What’s in store for LaVell Edwards Stadium before BYU joins the Big 12?
What Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe shared with reporters about BYU’s transition to the Big 12 and a variety of other issues
Every BYU sports team will need to improve, or maintain its level of excellence in the case of men’s and women’s cross-country and women’s golf, volleyball and soccer, if the Cougars are to be competitive when they enter the Big 12 in 2023.
Every BYU coach and student-athlete is well-aware of that demand, athletic director Tom Holmoe said last week in a 45-minute question-and-answer session with reporters who cover BYU sports.
But what about BYU’s sports venues, in particular LaVell Edwards Stadium? Are any upgrades planned for the home of a team that has won 21 of its last 25 games the past two seasons?
If upgrade means expand, Holmoe said the answer to that question is no.
“I think that really right now, the supply and demand for tickets (when they get into the Big 12) is going to be about right,” he said.
Current stadium capacity is 63,470; average home attendance in 2021 was 61,647 for six games as the Cougars went 5-1 at home and posted three sellouts — for the 26-17 win over Utah on Sept. 11, the 26-17 loss to Boise State on Oct. 9, and the 59-14 win over Idaho State on Senior Day on Nov. 6. Oddly, BYU drew just 57,685 fans on Oct. 30 when former coach Bronco Mendenhall returned to Provo with his Virginia Cavaliers.
“We don’t really have immediate expansion plans. As long as I am AD, we are not putting seats in the corners. I think it is silly to put seats in the worst part (for viewing). Those would be the last seats to be bought.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe on possible expansion of LaVell Edwards Stadium
“We don’t really have immediate expansion plans,” Holmoe said. “As long as I am AD, we are not putting seats in the corners. I think it is silly to put seats in the worst part (for viewing). Those would be the last seats to be bought.”
In an unofficial poll last fall conducted via email, most BYU fans said they would rather have more chair seats, instead of benches, even if it meant reducing capacity by a couple thousand. Also, on the wish list for some fans is more luxury suites, particularly on the East side of LES.
“We are looking at more hospitality and amenity areas,” Holmoe acknowledged, without providing specifics. “There are some things that we hope to do.”
It is not like BYU hasn’t been improving the stadium, and the fan experience, in recent years. New scoreboard video boards, a new sound system, and new LED ribbon boards were added last year, with significant help from NuSkin, a longtime corporate partner.
Before that, the video screens were upgraded in 2012, the first major scoreboard upgrade in 16 years. Of course, with the upgrades come more advertisements and commercialism, a necessity these days.
Holmoe said before former BYU AD Glen Tuckett died last October, he used to “jostle me” about the number of sponsorships in the stadium.
“When I was the athletic director, we had one sign, one sponsor in the stadium, it was KSL (radio),” Tuckett would say. “And now it looks like NASCAR.”
In 2018, coming off that 4-9 record in 2017, BYU averaged just 52,476 fans — the lowest average attendance since the stadium was expanded in 1982.
Fans attending the first games of the 2018 season were greeted with mezzanines in the four corners of the stadium so they could walk around the entire upper deck without having to go to the bottom concourse. Also, restroom facilities were expanded and 216 new restroom fixtures were installed.
In 2019, average attendance jumped to 59,547 per game as BYU worked hard to improve the fan experience.
Also, BYU became the first college program in the country to implement what it called “NFL stadium-quality Wi-Fi” in the stadium, installing more than 46 miles of cable and 1,200 antennas. It also developed a “gameday app” to give fans a “second-screen experience” while watching the games.
“Right now, you can’t just have a game,” Holmoe said. “The fans expect entertainment, and experiences, and so do I. And when I go to a pro game, or other college games, I am impressed by the experience. So that is what we have been trying to do here.”
Another recent addition to improve the game-day experience is the “Cougar Canyon” gathering west of the stadium. Fans gather and form a canyon, or tunnel-like setting, that players and coaches walk through prior to entering the stadium.
“So I think we will use our finances and resources to focus more on the overall experience for the fans. We have done some things outside the stadium in recent years,” Holmoe said. “And now we will focus on some of the things that we can do that are — I am not going to say quick fixes — but some of the things that we can do immediately that would be beneficial to our fans.”
What about other sports facilities? Anything planned for those?
Holmoe said nothing is in the works that will or could be completed before the 2023-24 sports season.
“I think right now where we are at with facilities, is we are looking at a master plan, and where we could be five or 10 years from now,” he said, noting that services for student-athletes, such as help with nutrition, more and better academic help, etc., could be improved.
‘We have so much work to do’
Naturally, BYU’s readiness level to join the Big 12 in 2023 was the topic du jour for Holmoe, given how the 17-year athletic director hadn’t answered questions from local reporters since the announcement came on Sept. 10, 2021.
Only a few details have emerged as to what that move will look like, but Holmoe was adamant that BYU joining this year, as some have suggested, was never really considered.
“People celebrated like crazy, like we have arrived,” he said of the second Friday in September, the day before the Cougars would complete a big weekend with a 26-17 win over Utah at LES.
“My first thing was, ‘Oh no, we have so much work to do,’” Holmoe said. “And very little time.”
He said that joining in 2023 “is the right date, for a number of reasons,” but none have anything to do with an exit fee or anything like that owed to the West Coast Conference — where most of BYU’s sports besides football compete.
“The day will come when we play our first game, and we won’t be as ready as we can be,” Holmoe said. “But we just want to be as close to that as possible.”
Holmoe said conversations are ongoing with coaches of every sport as to where they see their teams competing in the Big 12, and what they will need to do to get better.
“Being a former coach, and former player, I kinda just look at the matchups,” Holmoe said. “The way I see it, and as I talk to our coaches, and our student-athletes, that’s what it will be about, the matchups, and when you talk about the matchups, a lot of that will come down to recruiting. Are we going to be able to match up with their talent?”
Holmoe is a realist. He knows the Cougars are not on the level of Kansas or defending national champion Baylor in basketball. And they aren’t where Oklahoma is (assuming the Sooners stay in the league until 2025 and don’t pay an exit fee to join the SEC earlier) when it comes to football.
“It’s not that I think we are deficient, either,” he said. “We just need to know the areas that we can upscale.”
Leaving the WCC on good terms
Brushing off a question regarding whether the move to the Big 12 will define his legacy and tenure at BYU, Holmoe said that’s a task for others. He’s got more pressing issues at hand — such as how the Cougars will finish out their time in the WCC.
He said there have been “exit terms” for BYU to leave since Day 1.
“The first day we went in there, we told them: Our goal is to get into a Power Five conference. They knew that,” he said. “From that beginning, we told them, ‘We are going to give you everything we have, and we are going to be a great partner.’ And I think we can say, we have been a great partner for the WCC. … We are not going to stop our focus on the WCC. It is a really, really good conference. I think it has elevated, and it is not just because of BYU. Everybody elevated their game.”
In the WCC’s marquee sport, men’s basketball, the Cougars have never been able to dethrone Gonzaga, and prospects for that happening this year don’t look good, either. Slumping BYU (17-6) hosts the No. 2 Zags (17-2) on Saturday at 8 p.m. MST on ESPN.
“Gonzaga men’s basketball has helped BYU men’s basketball get better,” Holmoe said. “If you look across the board, there are teams in almost every sport that are top five or six, or top 10 teams (in the country). We have to compete like crazy in the WCC. … The top three or four teams now across the board in all sports are better. It is not just because of BYU, but we have been a part of that.
“So we are going to fight for one more year, and then we will part as great friends,” he concluded.
Recruiting Big 12-caliber athletes, Latter-day Saint athletes
No longer can schools recruiting against BYU play the “Power Five card,” Cougars football coach Kalani Sitake has said repeatedly since Sept. 10 of last season. He said during the early football signing period in December that the promise of playing in the Big 12 helped BYU get some recruits it otherwise would not have gotten.
Holmoe concurred, saying it is true of all sports, not just football.
“There is no question that recruiting is totally different. I think our recruits understand that. I don’t think there is any question that we lost recruits in the past, because we weren’t a member of a Power Five conference. And some of those recruits had offers to play in a P5 conference. And now that can’t be the argument,” he said.
Holmoe said the expectation is that BYU will “accentuate the strength of the Big 12 Conference,” and continue to compete favorably in nonconference contests as well.
That means getting the top recruits who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to come to Provo, which hasn’t been happening as frequently as BYU fans have wanted the past decade or so — especially since rival Utah joined the Pac-12.
“My answer: yes,” Holmoe said, when asked if there’s “pressure” on BYU to get top Latter-day Saint kids now that they are on an even playing field as far as P5 status.
“Yeah, I think our coaches and student-athletes will feel an elevated sense of, ‘Let’s go,’” he said. “… I think you are right. I don’t think there is any question about it. When you play at that (higher) level, the more pressure you are going to feel.”
Because Sitake has been through the experience of jumping into a P5 conference when he was at Utah, Holmoe has gladly accepted the head football coach’s suggestions and advice.
“He gets it,” Holmoe said. “He has been to other schools, and he has seen the difference between BYU and other schools. So yes, his experience at Utah, in a P5 conference, is very helpful.”