‘Seat at the table’ has been a long time coming for BYU
After decades of being on the outside looking in, BYU is inching closer to being on the other side. Friday, BYU president Kevin J Worthen attended Big 12 spring meeting in Texas
The key to moving real estate and surviving in college football is the same — location, location, location.
For BYU, it’s not what you know, or where you have been, it’s where are you sitting? This week, in Dallas, the Cougars are finally sitting in the seat they have dreamt about for years.
After decades of movement from one hopeful cause to another, BYU president Kevin J Worthen walked into Friday’s Big 12 Conference spring business meetings as a soon-to-be partner, a P5, a program with access to everything the big boys have beginning July 1, 2023.
Even while the Cougars attend to one more season as an independent, all eyes are on the future and on a conference that is losing Oklahoma and Texas and picking up BYU, Houston, Central Florida, and Cincinnati.
There is a new commissioner to hire, a new television package to negotiate for 2026 and beyond, schedules to amend, including no-Sunday play for BYU in all sports, and new rivalries to create.
It all sounds like a major headache, but it’s a pain the Big 12 will take over the option of extinction and a discomfort the Cougars have longed for, despite the anguish it has gone through to get to this point.
The Western Athletic Conference expanded from 10 to 16 teams in 1996 with hopes of creating a champion that could catapult into the upper echelon of the big money bowl games.
In the WAC’s dream scenario, No. 6 BYU defeated No. 20 Wyoming 28-25 in overtime in the first WAC championship game on Dec. 7, 1996, in Las Vegas.
The exciting battle in front of a full house had WAC officials beaming over the possibilities with the coming bowl season. What they received instead was a punch to the gut.
The Bowl Alliance, despite BYU’s No. 5 ranking and 13-1 record, snubbed the Cougars and the WAC by inviting Big 12 champion Texas (8-4) to face Penn State in the much more lucrative Fiesta Bowl.
BYU defeated No. 14 Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl 19-15 to finish 14-1, while the Nittany Lions rocked the Longhorns 38-15 and Texas ended its season 8-5. The Cougars received $2 million for participating in the Cotton Bowl. Texas, as a member of the Bowl Alliance, received $17 million for its invite to the Fiesta Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl victory was historic for BYU as the Cougars’ first and only New Year’s Day bowl game, but it painted a bleak picture moving forward for conferences and programs living outside the coalition.
LaVell vs. bowl alliance
Cougars head coach LaVell Edwards fought for all mid-majors to get a seat at the table. He testified in 2004 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the monopoly the Bowl Alliance created by limiting access to the biggest bowls to a few select conferences. Edwards contended that it created unfair recruiting advantages.
“With the BCS in place, Pac-10 coaches could, and would, tell players not only couldn’t they play in the Rose Bowl, but they wouldn’t play in a national championship game if they chose to enroll in school in Provo,” Edwards told the Deseret News on Oct. 30, 2004. “Under today’s BCS scheme, that 1984 (national champion) BYU team couldn’t have played in a title game. The system wouldn’t allow it.”
To avoid congressional action, the Bowl Alliance renamed itself the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and opened a small window for mid-major programs to compete. Utah became the first to pull it off when the Utes drubbed Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
If the Utes didn’t send Edwards a fruit basket, they should have.
The BCS evolved into the College Football Playoff in 2014, which still serves and protects its P5 members and leaves non-P5s feeling like long shots.
Not happy with the oversized 16-team WAC and the absence of natural rivalries, BYU and Utah left to form the Mountain West Conference on May 26, 1998, with joining members Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV.
The new conference also announced a seven-year partnership with ESPN and the formation of its own television network — The Mtn. But BYU’s relationship with the MWC turned sour over the limited access and regional reach of its television network.
Not only could The Mtn. not broadcast to a national audience, but it denied BYU access to replay games on BYUtv, which did have a national reach. This didn’t sit well with the administration or the fanbase and, when Utah bolted the league for the Pac-10 in 2011, BYU left to become independent in football.
An independent gamble
Access and exposure. That is what BYU felt it needed to someday earn acceptance as a P5 program and gain membership into a P5 conference.
Going it alone, with ESPN and BYUtv as television partners, was a gamble and BYU, not known for being a risk taker, decided to roll the dice as an independent.
The Cougars gave it all they had for 10 seasons and must have been wondering if the call would ever come? Last August, after Oklahoma and Texas announced their departures from the Big 12 to the SEC, the opportunity finally arrived.
After the 1996 snub, the 16-team WAC experiment, 12 years in the MWC and 10 years as an independent, the call came. The Big 12 needed a strong football program with a national following that could join the league on short notice.
BYU accepted the invitation from the Big 12 on Friday, Sept. 10, and went out and beat Utah the following night in front of a jubilant sold-out crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The ship had finally come into port. The long night was over. A bright future was on the horizon.
If there were two more meaningful back-to-back days in Cougars lore, I’m not sure what they would be.
A seat at the table
Not convinced this day would ever come, BYU relegated its hopes to doing enough to warrant “being in the room” with college football’s self-proclaimed elite. That is why the No. 8 Cougars accepted an unprecedented game at No. 14 Coastal Carolina on three-day’s notice in early December 2020.
They put their undefeated season on the line as a last-gasp chance to convince the CFP committee that they were worthy of a New Year’s Six bowl game. BYU’s Dax Milne was tackled on the 1-yard line as time expired in a 22-17 defeat.
Such late-season shenanigans will no longer be necessary for BYU, because when Worthen walked into the Big 12 meetings, he not only entered the room, but he sat down at the table, in his own seat.
Location, location, location. BYU in Dallas. BYU in the Big 12. BYU with a seat at the table. There is no place the Cougars would rather be.
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.