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BYU’s future up in the air after Utes’ departure

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PROVO ?— Now that Utah is officially leaving the Mountain West Conference for the prestigious and opulent Pac-10, where does that leave BYU? What's next for the Cougars?

Try to make the best of things in its current conference? Lobby for an invitation to an automatic qualifying BCS conference, like the 10-team Big 12? Go independent?

Rondo Fehlberg, who was the Cougars' athletic director from 1995-1999, has dealt with similar questions before. He helped lead BYU's exodus from the failed 16-team Western Athletic Conference and was involved in the creation of a new conference, the Mountain West. During that period, he looked at every imaginable option that would serve the school's best interests.

For now, current BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe isn't talking publicly about Utah's jump to the Pac-10 or the Cougars' long-term future.

Fehlberg understands the challenge the athletic department is facing in light of the conference realignment that has occurred in recent weeks, including the Utes' departure.

"It's going to be a whole new ballgame," Fehlberg said. "I wish we could put the genie back in the bottle. But we can't."

The Cougars will be proactive about their position, Fehlberg said, but within reason.

"There's no question that BYU will always be looking to see what it can do to increase the economic viability of its competitive situation without compromising in any way values which, for BYU, are not negotiable. That's one thing that makes BYU a little bit different. Some things are not negotiable. (Not playing on Sunday) being the most dramatic example."

So what would Fehlberg do if he were sitting in the BYU A.D. chair now?

"I'm sure Tom and his staff are working with the administration to do all of the things I'd think of doing, which would include making sure you communicate as effectively as possible with all of the players in this whole arena. I'd be talking to the Big 12, I'd be making sure that I understood just what their bottom-line numbers are. I'd make sure I understood exactly what I could bring to the table. The fact is, if each piece of the expected 10-piece pie is not larger than a 12-piece pie that BYU could present to them, they're not going to (invite BYU). I would have an awful lot of homework to do, to sit down and figure all of that out."

Back in the mid-1990s, when the Big 12 was formed, BYU was a candidate to become one of its members, but, of course, it didn't happen. The Big 12 has survived recent tumult with two teams, Colorado and Nebraska, departing for other conferences and a handful of schools, like Texas, entertaining overtures to leave. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said Tuesday the conference isn't looking at expansion at this time. But Fehlberg knows that some Big 12 athletic directors and officials would like the league to return to 12 teams in order to maintain two six-team divisions and continue to stage a lucrative conference championship game.

"In every (expansion) scenario I've seen, BYU has been in the discussion," Fehlberg said. "It's a pretty good alternative. There's no better conference for BYU, because, geographically, it's not that far away. They're a much more conservative group of schools than you find in other conferences. There's no question, there's a certain logic to it. Will it happen? I don't know. Would I like to see it happen? Sure."

Some have suggested that BYU should become independent.

"We looked at it. It's not viable. Not even close," Fehlberg said. "Even Notre Dame, with all of its history and all of its strengths, financially and otherwise, couldn't do it. They're only independent in football, and that's sort of a historical accident that they were able to create that situation. I don't think it will ever be duplicated anywhere else. It doesn't make sense. The scheduling complexities would overwhelm you. People who say BYU should go independent are na?e."

Fehlberg understands the reasons behind Utah's move to an automatic qualifying conference. "You can say all you want about loyalties to historical common interests, and rivalries, but the bottom line is, it's about money. There's no way that, given that opportunity, you could ever expect them not to do what they've done. It's about surviving and hopefully thriving in a world that's increasingly expensive and driven by media exposure."

Legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who retired 10 years ago, is disappointed that the Utes are leaving the MWC.

"I really hate to see it," he said. "With Boise State coming in (to the MWC), we had positioned ourselves, as a conference, to have a lot more opportunity somewhere down the line to be affiliated with the BCS. So from that standpoint, we lose a little bit in the way of Utah leaving. We didn't lose any ground getting Boise and losing Utah, I don't think. It just would have been a lot better if they had stayed."

Edwards said he isn't too concerned about BYU's situation in the MWC.

"I think the Mountain West is becoming a very, very good conference, not only in football but basketball and other sports as well. It's not a doomsday thing. It's not like we're tied so much to Utah that it's going to hurt us drastically. We'll have to wait and see. You can't do anything about it. You just have to move forward and try to improve. I think we will. BYU will get better, and I think the conference will, as well."

Another former BYU A.D., Glen Tuckett, who served in that position from 1976-1993, said the Cougars should be fine if the MWC receives an automatic BCS bid in a couple years.

"But if they don't, then it's going to be that same uphill battle we'd be fighting ever since they put the BCS together," he said. "It's frustrating. In the past, I know, we didn't want to play in the middle of the pack. We want to be a leader. And we have been. We've gotten accustomed to that rarefied atmosphere. I don't think it would be healthy for us to just sit back and let all that's happened over the last many years go down the drain, if there's a way to rescue it, athletically. It's going to take some creative thinking and a lot of good friendships. A lot of things are done with friends. There have been favors done back and forth in the past. I'm sure that if the BCS doesn't give (the MWC an automatic bid), then I think BYU needs to really look closely at surviving athletically."

So what happens to the BYU-Utah rivalry with the two teams in different conferences?

"BYU in the Mountain West and Utah in the Pac-10 — over time the rivalry loses some of its luster," Fehlberg said. "There are some instances of rivalries continuing in different conferences. But this clearly affects the rivalry because it reduces the number of things that are on the line when those teams compete. There will remain a certain intensity to the rivalry for factors that will not change."

Both BYU and Utah have openings in their nonconference schedules that would allow them to play each other from 2011 and beyond. The Cougars have a full slate of conference games in 2012, but one of those is a visit to Boise State, and that would turn into a conference game. Utah has a nonconference game scheduled with Oregon in 2011, but that will be a league contest, as will the Utes' games against Washington State and Colorado in 2012.

Tuckett is confident the BYU-Utah rivalry will continue. "It wouldn't go away. It wouldn't shrivel up and die, I don't think. I don't know if it would be as intense if they played in the last game of the year and if it doesn't mean a conference championship. But for years and years, it didn't mean a conference championship. I don't know how much excitement there would be like there is now. The last few years, it's meant something in the conference. The intensity would be there. But the fruits of your labors wouldn't be as apparent."

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com