Friday, July 5, 2013

Football independence, WCC membership a big success, BYU says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU's Athletic Director Tom Holmoe is happy with the move to independence in football, saying he would do it again. ?It has given us new energy and additional opportunities. We were in a good spot before, but I believe we are better off now.?

Provo ? There have been the expected headaches over football scheduling. Ask anyone who endured 20-degree temperatures and an 8:15 p.m. kickoff to watch BYU blast Idaho 52-13 last November.

There have been appearances in less lucrative bowl games,and some basketball games in venues so small they resemble high school gymnasiums.


BYU?s recent athletic milestones

Sept. 1, 2010 ? BYU President Cecil Samuelson and Athletic Director Tom Holmoe announce Cougars will go independent in football and place most of their other sports in the West Coast Conference.

July 1, 2011 ? BYU officially becomes a member of the WCC.

Dec. 30, 2011 ? BYU completes its first season of football independence with a 24-21 win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, giving the Cougars a 10-3 record.

March 15, 2012 ? BYU?s first basketball season in the WCC ends with an 88-68 loss to Marquette in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Nov. 23, 2012 ? BYU?s women?s soccer team wins the WCC title and makes it to the NCAA quarterfinals before falling 2-1 in overtime to eventual champion North Carolina.

Dec. 20, 2012 ? BYU defeats former MWC rival San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl to finish its second season of independence with an 8-5 record.

April 2, 2013 ? After its second-straight third-place finish in the WCC, BYU?s basketball team loses to Baylor 76-70 in the NIT basketball semifinals.

But BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe last week said without hesitation that, knowing what he knows now, he would do it all over again. Almost three years since BYU announced it was going independent in football and moving most of its other sports teams to the West Coast Conference, the school?s coaches and athletic administrators continue to trumpet the bold move as an unequivocal success.

"For sure, I would do it again," Holmoe said. "It has given us new energy and additional opportunities. We were in a good spot before but I believe we are better off now."

Officially, BYU left the Mountain West Conference on July 1, 2011 after announcing its plans on Sept. 1, 2010. It has played two seasons of football as an independent, going 18-8 and winning two lower-tier bowl games while playing the somewhat soft schedule, especially in latter halves of the seasons, that Holmoe and school president Cecil Samuelson warned fans about in 2010.

"There will be some growing pains ... It won?t be a perfect scenario right off the bat," Holmoe said in 2010.

Exposure equals success ? The athletic director said success has come because of BYU?s "broadcast partnership" with ESPN to get almost all of its football games televised on one of the TV sports giant?s platforms ?for which the school gets an estimated $8 to $10 million a year ? and because of BYUtv. The school-owned television station broadcasts at least one home football game a year, and hundreds of other BYU athletic events and productions. It is available in more than 50 million cable and satellite subscribers in the United States and abroad.

"Our [agreement] with ESPN and BYUtv are very unique," Holmoe said. "They provide us the exposure and fan access that are important to us as an institution."

Football coach Bronco Mendenhall said the increased exposure has opened new avenues for recruiting. Last week, he said BYU?s summer football camps probably draw more participants from more states than any school in the country because of that exposure.

"Our ESPN exposure, I knew it would be good. I didn?t anticipate it would be this good," Mendenhall said. "I mean, there are only eight teams that have been seen more. Man, when you consider all the teams that play in all the markets and all the conferences, that is a powerful number. And then when you add BYUtv to it, the exposure component and the access component have exceeded my expectations ... So now that the scheduling part is making significant progress, there is not much downside that I am seeing right now."

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Still relevant? ? Critics of the move said BYU would lose some of its relevance nationally by not having a conference championship for which to play in football and by going to a conference not as highly respected (in basketball, at least) as the MWC. Whether that has happened is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. But several national college sports experts, such as Dennis Dodd of, who attended BYU?s recent Football Media Day, have continued to give the school and its athletes plenty of publicity.

That defensive end Ziggy Ansah was selected No. 5 overall by the Detroit Lions in April?s NFL Draft, breaking a two-year drought for BYU, showed the program is still relevant and respected in the pro ranks, Mendenhall said.

Still, other observers locally and nationally remain skeptical.

"No additions or subtractions are planned, but the Mountain West undoubtedly is keeping its eye on BYU?s ongoing independent football experiment," wrote Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports. "If the Cougars ever pull the plug on it, the league surely would love to have back one of its former flagship schools."

Scheduling highs and lows ? Mendenhall was about to enter his sixth year at the football helm when the announcement was made. He said at the time he fully supported the move. He remains steadfast in that belief now and obviously is happy, having recently signed a three-year contract extension.

"The scheduling was my biggest concern [about independence] late in the season," he said. "Having a hard time finding those games, or people willing to play, is being resolved over time. And I wasn?t sure how long that would take."

The Cougars will play at Wisconsin, at Notre Dame and at Nevada this November, sandwiched around a home game against Idaho State of the Big Sky Conference. Next November (2014), they are scheduled to host Southern Mississippi and UNLV in November and play at Middle Tennessee State in that month.

"We just followed the plan," Holmoe said. "We knew what we wanted, and we went for it. And the first couple of years, I think our fans stayed patient with us. And now that the tough schedule is here, we got to play. And that puts pressure on a lot of the team, and the coaches. But this is athletics, and our fans want us to be playing in the big games, on the road and at home. They are easier to get on the road. They are great when you get them at home."

Another downside? ? If there is another downside to football independence, it could manifest itself if the Cougars put together an undefeated, or one-loss season, and are left out of the four-team College Football Playoff. Most national observers agree that independents Army and BYU will have the most difficult path to the CFP, which begins in 2014.

"It just depends on how good you are," Holmoe said. "And if we are really good, we will get in. If we are pretty good, like maybe two losses, we won?t. Whereas if you are in a Big-Five conference, you have the better chance. I am comfortable with that right now. ... If we are good enough to go above those conferences, we are in. And that?s how it has been. I don?t really see it any different."

Said Mendenhall, when asked about BYU?s limited access to the BCS, and now the CFP: "Got to be undefeated, which is the same access that we had in the Mountain West. ... We won?t be able to win a conference championship game, but I think it is possible. And I like to focus more on what we can do and what we think is possible, rather than what we won?t get. That?s one of the main reasons I chose to stay, is because I think we can do it. When, I don?t know. But our access in eight years I?ve been the coach, I don?t think it has changed."

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