The rain is coming down and the floods are coming up, but the house on the rock of the BYU athletic department is standing firm.
While baseball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball search for new leadership, Kalani Sitake and the football program remain the anchor of stability during a wild week of uncertainty.
In just the last four days, baseball coach Mike Littlewood resigned, women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins retired and assistant men’s basketball coach Chris Burgess left for the same job and a much higher salary at rival Utah.
That’s the most movement felt in Provo since those two F-35 fighter jets “came in hot” above LaVell Edwards Stadium just before the Cougars beat the Utes last September.
The loss of those three coaches, whether by their own choice or the result of someone else, certainly leaves big holes to fill.
Littlewood won 262 games and three West Coast Conference championships in his 10 years coaching baseball at Larry H. Miller Park. He also spearheaded fundraising for his program and was shoulders deep in recruiting for the Big 12. Losing him in the middle of the season, for whatever the reason, may be harder for the program to overcome that some might think.
Judkins won 456 games in 21 seasons as the women’s head basketball coach. His journey is remarkable. The former University of Utah basketball star and assistant coach bolted Rick Majerus’ staff in 1999 to find refuge at BYU as a basketball consultant for Cougars head coach Steve Cleveland.
Cleveland encouraged him to look at the women’s program when an opportunity opened. Judkins decided to give it a try. After a year as an assistant, he was named head coach in 2001 and the rest is history. He leaves behind a slew of potential suitors to succeed him and a loaded roster of returning players, including two-time WCC Player of the Year Shaylee Gonzales and the league’s top rebounder, Lauren Gustin.
Burgess came to BYU from Utah Valley University as part of Mark Pope’s original men’s basketball staff in 2019. He has been a part of 68 wins over three seasons and at 6-foot-10, has been a key figure in recruiting and developing the Cougar big men. But unlike Littlewood and Judkins, this is not Burgess’ program. Cougar basketball belongs to Pope, and it will be his choice on who is hired next.
Combined, Littlewood, Judkins and Burgess helped produce 786 feel-good moments for fans craving victory.
In all three cases, replacing these good coaches with other good coaches is paramount to their respective sports, but to the athletic department as a whole — the business of staying in business rests squarely with football.
While all of this is going on, BYU’s cash cow is grazing freely in a green pasture after a successful spring practice. For the program that supports all the others, both financially and even psychologically, it’s steady as she goes.
History has been a good indicator that when the football budget is good, almost everything else is good in athletics and after a 21-4 record over the last two seasons, a Big 12 invitation, and Sitake’s contract extension — football is very good and is about to get better.
The Athletic recently reported a study from Navigate that forecasts no less than $41 million annually for each Big 12 school from 2022-2029 in football revenue. The numbers were based on media rights and an expected expansion of the College Football Playoff to eight teams in 2026.
BYU joins the Big 12 in 2023 and if the actual payouts come remotely close to Navigate’s projections, the athletic department will collect $330 million over a seven-year period — all because of football. That would dwarf the estimated current intake by roughly $232 million over the same period when projecting against BYU’s ESPN contract.
Football is BYU’s Fort Knox. It’s where the gold is, especially when 60,000 seats are filled, the Cougar Tails are fresh and the team is playing on national television. The NCAA reports that fan attendance among FBS schools in 2021 was an average of 39,848 — the lowest since 1981. At the same time, BYU enjoyed its highest fan attendance since 2009 with an average of 61,647.
The strength of its success and stability is reflected in the fact that since 1972, the football program has had just four head coaches — LaVell Edwards, Gary Crowton, Bronco Mendenhall and Sitake — who BYU locked down with what athletic director Tom Holmoe declared an “unprecedented” new contract last December that runs through 2027.
Football is the rock
Losing three coaches in four days certainly raises a few eyebrows, but the storm will pass and new hires will be made, but there is little time to waste. The Cougars are on the clock. With football as its foundation, BYU has 14 1/2 months to get its house in order, in all sports, before joining the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.
There is wisdom in the popular children’s song — “the rains came down and the floods came up, but the house on the rock stood firm.”
After all these years, who knew that they were singing about BYU football?
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.