PROVO — Someone in the crowd attending BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe’s annual Education Week question-and-answer session Wednesday said he noticed a giant poster of former All-American quarterback Jim McMahon draped in front of LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The man, irked by the poster, asked Holmoe why the school continues “to glorify” McMahon.
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” replied Holmoe, who spent the first 20 minutes of his presentation explaining the importance of establishing strong personal relationships in life and in sports.
Holmoe and McMahon were teammates at BYU in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it’s well-documented the run-ins McMahon had with the school’s honor code, Holmoe took the opportunity to answer the adversarial question by honoring and defending McMahon’s legacy with the Cougars.
“I love Jim McMahon with all my heart. He’s the best teammate I ever had. Ever. Did you hear that? The best teammate I ever had,” said an emotional Holmoe. “He singlehandedly put BYU football on the map. You can say whatever you want. You go back in time to when he was here. Hey, the dude was 21 years old and in the glory of craziness. What he’s done and said and represented for BYU the last 10 years, (it’s) off the chart. … I forgive him for his foibles from 1980. That was a long time ago.”
In 2010, Holmoe said, when the school honored its litany of All-American quarterbacks (which included McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer and others) then-coach Bronco Mendenhall wanted one of QBs to run the team flag onto the field prior to kickoff. Holmoe suggested that the team choose.
“It was unanimous: Jim McMahon,” Holmoe said Wednesday. “I rest my case.”
That was followed by a loud applause from the crowd.
McMahon was inducted into the BYU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014. One of the requirements to be inducted is that candidates must be graduates of the school.
“There’s been five things I’ve wanted to do since I became the AD 15 years ago and that was one of them — to get Jim to graduate,” Holmoe said. “When he came back to graduate from BYU, he wanted to graduate from BYU because he felt that it was one of the things his mom and dad wanted him to do. He didn’t do it for himself. He did it for his fans.”
As part of the celebration of the 150th year of college football this season, Holmoe said the school is inviting back many of the program’s major award winners for its home games. One of them will be McMahon, who was a consensus All-American, won the Davey O’Brien and Sammy Baugh awards, set 75 NCAA records during his career and was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
During the hourlong class, Holmoe fielded a variety of questions from conference attendees at Education Week:
Childs’ NCAA suspension
Of BYU star forward Yoeli Childs, who must sit out the first nine games of the season due to an NCAA suspension, Holmoe explained that the timing of the situation was “complicated.”
Childs took steps to test the NBA draft waters between the departure of coach Dave Rose and his staff and the hiring of new coach Mark Pope and his staff.
During the process, Childs signed with an agent before filing the paperwork required by the NCAA.
“As soon as we found out that he was coming back, we had to unwind some of those things. … He’s an incredible kid,” Holmoe said. “We made an appeal and he got reinstated and got his eligibility back. But I thought the penalty was egregious. We appealed the penalty and the NCAA denied it.”
As always, Holmoe addressed several questions pertaining to independence and football scheduling.
“We went independent for a reason. That was, we were not on TV. Our brand was getting destroyed. We might have won games but you couldn’t see the games,” Holmoe said. “Cougar Nation didn’t have access to see us play. We had to make a decision. We have to get away from (the Mountain West Conference) or we’re going to be stuck in that vacuum. You have to separate that from the fact that our teams haven’t been what they once were.”
Holmoe recalled being a freshman when the Cougars earned one of its most significant victories in program history, knocking off No. 14 Texas A&M on the road in 1979.
“When you win those games, you build your brand,” Holmoe said.
That’s why the Cougars choose to play high-profile opponents every season.
“If I wanted to, I could schedule 10 wins a year. It’s easy. We’re independent. But you’re going to be going to see the teams we beat and you’re not going to like it,” Holmoe said. “Do you want that? I don’t think so. But some people say, ‘Get us to 10 wins!’ I could care less about 10 wins, unless it’s against 10 quality opponents.”
Holmoe mentioned that he recently scheduled a game for the year 2033.
As part of BYU’s contract with ESPN, the Cougars frequently play home games at 8:15 p.m., which some fans don’t enjoy. Holmoe pointed out that teams from Power Five conferences play late games, too.
“You’re asking the wrong question. The question that you should be asking is, ‘Why is the money so important that you have to play at 8:30?’ The answer is because we need that money. If someone wanted to write us a big check with a lot of zeros, we could play at 1 o’clock.”
Added Holmoe, “People are saying that these games are eventually going to go to Netflix and Amazon and Hulu. No, they’re not. They’re not. They’re going to be on ESPN, ABC and CBS. Live games, not replays, are still extraordinarily popular — so if they’re live and on ESPN, that’s good for us, even if it’s bad for you.”
Holmoe said that he’s asked a lot about why the schedule features so many difficult games early in the season and why he doesn’t schedule them later in the season.
“If I could have,” Holmoe said, “I would have.”
Zach Wilson’s potential
The first question to Holmoe was about sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson.
“He’s a young kid that’s shown a ton of promise. He’s a tremendous individual,” Holmoe said. “He has a focus of what he wants to accomplish.”
Holmoe said he’s always inviting his teammates, and their wives, to watch film with him. He emphasized that playing the quarterback position at BYU is accompanied by a lot of pressure and attention.
“How will he handle that? Will his teammates support him like I’ve seen other teammates (support other great QBs at BYU)?” Holmoe said. “Only time will tell. They have to support that kid because he’s still a kid. If they do, he’ll have a really good year.”
Of the team in general, Holmoe said, “We have a chance to make a name for ourselves this year. Some people believe and some people don’t. It doesn’t really matter what you think. It just matters what they think. Will it be too many? Too soon? I really don’t know. We’ll find out soon.”
Playing at Tennessee
A BYU fan from Tennessee was part of the crowd at Education Week. He said he’s excited that the Cougars will be playing the Volunteers for the first time on Sept. 7. He was surprised to learn that BYU will host Tennessee in 2023.
Holmoe was asked about Tennessee’s recent announcement that it will begin selling alcohol for the first time this season, starting with the BYU-Tennessee game.
“We have a beverage contract with Coke here on campus. I think they have a contract with Jack Daniels, don’t they?” Holmoe joked.
The Tennessee people have been unbelievable to work with,” Holmoe added. “They’ve been so good.”
He added that the BYU Alumni Association is expecting about 7,500 Cougar fans at the game at 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
“This is why we’re independent,” Holmoe said.