PROVO — Tom Holmoe is Houdini. Really.
It’s been almost two weeks since BYU learned its imploding fall football season stood at just three games. That was a Monday when 75% of the team’s long-planned, carefully negotiated, much anticipated matchups were simply erased.
Today, if things come together as expected, the Cougars could have at least eight games, six at home beginning with Troy on Sept. 26. And more could be announced.
That, folks, is some wheeling and dealing.
A once gem of a 2020 season featuring Missouri, Minnesota, Utah and Arizona State with a spattering of sure to be spirited games against Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State were carved right out of the books by this virus.
Today, it appears Kalani Sitake and his team have six games and the strong possibility of a seventh and eighth against Texas-San Antonio and Texas State. More could be coming, likely from the American Athletic Conference.
It would be a surprise if Power Five teams Clemson and Virginia, ACC programs with possible matching open dates for BYU’s schedule, actually come to fruition.
Of course, this is not the 2020 anyone expected BYU to face, and some fans aren’t happy.
But that’s the wrong take, really. The big story is going from three games to unofficially eight and counting. That’s some athletic directing, and Holmoe deserves big-time credit.
Holmoe made a promise early in the COVID-19 cancellation drama, telling players to keep working hard and he would get them a season. So far, he’s been true blue.
The pandemic gutted schedules of the Pac-12, Big Ten, Mountain West and others. Those players and coaches are benched this fall.
It is not lost on BYU football players and coaches that as it now stands, they are the only college football team west of Texas set to play football this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are humbled and grateful for the opportunity, knowing their friends at in-state schools and other conferences do not have this chance. They’ve equally thanked the man they believe has put in the most time organizing, Holmoe, the obvious face out front, and the BYU administration behind the scenes.
“I’m ready,” BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes told reporters this week.
“I’m like all of us. We’re ready to play whoever he puts in front of us. And I know he’s working, working hard to put a great schedule in front of us. I’m just thankful that we’re in a position to play right now. We’re feeling very blessed and fortunate that we’ve got an opportunity, and what a great opportunity it is in the geographical landscape of things, that we’re in a position to play football this year,” said Grimes.
Holmoe has been particularly suited to put things together the past two weeks. While Power Five teams have inquired, it’s been the posture of those leagues and programs to look after their own and not put themselves out as they cautiously move forward in the Big 12, SEC and ACC.
I’m told one Big 12 program that talked to BYU’s administration put out feelers, but when it got to the coaching staff level, the head coach balked, citing the old refrain heard all the time, the age of BYU players and taking that on as a nonconference choice was a pass.
So a 2020 slate that was very well represented by Power Five teams shifted to what choices Holmoe could fit best for both home, away and television considerations. There were a ton of football programs that fit this category and almost all of them were interested in the Cougars.
The biggest news was the addition of Navy and Army on the East Coast. The Navy game will be a Monday night football game on national TV (ESPN), four days before the NFL season kicks off. The Army game will be in the regular TV slot accustomed to airing SEC games on CBS.
The BYU-Navy game will be the first major televised college game of the season with the SEC slated to open play Sept. 26, the ACC Sept. 10 and American Athletic Conference Sept. 19. The Sunbelt Conference will open play Labor Day weekend, but its television audience will not approach that of BYU-Navy. Conference USA has yet to announce its games in September.
There is a very small but good chance that the BYU-Navy or the BYU-Army game — because of the uniqueness of this season and lack of college football programming available — could break BYU’s own record for TV viewership in the independent era.
The biggest TV audience BYU has played before the past nine years was against Notre Dame in 2012 which drew 4.85 million viewers. Rounding out the top five is 2012 Oregon State at 4.55 million; 2016 at Michigan State with 3.25 million; 2015 at Nebraska with 3.13 million, and at Michigan in 2015 with 3.07 million viewers.
So BYU versus Notre Dame in 2012 is not exactly the same as BYU versus Navy, but when examined in the context of 2020, the pandemic and a very hungry college football audience, to echo Holmoe a month ago: “Anything is possible.”
Of course, that line also means it could all go away. There could, and probably will, be cancellations on the horizon.
But from where BYU’s schedule was after the Pac-12, Big Ten and Mountain West conferences decided to back out of playing, the current situation looks good for the Cougars as the only guys in the West trying to get it done.
The 2020 season will have a huge impact on many programs around the country. Some may never recover as financial losses pile up and players transfer out of programs not playing or declaring for the NFL draft.
Holmoe essentially created a schedule in just days where usually logistics alone take years to plan.
Holmoe’s popularity and personality have proven handy for BYU. His experience as a Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, his friendship with the legendary Bill Walsh and Ronnie Lott, his association as a head coach in the Pac-12 when at Cal, his connections as a member of the NCAA Basketball Selection Committee and deep friendship with ESPN’s Dave Brown have served him well.
It might not get BYU back to playing Power Five teams this year, but this season has stretched the use of his Rolodex in impressive fashion.
Bravo, Mr. Holmoe