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‘BYU should approach this cautiously’: Former Cougar athletic directors opine on shifting college sports landscape

Rondo Fehlberg and Val Hale say the independent Cougars could be in a difficult spot if more 16-team conferences are formed and they are left out

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Should BYU pursue Big 12 membership again? Former Cougar ADs preach caution moving forward.

BYU wide receiver Ross Apo catches a second quarter touchdown pass by Jake Heaps against the Texas Longhorns on Sept. 10, 2011, at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas.

Erich Schlegel, Getty Images

Like every school not currently a member of a Power Five conference, BYU is watching the recent seismic shifts in conference alignment with plenty of interest, sources have repeatedly told the Deseret News the past few weeks.

Certainly, the Cougars — independent in football and a member of the West Coast Conference in most other sports — have Power Five envy, athletic director Tom Holmoe has stated on many occasions.

Other than that, neither Holmoe nor any school officials have commented directly on news last week that Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference between now and 2025, and how that might affect BYU.

“There are probably more variables in play than fans realize. And I think BYU should approach this cautiously. Obviously, their goal has been to get into a Power Five conference. But one of the questions now is: By losing Texas and Oklahoma, will the Big 12 be the type of conference that BYU wants to join?” — Former BYU athletic director Val Hale.

However, a couple of men who sat in the chair that Holmoe occupies now at BYU — Val Hale and Rondo Fehlberg — recently shared their thoughts with the Deseret News regarding what they believe should be the proper course of action for their former employer.

The bottom line, both agreed, is that BYU should approach the situation cautiously, because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side — especially now that the Big 12 is not nearly as prestigious as it was in 2010 and 2016 when BYU made major pushes to join that conference.

“There are probably more variables in play than fans realize,” Hale said, “and I think BYU should approach this cautiously. Obviously their goal has been to get into a Power Five conference, but one of the questions now is: By losing Texas and Oklahoma, will the Big 12 be the type of conference that BYU wants to join?”

Hale is currently six months into an 18-month mission serving as a public affairs missionary in the Los Angeles area for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his wife, Nancy. He cautions that he hasn’t been following the situation as closely as he did in 2010 when Texas and Oklahoma flirted with the idea of bolting for the Pac-12.

They ultimately stayed, and the Pac-12 ended up inviting Colorado and Utah. BYU announced it was leaving the Mountain West Conference later in the summer of 2010, and began playing as a football independent in 2011.

Hale also warns that BYU must first be invited before any serious weighing of the pros and cons of joining a conference is undertaken. That clearly hasn’t happened yet, although ESPN’s Heather Dinich reported on the network’s “Get Up” program that the Big 12 “has already had preliminary discussions to add BYU, Cincinnati and Houston.”

In 2016, when more than 16 schools, including BYU, made formal presentations to the Big 12 when that conference was considering expansion, but ultimately decided against it, some groups petitioned the league to shun BYU because of how it deals with LGBTQ students on campus through its honor code.

“Yeah, politics could play a part again,” Hale said. “It probably will play a part again. It seems to be part of athletics nowadays, So that is one of the variables that will be out there, that Tom (Holmoe) and the BYU administration will be considering. I am sure they are going to weigh everything, and once they decide what is in their best interest, they will pursue it.”

Hale said that in 1994, BYU was almost invited to join the conference now known as the Big 12 when the old Southwestern Conference was dissolving, but then-Texas governor Ann Richards stepped in and insisted Baylor — her alma mater — be included rather than BYU.

“Otherwise, BYU may have been in the Big 12 way back in the early 1990s,” Hale said.

Fehlberg, who was BYU’s athletic director from 1995-99, said the most recent realignment puts BYU “in a very difficult, but also advantageous, position.”

For years Fehlberg has advocated that the top level of college football should be organized into four 16-team conferences — super conferences, if you will — and that the SEC expanding to 16 with the additions of the Sooners and Longhorns is a much-needed step in that direction.

“I have had that belief for a long time,” he said. “I believed that when I was an AD at BYU, and a lot of people viewed me as a bit of a heretic.”

Fehlberg made those comments last week, well before The Athletic’s Max Olson first reported Tuesday that new Pac-12 Conference Commissioner George Kliavkoff and current Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby were meeting Tuesday to discuss how their conferences could benefit by working together during this new era of realignment.

Olson wrote that the discussion could go in “several different directions,” perhaps nothing bigger than a scheduling alliance, but they could morph into a merger, which probably wouldn’t be to BYU’s liking.

Monday, Bowlsby said the Big 12 needed to explore “partnership opportunities” before shifting its focus to expansion to replace UT and OU.

“We haven’t had formal conversations on candidate members,” Bowlsby said Monday in a Texas State Senate hearing held to discuss the shifting college sports landscape in that state.

Fehlberg said Holmoe is well-aware of all the variables in play, and that it was “significant” at BYU’s football media day when the current AD mentioned no decisions or moves will be made without approval from church leaders and BYU board of trustees members.

Having met with every Pac-10 AD and most Pac-10 presidents back in the 1990s when he was trying to get BYU into that league, Fehlberg is skeptical that the conference will ever invite BYU, although adding BYU and Boise State should be a “no-brainer” if it wants to keep up with the SEC and expand to 16 teams.

Hale, who succeeded Fehlberg and was BYU’s AD from 1999 to 2004, says he isn’t certain the Big Ten and Pac-12 will expand just because the SEC did, but he agrees that if more 16-team conferences are formed, BYU needs to be a part of one or risk sliding into irrelevancy.

“The SEC was already the big dog in the neighborhood, and they just got bigger,” he said. “So now it will be interesting to see what the Pac-12 does, what the Big Ten does, and what about the ACC? How will they try to keep up?

“I don’t know if they are all going to follow suit and try to become these mega-conferences, and if so, that will have a dramatic impact on the Group of Five conferences,” Hale continued. “I think it will have a dramatic impact on those left behind in a lot of ways, from scheduling to revenue, playoffs, all of those things. The whole landscape of college athletics could change because of this.”

Hale and Fehlberg do agree on one thing: The job is much more difficult than when they were doing it in Provo.

“With all this NIL (name, image and likeness) stuff and these upheavals in college athletics, yeah, I am (not missing it),” Hale said. “Being a college athletic director today is much different than when I was there. There are a lot more moving parts.”

And a lot more seismic shifts.