‘When the time came, we were ready’: Tom Holmoe deserves props for keeping BYU’s Power Five hopes alive

BYU President Kevin J Worthen said the Cougars would not have received an invitation to join the Big 12 without the work of athletic director Tom Holmoe

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said the “stars aligned and it all came together” for the Cougars to finally get accepted into the Big 12 Conference on Friday, acknowledging that “a lot of fortunate things had to happen” for the league’s invitation to come on Sept. 10, 2021.

But BYU President Kevin Worthen said that is only part of the reason the Cougars’ decadeslong quest to get into a Power Five conference finally came to fruition. Early Friday, the Big 12 announced the additions of BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston, with BYU saying it would enter the league in every sport in 2023.

“This would not have happened without Tom Holmoe,” Worthen said.

And so began one of the most noteworthy days in BYU sports history. It was fitting that front and center with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Worthen in the 10:30 a.m. MDT combination in-person news conference and Zoom meeting was Holmoe, the former Cougar and San Francisco 49ers player who has overseen the school’s athletic fortunes since 2005.

“I know what this means to everybody. This is not about me. Six years ago, people thought it might have been a failure when we didn’t get into the Big 12. But at that point in time, our coaches and our student-athletes and our administration determined this isn’t going to be a failure, that this was going to be a launching point.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

This was Holmoe’s day to crow a little, pound his chest and pronounce all his hard work was worth it. Of course, he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he thanked all the student-athletes, coaches and BYU administrators that helped make it happen, especially after the Cougars were denied entrance into the Big 12 in 2016 when the league voted against expansion.

That was one of the darker days of BYU sports.

“I know what this means to everybody. This is not about me,” Holmoe said. “Six years ago, people thought it might have been a failure when we didn’t get into the Big 12. But at that point in time, our coaches and our student-athletes and our administration determined this isn’t going to be a failure, that this was going to be a launching point.”

In that respect, the Cougars have landed. And now the real work begins — improving every program (only men’s volleyball is not coming along, because the Big 12 doesn’t sponsor that sport) so it can compete favorably in a conference that will be without big-name brands Texas and Oklahoma but still has plenty of firepower, particularly in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and golf.

As BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood said Friday in Studio C of the BYU Broadcasting Building: “First of all, hearing we were going to the Big 12 brought excitement. Second of all, it was about being terrified.”

So the Cougars have two seasons to get ready and, more importantly, start bringing in more of the types of athletes who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Iowa State, TCU, Kansas, Kansas State and the newcomers, whose entrance might not happen as quickly as BYU’s.

Power Five status “allows us to get kids that should’ve come to BYU from the beginning,” said BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, who also credited Holmoe for paving the way.

It was Holmoe — Littlewood, Pope and Sitake would say in separate interviews Friday — that kept the hope alive. Holmoe deflected that praise to the entire department, and to BYU’s worldwide fan base. Indeed, Bowlsby said the Cougars’ big following “is impressive.”

“I would say the last six years has been, not a full-court press, but a constant effort with all of us together to try to make it happen,” Holmoe said. “We didn’t know who, where or when. In recent weeks, it all came together. I think it is just a tribute to all the effort of decades’ past that when the time came, we were ready.”

Bowlsby and Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec expressed confidence that the Cougars will flourish in the Big 12, with Bowlsby calling it a “long-awaited marriage” and hinting that BYU was an outstanding candidate in 2016 but the timing wasn’t right at the time.

Adding BYU “was a very clear and relatively easy decision for the eight continuing members of the Big 12,” Schovanec said. “BYU, with its rich tradition of athletics success, and outstanding academic credentials, enhances the prestige and the competitiveness of the league on a national scale and sets us on a path to even greater success.”

It’s official: BYU is Big 12 bound
Historic Big 12 invite, manna for basketball program and praise for BYU’s Worthen and Holmoe

Worthen said having gone through that application process in 2016 made this one go smoothly and quickly.

Holmoe was the catalyst, Bowlsby said, noting that he was named the National Athletic Director of the Year last spring after cobbling BYU’s 2020 football schedule together when the pandemic erased every game on it but one.

“We are bringing in four great universities, 200,000 students, 40 million people, three additional states and three of the best recruiting areas in the U.S.” Bowlsby said. “It is a good day for all of us, but it is an especially good day for the Big 12 conference.”

The news conference was high on platitudes and praise, and rightfully so, but short on details in regard to some issues that Holmoe acknowledged will have to be worked through in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Here are a few ...

• What becomes of BYU’s agreement, extended in January 2020, with ESPN to televise BYU’s home football games through 2026?

Financial terms of the seven-year agreement were not disclosed, but at the time Holmoe said the deal had language that made it negotiable if BYU were to join a conference with a different television partner. The Big 12’s primary TV partners are Fox Sports and ESPN.

“Going forward, next year we will be with (ESPN),” Holmoe told the Deseret News. “And then as we become a (Big 12) member, those are discussions that will take place in the coming days, weeks and months to determine exactly how those broadcast rights (will go), where the Big 12 decides to go and where BYU goes, especially in relation with BYUtv as well.”

Revenue sharing is another question that will have to be answered. Neither Bowlsby nor Holmoe addressed it in the news conference, but later on BYUtv Bowlsby said BYU will receive about 50% in the first two years and then full revenue sharing when the league’s next TV deal is worked out in 2024.

• After they play Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, BYU and Utah aren’t contracted to play again until 2024. They are contracted to play six times between 2024 and 2030. Will those contracts have to be torn up because BYU will only be able to play three nonconference games once it joins the Big 12?

“It is a very good question,” Holmoe said. “I think the answer is that in the last couple of years, you have seen a relationship between BYU and Utah where it is a little bit more open, and where we are transparent with each others’ needs.

“Being in the Big 12, we will have needs and desires like Utah has had as a member of the Pac-12. … We will get together and discuss those. We are going to have to see what it looks like in our conference, what the scheduling windows look like. … Those are discussions I look forward to having (with Utah AD Mark Harlan) so that we can answer that question (later).”

Holmoe said the Big 12 will feature two divisions for football, but did not say which schools would be in which divisions.

• Did Big 12 officials ever ask BYU to join as a football-only member? Bowlsby and Holmoe said no, although Holmoe acknowledged that BYU “always contemplated that as a possibility” but was never in favor of it.

“I love the fact that we get to go into the Big 12 now with all our teams,” he said. “The WCC saved us. We weren’t going to be able to go independent at the time (in 2011), but they had enough sports that our teams played. We owe a lot of thanks to the WCC.”

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• What about BYU’s policy of not playing athletic competitions on Sundays? Bowlsby said it obviously was not a deal-breaker.

“BYU is an attractive enough institution that (its no Sunday play policy) is a reasonable accommodation and won’t be an issue,” Bowlsby said.

Littlewood, the BYU baseball coach, said that of all the sports, Big 12 baseball will be impacted by the BYU rule more than any other. A lot of college baseball games are played on Sundays, and coaches are reticent to alter their scheduling due to pitching concerns, mostly.

“To be totally honest, I don’t think (Big 12 coaches) will like it,” Littlewood said. “Everybody has to bump up their pitching. And so it is tough. The coaches in the West Coast Conference didn’t like it. … I hope they are OK with it. But I agree — it probably affects baseball more than any other sport.”

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