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BYU’s jump to Big 12 means men’s basketball, others will be joining one of the nation’s elite conferences

Eighteen of BYU’s 19 sports will go to the Big 12 in 2023. How will the league handle Sunday play issues when it comes to the Cougars?

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and BYU basketball coach Mark Pope take a selfie during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference.
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and BYU basketball coach Mark Pope take a selfie during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. 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.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

With Friday’s momentous announcement that BYU is joining the Big 12 in 2023, much of the focus rests on football.

But this move includes, and will impact, almost every sport played by the Cougars.

Also joining the Big 12 will be Houston, Cincinnati and UCF.

One of BYU’s programs that will benefit most from this move is men’s basketball, as it will be part of one of the nation’s elite conferences featuring reigning national champion Baylor, traditional powerhouse Kansas, as well as Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Houston.

“This move is historic for our program and it’s historic for our opportunity and it’s historic for our players to have this chance. It’s the best conference in the country, getting better,” said coach Mark Pope. “You think about it. You’re losing two great programs in Texas and Oklahoma, who have had one appearance in the final AP Top 25 in the last two years — Texas one time. Whereas if you just took Houston and BYU, both teams have been in the Final AP Top 25 two years in a row. Houston was in the Final Four last year. It’s terrifying to think that the conference is going to get tougher. But we’re really excited about it.

“It’s the best league in the country in basketball, especially what it’s becoming right now in terms of the additions,” Pope added. “It doesn’t get any better. That’s where you want to be. It’s super, super humbling. It’s going to be an unbelievable challenge. We’re incredibly excited about it.”

BYU will participate in every sport sponsored by the Big 12 except equestrian, rowing and wrestling. The Big 12 sponsors every sport the Cougars compete in, except men’s volleyball. All sports will begin Big 12 schedules in the 2023-24, except for men’s volleyball, which will continue to compete in the MPSF.

That’s 18 intercollegiate sports that BYU sponsors jumping to the Big 12.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is looking forward to what BYU’s athletic department brings to the league.

“We will arguably be the best basketball conference in the country,” he said. “We will be a force to be reckoned with in a wide variety of Olympic sports.”

In terms of scheduling, recruiting and exposure, BYU teams should receive a big boost from Big 12 membership.

And, yes, it will be a major test for many of BYU’s programs.

“Big 12 baseball is one of the top three conferences in the country. When I first heard about this, I was excited. Then I was really terrified. Because it’s like, ‘go time,’” said Cougars baseball coach Mike Littlewood. “Every time you walk on the field, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’re going to be playing a good team with a bunch of future big leaguers. It’s time to step up and make a jump up. I’m elated.”

BYU appears to be well-positioned for the transition into the Big 12. The Cougars are coming off of their best overall athletic season since 2001-02, finishing No. 17 in the 2020-21 Director’s Cup standings.

That includes a national title in women’s cross country, a national runner-up for men’s volleyball, multiple NCAA titles for BYU distance runners, multiple West Coast Conference championships, NCAA basketball tournament appearances and a No. 11 finish in football.

While football has been competing as an independent, most of BYU’s other sports have been competing in the WCC. That affiliation will end in 2023.

“We understand BYU’s decision and wish everyone connected with the institution the very best moving forward,” WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez said in a statement Friday. “BYU has been transparent in exploring opportunities to find league affiliation for its football program and has been presented with an opportunity that fits its needs. We will continue to value them as a member of the West Coast Conference through the 2022-23 academic year.

“The WCC has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years with multiple NCAA Championships, and BYU has been a great part of those achievements. The success of the WCC’s student-athletes and ability to win national titles puts the Conference in a very strong position across the collegiate athletics landscape. The WCC continues to attract interest in membership and will be deliberate and thorough in evaluating our best path forward to position the Conference for continued success.”

Both BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and President Kevin J Worthen expressed their gratitude to the WCC for their partnership, which began in 2011 at the same time that the football program went independent.

There have been discussions over the years about BYU possibly joining a Power Five conference like the Big 12 in football only.

“It’s nothing that really came to fruition. I’m glad. I love the fact that we get to go into the Big 12 with all of our teams. The WCC saved us,” Holmoe said. “We weren’t going to be able to do independence at the time but they had enough sports where our teams could play. It wasn’t a great deal for some of our teams when we went to the WCC because they didn’t sponsor those sports. Some of our sports have had a real challenge to be independent in those sports or in various conferences. To feel like we get to go all together as one now, it’s beautiful.”

For years, the Sunday play issue — by policy, BYU refuses to compete on Sundays — was seen as an obstacle keeping the Cougars out of a Power Five conference.

Several Big 12 sports schedule games on Sundays. But the league will make concessions to make room for BYU.

“I wouldn’t call it a concern, I’d call it a consideration. We had very open and frank conversations about it. Everybody has their eyes wide open,” Bowlsby said of the Sunday play issue. “We understand there are scheduling considerations that are going to have to be taken into account. Like all of all members, some are in remote locations, some have more difficult transportation issues than others. Some are a longer ways away. Those are all things that you think about as you consider institutions, even as you work together within your league. That’s something that’s baked in when you consider a university like BYU. We’ll do what’s necessary to respect and honor those requirements. We got to the point where we didn’t feel like it was going to be an issue. We’re not likely to be playing football games on Sunday. We have events right now that are contested on Sunday. They will have to be modified in order to accommodate BYU. We’re willing to do that. Frankly, BYU is an attractive enough institution that I consider that to be a very small consolation in having them be a part of our organization.”

Women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood, whose team has been competing in a very difficult WCC soccer league for years, is ready for this new challenge.

“The expectations we have is still to go and win a conference championship,” Rockwood said. “We have an opportunity to play in a conference tournament again, which the WCC didn’t have. I would expect our program to be competing at the same level, if not even better than we have in the past.”

Rockwood added that being a member of the Big 12 will help recruiting efforts.

“For us, our main goal is to recruit the top LDS kids across the country,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate in doing so. We’ve got a great recruiting line of kids coming in. If anything else, it gives us more exposure and more opportunity to have maybe more and different people interested in our program.”

Littlewood said his baseball program has the infrastructure in place now to compete in the Big 12.

“I would love to take the team we have this year into the Big 12. In 2019, it was the No. 16 recruiting class,” he said. “We’re very experienced and very talented. It’s going to open up recruiting. Not that we’re going to try to get a totally different guy because the guys we have now can compete at this level. But you do need those 6-8-10 elite guys in the country. I think this opens it up, having that P5 stamp opens it up. With the culture here and our facility — with our new scoreboard, it’s a Big 12 stadium. It really is.”

Two years from now, 18 BYU sports will have the P5 stamp on them — and they’ll find a new home in the Big 12.

“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,” Holmoe said. “Competing on the Big 12 stage provides more opportunities for our student-athletes. That’s what it’s all about.”