear that “sooner or later a conference could come calling for BYU.”

And I see it the way Rock does.

Independence is great at first seeing how much more exposure and money BYU can draw. But realistically for every Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC team BYU schedules as an independent it's going to get stuck with the dregs of FBS conferences like the WAC, Sun Belt or a few MWC or C-USA stragglers, typically with the latter coming after October. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Scedules will get better for BYU after 2012 particularly if the Big-12 comes calling.

Indeed, one of the daunting challenges BYU and its partner ESPN face is the ability to navigate BCS leagues with nine-game league schedules and increasingly prohibitive OOC scheduling policies after the first of October.

While some BYU fans will continue to claim “independence now and forever!” for BYU football and still others will say “plan on a conference for BYU sooner than later,” I think BYU will be around for a long time and be an opponent most will be most respectful and fearful of to paraphrase what Knut Rockne used to tell his Notre Dame players nearly a century ago.

The painful process will be the next two years as BYU plays lunar landscape like schedules with far too many WAC opponents, and its most disdained rival to the north will be seeing the likes of UCLA, USC, Washington and Cal-Berkley pass through the portals of Rice-Eccles Stadium on a consistent basis. 

But come 2013, besides Texas, Boise State and Georgia Tech, could we see one of the Oklahoma schools, Kansas, Missouri or Baylor?

Fasten your seat belts and stay tuned!

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