A Power Five conference might really have some openings now. Is BYU ready — or willing — to pounce?
A look at the pros and cons of joining the Big 12 for BYU — if the conference doesn’t implode with the departures of Texas and Oklahoma
BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe has repeatedly stated the past decade or so that the school’s ultimate goal when surveying the college athletics landscape is to become a member of a Power Five conference.
The 16-year AD said it again during BYU’s football media day last month. Since 2011, BYU has been an independent in football and competed in most other sports — but not all — in the West Coast Conference.
With college athletics heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma acknowledging Tuesday that they are leaving the Big 12 and have applied for admission into the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the Big 12 — which is going from 10 to eight members some time between now and 2025 — could theoretically be looking for some new members.
More importantly, is it a ship the Cougars want to board? Or is it about to sink?
Holmoe understandably is not commenting on the matter. He declined an interview request from the Deseret News through an athletic department spokesperson Tuesday morning.
“There is a lot of stuff that is behind the scenes that doesn’t get out. You try to jump into that as much as you can. But if a decision is made, then we will have gone all the way up, through our president (Kevin J Worthen) and up to Salt Lake.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe on potential realignment
“No statements or interviews at this point, but (we) will let you know if/when Tom would be ready to share something,” said Jon McBride, BYU associate athletic director for communications and media strategy.
So there’s some hope that BYU, which is always tight-lipped in matters such as these, will express its intentions in some form or fashion in the near future. Sources within the department have assured the Deseret News that school officials are watching the situation “almost around the clock.”
Of course, one reason that BYU has for wanting to join a P5 conference is better access to the College Football Playoff. However, that reason might be going away if the CFP is expanded to eight or 12 teams, as has been discussed by the committee the past several months.
Playoff expansion from four teams to anything more than that “will help us, whether we are an independent or in a conference or whatever it might be,” Holmoe said on June 17. “It will help us in that there have been too many times when we have been just on the verge (of getting in), just on the outside looking in. And the numbers just haven’t been right, going back years and years.”
Holmoe said that day that “every year” BYU examines where it currently sits in the college sports landscape, where it has been, and where it is heading.
“So right now, in light of that news, it would be our responsibility to see what the environment looks like out there, what the atmosphere looks like, and see what other people are talking about,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff that is behind the scenes that doesn’t get out. You try to jump into that as much as you can. But if a decision is made, then we will have gone all the way up, through our president (Kevin J Worthen) and up to Salt Lake.”
By mentioning Salt Lake, Holmoe was referring to the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.
Church leaders — specifically BYU’s board of trustees, which is comprised of most of the highest-ranking officials in the church — would obviously have to sign off on any major move the athletic department makes.
And joining a new conference is obviously a major move.
Which brings us to the eight remaining members of the Big 12, at least for the time being: Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
Reports have already surfaced that some of those schools are making inquiries to other P5 conferences. For instance, Texas Tech reportedly reached out to the Pac-12 recently, and Kansas and Iowa State are said to be looking toward the Big Ten. Geographically, at least, West Virginia would be a good fit in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told ESPN that his league wouldn’t go after schools from other P5 conferences, but he did say it would be “foolish” not to listen to inquiries. He repeated those sentiments at the Pac-12 football media day Tuesday, while also saying that schools do not need accreditation from the American Association of Universities (AAU) to become Pac-12 members.
BYU is not an AAU member or a Tier 1 research institution, criteria that was said to have kept the religious school from Pac-12 consideration in 2010 when the conference added Colorado and the University of Utah.
As for the Big 12, the league with far less academic snobbery than the Pac-12 or Big Ten would seemingly only be enticing to the Cougars if it stays intact. More departures would weaken it even more, knowing that Texas and Oklahoma were easily its most powerful and high-profile programs.
Of course, there are going to be no shortage of schools like BYU looking to jump into a perceived P5 situation. The leading candidates are the same as they were when the Big 12 looked into expansion in 2016, then decided against it: BYU, UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, Boise State and SMU, to name a few.
And BYU still has some of the same issues and policies that may or may not have caused the Big 12 to not accept it in 2010 and 2016: Refusal to participate in any games or activities on Sundays (for religious reasons) and how it deals with LGBTQ students on campus through its honor code.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake has been asked many times throughout his six-year tenure about the school’s place in the college football landscape, and he always defers to Holmoe. However, at football media day the former Utah and Oregon State defensive coordinator said independence won’t hamper the program in striving for greatness.
“Our emphasis as a team is just to perform at our best, and then we can live with the results,” Sitake said. “What I do like about just the talking of expanding the playoff is that the (playoff committee) is looking at giving other schools a chance, which is a good sign that things are happening positively for all of college football.”
In looking at the seismic shifts already occurring, the American Athletic Conference appears ready and willing to capitalize on the Big 12’s demise. But as usual, money will play a big factor in those plans.
In 2019, the AAC and ESPN agreed on a new 12-year television contract that will reportedly pay each AAC member just under $7 million a year in TV rights money. Big 12 schools were making around $40 million a year, although that number will almost certainly drop when UT and OU depart — which will probably come sooner than later.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging that Texas and Oklahoma had submitted requests to join the SEC, requests that almost certainly will be granted.
“The events of recent days have verified that the two schools have been contemplating and planning for the transition for months and this formal application is the culmination of those processes,” Bowlsby said. “We are unwavering in the belief that the Big 12 provides an outstanding platform for its members’ athletic and academic success. … We have confidence that the Big 12 will continue to be a vibrant and successful entity in the near term and into the foreseeable future.”
Will that promise of sustainability be enough for BYU if the opportunity arises?
Of that, nobody can be certain.