After a long and sometimes tortuous courtship which dates back nearly 40 years, BYU and the Big 12 Conference are finally coming together.
Cougar sports and the Power Five became officially engaged on Friday, when BYU formally accepted an invitation to the conference. The school said it will start participating in the conference in the 2023-24 school year.
BYU will play all sports provided by the Big 12 except for equestrian, rowing and wrestling. Men’s volleyball will continue to play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, as the Big 12 does not offer the sport.
“This is an historic day for BYU Athletics — and for the entire university,” BYU president Kevin J Worthen said in a statement. “The BYU mission statement indicates that BYU is a place where ‘a commitment to excellence is expected.’ We strive to meet that requirement in all we do, including our core academic enterprise. Membership in the Big 12 gives us the opportunity to reinforce that commitment for student-athletes, allowing them to compete at the highest level both on and off the field.”
Added athletic director Tom Holmoe: “We have said all along that the decisions about where we play, who we play and what conference we compete in are about the student-athletes first and how we can help them achieve excellence. Competing on the Big 12 stage provides more opportunities for our student-athletes. That’s what it’s all about.”
Less than two months after Big 12 schools Texas and Oklahoma sent shock waves throughout college sports by announcing they were leaving for the powerful SEC, the eight remaining schools signaled their commitment to stay together by inviting BYU, Houston, UCF and Cincinnati on Friday.
As was reported would happen by the Deseret News Wednesday, the eight remaining Big 12 presidents and chancellors unanimously voted Friday to get back to 12 teams (when UT and OU leave) for the first time since Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M left for other Power Five leagues in 2010 and 2012.
For BYU fans, the invitation was mostly met with jubilation and relief. Their football team, especially, has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows the past decade or so.
The Cougars have been interested in joining the conference since at least 1994 when the Big 12 was first created with schools from the old Southwest Conference and the old Big Eight.
BYU’s desire to get into a Power Five conference — or BCS conference, as they were known years ago — began dozens of years ago when the Cougars’ football program rose to national prominence under legendary coach LaVell Edwards.
It ramped up higher in 2010 when the Pac-10 Conference expanded to include Colorado and BYU’s longtime rival Utah, leaving the Cougars on the outside looking in and grasping to keep up while the Utes benefited from better competition, more fertile recruiting grounds and increased revenue in what became the Pac-12.
In the fall of 2010, BYU announced it was going independent in football and putting most of its other sports in the West Coast Conference, where the Cougars have remained since the 2011-12 school year.
What exit fees does BYU face for leaving the WCC? In short, $500,000.
Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic reported Thursday that it would be anywhere from zero to $1 million, depending on when the Cougars gave the WCC notice that they are leaving. If the Cougars gave 24 months notice, they would not pay a fee. If the notice came between a year and 24 months, the fee would have been $500,000. If it came under 12 months, it would have been $1 million.
In the Big 12, BYU will likely play nine conference football games a year and three nonconference affairs. As an independent, BYU already had 11 games lined up in 2022 (12 if a reported game against Notre Dame in Las Vegas is finalized), 12 in 2023 and 10 in 2024.
BYU and Utah, which meet Saturday in Provo (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), are not scheduled to play each other in 2022 or 2023. Athletic directors at both schools have said they would like to see the series continue, even if both are in Power Five leagues and even though the alliance the Pac-12 formed recently with the Big Ten and ACC will mean fewer opportunities for the Utes to play the in-state game.
So what happens to BYU’s other existing contracts?
According to Matt Brown, publisher of the Extra Points newsletter, most of BYU’s contracts — which he acquired through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from public schools the Cougars are playing in the future — call for the games to be canceled with no buyout penalties if the Cougars join a Power Five league.
The BYU-Utah game contracts for the 2021 and 2025-2028 games, which the Deseret News obtained in 2020, include language that allows BYU to get out of paying a $1 million buyout if it has to cancel due to joining a league with at least four Power Five schools.
Presumably, most or all of the other contracts since BYU became an independent include the same language, as Brown also reported.
One of BYU’s selling points to the Big 12 was that mobility made possible by independence. The three schools leaving the American Athletic Conference, on the other hand, — Houston, UCF and Cincinnati — must give a 27-month notice to the AAC before they leave and pay a $10 million exit fee, according to ESPN.
Friday’s announcement comes almost a month short of five years since the Big 12 announced on Oct. 17, 2016, that it would not be expanding after a lengthy process that involved examining the merits of BYU and nearly two dozen other schools.
That announcement crushed BYU’s hopes of joining a Power Five conference, but Holmoe and BYU administrators stayed the course and continued to work toward improving their overall athletic program.
In a statement BYU released that day, the school said it “has learned a lot about its strengths as an institution and as an athletic department. … BYU strives to run its athletic program like a P5 institution. We believe BYU can significantly contribute to the athletic and academic excellence of a P5 conference.”
They also went to work building bridges between BYU and the LGTBQ community after protests from the latter were cited by some as the reason the Cougars were left out in 2016. For instance, BYU became heavily involved in the NCAA’s Common Ground Initiative, a movement that aims to provide “LGBTQ organizations and faith-based organizations an opportunity to discuss commonalities and differences and learn how to work more cohesively within athletics.”
At the time, Oklahoma president David Boren said the decision not to expand was unanimous and there was no vote or discussion about any particular school. But rumors persisted that BYU’s stance on some social issues caused Big 12 presidents to bag the entire expansion idea because the Cougars were the best, and only viable, candidate to some.
Coincidentally, at the time Boren also said, “There’s not a single school looking to leave the conference. We are committed to staying with the conference.”
He’s now long gone, and Texas and OU are heading to the door.
And BYU couldn’t be happier.