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The story behind this associate AD and her contribution to BYU’s Big 12 invite

Before she became BYU’s senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator, Liz Darger coached Timpview and Timpanogos high schools and Utah Valley University

Liz Darger poses for a portrait at the Student Athlete Building in Provo on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.
Liz Darger poses for a portrait at the Student Athlete Building in Provo on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Before she became BYU’s assistant athletic director and senior woman administrator, Darger was the head girls basketball coach at Timpanogos High in Orem for four years.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

BYU’s long-awaited admittance into the Big 12 Conference, set to happen in 2023, is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people, most notably the Cougars’ coaches and student-athletes, director of athletics Tom Holmoe, BYU president Kevin Worthen and perhaps the busiest woman in the world, Liz Darger.

Who’s Liz Darger?

Calling BYU’s senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator the woman who got BYU into the Big 12 might be a bit of a stretch, but it is not entirely off-target, either.

“I was just happy to help where I could and play a part in things,” Darger said modestly in a lengthy interview with the Deseret News last week. “There are so many people who contributed — president Worthen and advancement vice president Keith Vorkink and Tom (Holmoe) and (Deputy AD) Brian Santiago did so much in terms of putting us in position, and strategizing, and relationship building, for us to be able to have this opportunity.”

Associates agree that all of the aforementioned played major roles, but many say Darger’s work behind the scenes through her involvement in an NCAA program called Common Ground went a long way toward building bridges between BYU and the LGBTQ community that protested and fought against BYU’s possible admittance into the Big 12 in 2016.

There was a little grumbling in September of 2021 when BYU was officially invited, but nothing close to what happened in 2016 in the months leading up to the Big 12’s decision.

The conference ultimately chose not to expand back then, and there were some reports that the protests over BYU’s policies on homosexual behavior as written in the school’s honor code caused some Big 12 school presidents to decide that inviting the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wasn’t worth the trouble.

Darger was a relatively unknown assistant women’s basketball coach at Utah Valley University in Orem when she was hired by Worthen and Holmoe in 2015 to replace Janie Penfield Rasmussen. It was a bit of a surprise hire, given Darger’s lack of experience in major college athletics administration at the time, but Holmoe has said several times in recent years that it was one of the best hires the department has made.

In October 2016, Holmoe and other BYU administrators asked Darger — who had been in her position for a little over a year — to attend Common Ground II at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

It was there that Darger met Dr. Amy Wilson, the NCAA’s managing director of inclusion who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community and a Christian, according to the NCAA’s website, and began laying the groundwork for BYU to host Wilson on a 2017 visit to its campus in Provo, a visit that also included a stop at church headquarters in Salt Lake City to meet with church leaders.

In 2018, the relationship that Darger forged with the LGBTQ community in college sports blossomed even more when BYU hosted Common Ground IV.

An article on the website describes Darger’s first appearance at Common Ground in 2016 and how she was singled out for being a Latter-day Saint but eventually built relationships that made the historic meetings in 2017 with Wilson and 2018 with nearly 100 Common Ground attendees possible.

“Certainly, in the past five years there are some things we have done to build relationships, and to continue to grow and learn how we can improve as an athletic department and as a campus, and build relationships with others, to build bridges where there can be more understanding of who we are,” Darger said, deflecting praise.

She said her work with Common Ground — she was appointed to the 13-person Common Ground leadership team in 2017 — “has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job the past five years, and something that wasn’t on my radar at all. But it has become a huge, meaningful, wonderful part of what I do.”

And it helped keep BYU on the Big 12’s radar.

“We have a lot to learn still. We are eager to continue to learn and grow,” she said. “We have these relationships with these good folks from Common Ground, and also we have built some strong relationships with people at Athlete Ally, where we have learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot.

“But also have been given great opportunity — they have been gracious to give us opportunities to educate a little more about who we are, and about our beliefs and our mission here at BYU. And so we have been grateful for that, too, to have the opportunity to tell our story a little bit more and help explain more of who we are.”

BYU, and coaching, land on Darger’s radar

As nothing more than a “better than average” high school volleyball player growing up in Boise, Idaho, Darger initially committed to walk on at Utah State. But after praying about that decision, she decided to attend BYU as a nonathlete and major in family science.

While at BYU, Darger visited her sister, Emily Darger Deans, who was playing volleyball for Colorado State. While in Fort Collins, she met Raegan Scott Pebley, the former Mountain View High star who is now head women’s basketball coach at TCU, and expressed an interest in coaching basketball.

Pebley called her father, Ray Scott, who was coaching at Timpview High, and told him he should hire Darger.

Ray Scott invited Darger to an open gym at Timpview. She attended it, “and absolutely fell in love with coaching.” She started helping at Timpview her senior year at BYU, and has been involved in sports ever since.

“I am so grateful for Raegan for nudging me, and really taking a few minutes to change the trajectory of my life,” Darger said.

Elizabeth Darger, head coach for the girls basketball team at Timpanogos High calls out instructions to her players on Dec. 16, 2005.
File photo — Timpanogos High girls basketball coach Elizabeth Darger, calls out instructions to her players on Dec. 16, 2005.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

While helping at Timpview, Darger graduated from BYU, then went back to get her master’s degree in school counseling psychology, because she had a “great counselor in high school that I loved, so I thought that would be a neat job.”

She worked for a year at Oak Canyon Junior High as a school counselor and ninth-grade girls basketball coach, then became the varsity coach at Timpanogos High in Orem for four years and the girls athletic director for two years.

“I honestly loved it,” she said. “If I were still doing that job, I would be so happy. I loved being a high school counselor, I loved high school coaching. It was a great gig.”

Darger got to know then-UVU women’s basketball coach Cathy Nixon from camps and Nixon recruiting Timpanogos players. When Nixon had an opening on her staff, she called Darger and asked her to apply.

“I loved what I was doing as a high school counselor, but I thought, ‘these chances don’t come up very often,’ so I applied,” she said.

Darger got the job, and spent six years at UVU as an assistant coach, recruiting coordinator and academics liaison for athletics.

Going back to BYU

When Penfield Rasmussen decided to step down as BYU’s SWA in 2015 to focus on raising her child, she called Darger and told her (and others) to apply for the position.

“We had been roommates like 10 years previous,” Darger said. “We had been roommates when she had this job, so my initial reaction was, “Yeah, I don’t know that I want that job. It is a hard job. I have watched you do that job, and I love what I am doing.’”

But as Darger looked into the position more, she became more and more interested. She liked that it catered to her strengths, was an opportunity to be involved in college sports at a higher level, and would allow her to focus on “big picture” goals.

“It provided an opportunity to have influence across teams, not just with one team, and to get to know student-athletes from a number of different programs, and to be a part of big-picture thinking of how an athletic department functions, and how to move it forward successfully and always with student-athlete welfare at top of mind,” she said.

The application and interview process was intense, she said. She spent a lot of time talking to her parents, who were serving a church mission in Dallas, and working with people who were unemployed, to get tips on building a resume and interviewing well.

“I put everything I had into that application and interview process,” which included interviews with Holmoe and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago, then-vice president Matt Richardson and a church general authority in Salt Lake City, she said.

She got the job.

“I was very fortunate that Tom, frankly, took a huge chance on me, an assistant women’s basketball coach at UVU, with a little bit of athletic administrative experience from the high school level,” she said. “I told him, ‘Give me a year to figure this out. It is going to be a steep learning curve, but give me a year to figure this out, and I know I can do a good job and do it well.’ I am really grateful. He took a chance on me.”

Busiest woman in the world?

As if being senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator at BYU and serving on the Common Ground’s board wasn’t enough, in August 2018 Darger was called to serve on the church’s Young Women Council. She was set apart by Elder Quentin L. Cook on Aug. 26, 2018.

Darger and six other women serve on the Council under President Bonnie H. Cordon, a woman that Darger now calls one of her most treasured mentors.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” Darger said. “We are there to help them (Young Women General Presidency) any way that we can.”

But that’s not all that keeps her busy. Darger is also writing the dissertation for her doctorate degree, “a qualitative study about Latter-day Saint women in leadership in higher education.”

And you thought you had a lot on your plate.

“It is a little bit nuts,” she acknowledged. “But each of these things I have learned in one setting has helped in the other setting. It all kind of came at once — not on purpose, but I am grateful for the things that I am learning.”

‘Six years of wonderful memories’

Looking back, Darger says for all the strides BYU has made from the 2016 snub to the 2021 invitation, it wouldn’t have happened if BYU’s athletic teams across the board hadn’t improved or retained their level of excellence.

For that, she credits an array of outstanding coaches and student-athletes.

“You look program for program of what we are doing, and our programs are competitive and successful,” she said. “If our programs are not successful, there is not a conference that wants to have conversations. Our student-athletes and our coaches, what they have done is huge.”

Darger says her favorite memories are of the men’s cross-country team claiming the national championship in 2019 and the women’s cross-country team winning the national title last spring (the 2020 championships were held in 2021, due to being delayed by COVID-19).

“I had never been a part of anything like that,” she said. “And to be there and watch that, and to see our student-athletes and our coaches achieve something they had worked for for years and years, there is just nothing to top that. And our individual national championships as well, especially recently with track and field, have been huge.”

She will also never forget the way BYU fans packed Smith Fieldhouse for men’s and women’s volleyball, South Field for women’s soccer, and LaVell Edwards Stadium for football.

“It’s been six years of wonderful memories,” she said.

Along the way, Darger has sought out and received advice from former women’s AD Elaine Michaelis, Penfield Rasmussen, the NCAA’s Dr. Wilson, and BYU administrators Janet Sharman, Sandra Rogers, Julie Franklin and Rosemary Thackeray, among others.

“The lessons I have learned from these women is the importance of counseling together where every voice is heard before we make decisions to make sure we have the best information and then it really is about making sure we understand every perspective and look at things from every perspective before we make decisions,” she said.

In other words, finding common ground.