For Utah and BYU, the possibility of becoming a member of the exclusive Pac-10 has been like a giant carrot dangling on a stick.
And both schools have been pursuing for quite a while, all in the hope of landing a spot in one of the nation's top athletic leagues.Leaders at both the U. and the Y. are implementing subtle, and not-so-subtle, means in order to plant a toehold within the so-called "Conference of Champions." The question is, is that strategy working?
Pac-10 officials affirm, for the record, the league is not interested in expanding for the time being. But given the climate of college sports, that is likely to change in the future.
There are compelling reasons why either Utah or BYU might fit into the Pac-10 mix, as well as compelling reasons why they might not. Conventional wisdom and sources within the Pac-10 say that when and if the conference expands, it is likely to go to 12 members. Colorado and Texas have had standing invitations for years. But recent rumblings have CU and either BYU or Utah going to the Pac-10 with the conference dividing into North-South divisions.
Talk of BYU joining the Pac-10 has persisted for years. BYU has a strong West Coast following, thanks to its strong fan base in members of the LDS Church in California, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest, and a perennially outstanding overall sports program - especially in football.
In addition, BYU is an attractive commodity on a national level. For instance, five Cougar football games this fall will air on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC, including the games against Washington and Arizona State.
But the school's religious affiliation may be what has prevented the Cougars from being Pac-10 worthy.
Meanwhile, it's only been in the past few years that Utah has been considered a legitimate candidate for the Pac-10. Since his arrival 11 years ago, athletic director Chris Hill has helped guide the Utes to the cusp of national prominence, highlighted by Utah's astonishing run to the NCAA basketball championship game last March.
But is the U. ready for the rigors of the Pac-10? Here's a look at what BYU and Utah have going for them in terms of possible Pac-10 membership as well as the obstacles the two schools face.
In at least one circle, BYU received unofficial overtures to join the Pac-10 ranks in the 1980s. Former Cougar athletic director Glen Tuckett says if Pac-10 athletic directors would have had their way, BYU would have been invited a long time ago. But it's the presidents who call the shots and they've been resistant to the idea of BYU being in the Pac-10.
"On the AD level, they told us they'd love to have us," Tuckett said. "On the presidential level, it was a different story.
But we were always an attractive entity. The Pac-10 would have traded Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon in on us at any time."
Apparently, Pac-10 ADs are still infatuated with BYU. Athletic director Rondo Fehlberg says almost every Pac-10 school is beating down the door to schedule the Cougars. During the upcoming football season, BYU continues home-and-home series with Washington and Arizona State while Cal and Stanford are listed as tentative opponents on future schedules.
For Pac-10 schools, playing BYU is a win-win situation, literally. The Cougars draw well in Pac-10 country and given BYU's track record against Pac-10 teams, the hometown fans are likely to go home happy. BYU is 3-13 against the conference since 1986, and before beating ASU in Tempe last fall, the Cougars had lost nine straight over a seven-year stretch.
"We believe in scheduling BYU in football and basketball as much as possible," said Mark Brand, an assistant AD who handles scheduling at ASU. "They're very competitive and the proximity between the two schools is a positive. We're very excited about our association with BYU."
The large LDS constituency in Arizona does nothing but boost gate receipts. Attendance at Sun Devil Stadium jumps 10,000 above average when BYU pays a visit.
Brand, like others on the AD level from around the conference, knows when a game with BYU is lined up, chances are good it will be picked up by a television network. The two schools are orchestrating a four-game, home-and-home series for basketball and another football contract is in the works, too.
Other Pac-10 schools have cashed in on a relationship with BYU as well. "UCLA sells more tickets for BYU games than they do when USC plays there," Fehlberg said.
During the 1998-99 basketball season, BYU will compete against Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Washington State. With the number of Pac-10 schools the Cougars are facing these days, they might as well already be in the Pac-10.
The frequent match-ups between BYU and Pac-10 schools is no coincidence, of course. It's a way to stick a foot in the Pac-10 door. "It doesn't hurt to be better acquainted," Fehlberg explained. Apparently, the relationships between BYU officials and their Pac-10 counterparts are quite healthy, indeed.
But, again, it's the presidents who decide who to invite to their party and BYU doesn't appear to be high up on that list of invitees. A few sources who have dealings with Pac-10 presidents spoke with the Deseret News on the condition of anonymity about why that is.
The common theme heard about why the Cougars are not in the Pac-10 is that BYU is a teaching institution rather than a research institution and that questions about academic freedom on campus make the presidents uncomfortable. Yet sources believe this is merely a smokescreen. They point out that if "research" is part of the criteria, there are schools already within the Pac-10 that don't qualify as research institutions, either.
Sources contend the presidents are blackballing BYU simply because of their biases against the school.
"It's religious prejudice masquerading as academic snobbery," said one source who did not want to be identified. "They're trying to find an excuse to avoid the real issue, that they don't want a school that is tied to the LDS Church."
And there is the issue of Sunday play, which will probably keep BYU out of the conference regardless of any other factors. In April, the NCAA eliminated the "BYU Rule," which for 35 years barred the scheduling of NCAA championship games on Sunday.
But the Pac-10 holds a number of conference championships on that day: men's and women's cross country; wrestling; men's and women's tennis; men's and women's golf; and men's and women's track and field. And some men's basketball games are scheduled on Sundays to accommodate television.
When the topic of Sunday play came up in one recent presidents' meeting, one president reportedly said, "We'll play on Christian and Jewish holidays. We'll play anytime, and we'll offend everybody."
For those reasons, one source said the idea of BYU going to the Pac-10 is "a dead issue. The door is slammed shut."
BYU's position, meanwhile, is there are no guarantee that the school's hierarchy would approve a move to the Pac-10 anyway. "It's not a given that if an invitation came tomorrow, BYU would do it," Fehlberg said. "Some people at the school believe BYU is in a high profile enough position as it is. Discussions along those lines would have to be conducted in a thorough, thoughtful way."
It seems nothing would keep Utah from bolting to the Pac-10 if the opportunity presented itself.
Pac-10 officials tell the Deseret News the U. and San Diego State have been lobbying to get into the conference throughout the 1990s.
"Particularly in Utah's case," said one official, who did not want to be identified. How? "Phone calls, sending literature about the school, visiting Pac-10 facilities. There's also informal talk all the time among the presidents and ADs. College sports is a small world."
If Utah indeed is actively lobbying for Pac-10 membership, school officials aren't talking about it. Then again, if they aren't lobbying, they should be - if they have any desire to look out for the school's best interests.
Like BYU, Utah has managed to to schedule a bevy of Pac-10 schools in recent years. But Hill, who is responsible for scheduling, says he doesn't want to talk about what other conferences are doing. "We are just trying to prepare ourselves for the future," he said. "We'll keep working as hard as we can."
Hill has been laying the groundwork for a major step up for some time. Cases in point: the $50 million Rice Stadium renovation project; the indoor practice facility, known as the "Bubble"; and the athletics center and weight room that was completed in 1991.
Utah coaches and athletes have been doing their part, too. The Runnin' Utes' impressive performance in the NCAA basketball tourney has done wonders for the school's reputation.
Although Hill doesn't want to "speculate on speculation" regarding future conference alignments, he does admit that things the school is doing now would certainly enhance Utah's chances of winding up in an improved situation down the road.
"The aspects that would make us attractive to another conference helps us in our current situation, too," he said. "You can't force the issue. We're doing everything we can to put ourselves in an advantageous position."
Unlike BYU, however, Utah appears to be more readily accepted by Pac-10 presidents because it qualifies as a research institution. It is an international center for medical and engineering research. According to the U., the school is among the 10 most successful universities in technology innovation and commercialization. Utah also boasts the newly established Huntsman Cancer Center. Like Colorado, Utah seems to fit the Pac-10 prototype.
And new U. president Bernard Machen was hired away from the University of Michigan, a Big 10 school. It would make perfect sense that Machen would want Utah to become a member of the Pac-10 fraternity. Machen has set his sights high for the U. athletic department. Not long after taking his post, Machen predicted the demise of the WAC because it was a financial disaster and was an instrumental figure in the breakup of the conference months later.
One of his next goals may be securing Pac-10 membership.
Who has the upper hand in the quest to land an invitation to the Pac-10, Utah or BYU? Depends on who you ask.
"BYU has a name. Utah is getting better in that regard, but it doesn't have the name BYU does," said Lee Corso, a former football coach in the Big 10 and ESPN analyst. "BYU is the only reason the WAC had any respect. Colorado State has gotten better, but basically, it's BYU. They've always been good. It's a beautiful area, too. It's a nationally prestigious program. They'd fit in well in the Pac-10."
Basketball experts might say Utah is the school with the name and the game, however.
Both schools have much to offer, at any rate. The U. and the Y. have nationally known coaches in BYU football's LaVell Edwards and Utah basketball's Rick Majerus. They would likely examine the women's athletic departments at both schools as well. Utah, of course, is home of one of the finest gymnastics programs in the nation, while BYU, across-the-board, has one of the top women's sports programs.
There are questions about whether either school could deliver financially to the Pac-10. The Salt Lake City TV market isn't comparable to those in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Phoenix, after all.
On a local level, it is well-documented that BYU has ruled the roost in terms of television ratings along the Wasatch Front. In 1996-97, the woeful Cougar basketball team earned higher ratings than top 10-ranked Utah when they had competing televised games.
On the other hand, Utah has dominated BYU in football and basketball in recent years. The Utes have taken four of the last five from the Cougars in football and BYU hasn't defeated Utah in basketball since 1995. And the Utes have out-performed BYU in football against the Pac-10.
The bottom line is, decisions regarding Pac-10 expansion depend on the criteria the presidents lay out. And no one knows for sure what that criteria is.
Hill and Fehlberg have been working together on creating a new conference, scheduled to begin in 1999, and maintaining a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Maybe the two schools will remain forever joined.
Then again, maybe BYU and Utah are competing for a spot in the Pac-10. As if the rivalry needed more fuel added to the fire.
If BYU and Utah have one thing in common, it's that both schools have been scheduling, and playing, Pac-10 teams in football like crazy over the past decade. Here's a rundown on past and future Pac-10 opponents for the Cougars and Utes:
1998 Arizona State, Washington 1998 none
1997 Washington (L), Arizona State (W) 1997 Oregon (L)
1996 Washington (L) 1996 Stanford (W)
1995 UCLA (L), Arizona State (L) 1995 Oregon (L), Stanford (L)
1994 Arizona State (L) 1994 Oregon (W), Arizona
.. (W, bowl game)
1993 UCLA (L) 1993 Arizona State (L), Southern
.. Cal (L, bowl game)
1992 UCLA (L) 1992 Oregon State (W), Washington
.. State (L, bowl game)
1991 UCLA (L) 1991 Arizona State (L), Oregon (W),
.. Oregon State (W)
1990 Oregon (L), Washington State (W) 1990 none
1989 Washington State (L), Oregon (W) 1989 Stanford (W)
1988 none 1988 none
Future tentative schedules include Future tentative schedules include
games with Stanford, Cal and games with Washington State,
Washington. Arizona and Oregon.