ARLINGTON, Texas — With some seismic shifts in the college sports landscape looming and topics such as NIL and the transfer portal still burning throughout the country, BYU’s entry into the Big 12 next year obviously wasn’t a huge talking point at the Big 12 football media days last week at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“That program has been through a little bit of an awkward change, from being in the Mountain West and the WAC and then independent, and now finding a home here in the Big 12. I am excited for BYU.” — Texas coach Steve Sarkisian
But over the course of two days and dozens of interviews, there were opportunities here and there for reporters to ask league officials, players, coaches and national observers familiar with the Cougars football program for their takes on what BYU brings to the table, and how it will fare when the 2023 season rolls around.
Most notably, former Cougars quarterback Steve Sarkisian, who is set to begin his second season as Texas’ head football coach, told the Deseret News that although the Longhorns are leaving the league at some point within the next three years for the SEC, he is “excited” for his former school.
“That program has been through a little bit of an awkward change, from being in the Mountain West and the WAC and then independent, and now finding a home here in the Big 12,” Sarkisian said. “I am excited for BYU.”
Sarkisian, 48, was BYU’s starting quarterback in 1995 and 1996 and led the Cougars to a Cotton Bowl victory over current Big 12 member Kansas State.
“I know a lot of those people still at that university,” he said. “Coach Kalani Sitake and I were teammates at BYU. So I am pumped for those guys. I know they have a big year ahead of them this year and I am sure they are looking forward to the future in the Big 12.”
Sarkisian said he hasn’t talked to Sitake specifically about BYU’s preparations for the Big 12, but he keeps an eye on the program and knows the former BYU fullback will have it ready to compete in the Power Five ranks.
“You know, us as coaches, we don’t talk about moves before they happen. You guys love to talk about moving. We kinda focus on what we are doing right now. We are in the Big 12, and we gotta try to win a Big 12 championship,” he said, alluding to speculation the previous day that Texas and Oklahoma might be able to negotiate an exit before the league’s media rights deal expires in 2025.
“Kalani has got his own schedule that he is trying to do now. And then probably next year (reporters) will ask me about moving to the Big 12 when it is actually pertinent.”
Later, in a chance meeting away from microphones and cameras, Sarkisian said he caught glimpses of last March’s BYU football alumni game in which Max Hall threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Bryan Kehl, saying he probably wouldn’t be interested in playing until his coaching days are done.
“I can’t throw it deep anymore like he did,” Sarkisian said, rubbing his right shoulder.
Sarkisian said he also keeps in touch with BYU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick, who was a receiver for the Cougars from 1996-98.
“That BYU offense is fun to watch,” he said.
Houston, Cincinnati and UCF will also join the Big 12 on July 1, 2023, and to a man existing Big 12 coaches said the additions will bolster the league.
“The decision (outgoing commissioner) Bob (Bowlsby) made a year ago to move is pretty powerful right now,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “I think where we are today as a conference, we are probably in a lot better shape than we were a year ago. … I think (the move) positioned us in a great spot moving forward.”
As was reported last week, Bowlsby said the conference “added the four best schools we could have added” and said it would have happened sooner but he “didn’t have enough votes” among member schools in 2016 to expand.
“BYU is one of the few schools that truly has a worldwide reach,” Bowlsby said.
Here’s what other coaches, players and media members had to say about BYU coming aboard:
Kirk Bohls, Austin (Texas) American-Statesman columnist
Bohls said BYU’s football program has been ready to compete favorably in the Big 12 for “years,” but he’s not sure in the other marquee sport, men’s basketball.
“BYU is well respected. I wouldn’t call BYU a national powerhouse. But they have always been there as one of college football’s constant, good, solid, top-25 teams. They have always been solid and respected and competitive.”
Bohls said “other forces at work” kept BYU from being invited “into the Big 12 or the Pac-12 or whatever,” but it wasn’t for lack of evidence that the Cougars would add value.
“To me it was a no-brainer for the Big 12 to go after them,” Bohls said. “I mean, they have got not just a national following, but a global following. I have always liked BYU. They belong.”
The 2023 Big 12 football schedule will be released in October, Bohls believes. Does he think the Cougars could get a home game against Texas and Sarkisian in 2024?
“It’s possible,” he said. “I keep hearing that Texas and Oklahoma will (remain) there at least two years. But I think with all this (movement) with the Pac-12, if the Big 12 adds (some Pac-12 schools), everything could be sped up a bit.”
Baylor linebacker Dillon Doyle
A fifth-year senior who started his career at Iowa, the versatile linebacker scored two offensive touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving — in the Bears’ 38-24 win over BYU last October in Waco, Texas.
“I really admire the BYU program,” Doyle said. “They came in, their fans were fantastic. They did an awesome job traveling to Texas, and I think part of that was because they are coming into the Big 12. So I am super excited to get out to Utah this year and play them.”
BYU hosts Baylor in Week 2 (Sept. 10), after the Cougars travel to South Florida on Sept. 3 and the Bears host FCS school Albany that day at McLane Stadium. Baylor offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos will make triumphant returns to Provo, after coaching there previously.
“BYU is kind of a hard-nosed team, and they are proud of what they have built there,” Doyle said. “And we obviously have some crossover in our DNA when it comes to coach Grimes, coach Mateos. When it comes to playing them this year, schematically we will figure it out.”
West Virginia coach Neal Brown
Hired away from Troy in 2019, Brown is somewhat familiar with BYU because he played football at Kentucky under head coach Hal Mumme and assistant Mike Leach. Mumme and Leach have BYU ties.
“It will be a fun clash of cultures, two opposite ends of the spectrum,” Brown said of potential BYU-West Virginia matchups. He’s gone 17-18 at West Virginia, 11-15 in Big 12 games.
Brown said that BYU and West Virginia in the same conference does not make sense geographically, but little does in this day and age of college athletics.
“Our fans travel, especially to unique places,” Brown said. “And BYU obviously travels well, with fans all over the country. Everybody wants to go to the places they haven’t been, so a lot of our fans probably haven’t been to Provo. So they are going to look forward to it.”
Brown, who has also coached at Delaware, Texas Tech and Kentucky, said there are a lot of “fundamental aspects” apparent in both programs.
“There is common ground there, a lot of history on both sides,” he said. “I have a ton of appreciation for that staff, led by Kalani Sitake. So it is going to be a great challenge. We are bringing another great program into our league.”
Baylor linebacker Bryson Jackson
A sixth-year senior, Jackson registered two tackles and sacked BYU quarterback Jaren Hall in the aforementioned game last October.
“I admire (BYU),” he said. “I admire how we took care of that dead week prior to the game, how we handled ourselves and played confidently against them.”
Asked if he was excited to play at BYU this fall, Jackson replied: “Oh yeah, for sure.”
Baylor tight end Ben Sims
The fifth-year senior from San Antonio caught three passes for 52 yards against the Cougars last year in what he called “a really tough game” in which the Bears prevailed by unleashing superior talent in the trenches.
“BYU is a tough team, a very tough opponent, and someone we take very seriously. They are a really good team. We really respect them. As for going to Provo this year, I think it is kind of exciting for me. I have never been to Utah,” he said. “We are going to their place this time, so things might be a little bit different. They will have the home-field advantage. As for them coming into the Big 12, I am happy and excited. That’s some fresh blood in the Big 12, so let’s play some football.”
Sims said that it didn’t necessarily strike him after the game that the Cougars weren’t good enough in the trenches yet to compete at the Power Five level.
“For us as an offense, we run the ball on almost everyone,” he said. “We rely on the run, and we love our schemes.”
Sims said BYU has a solid reputation in the San Antonio area, having recruited Ty Detmer out of that region years ago.
“It is kind of like some other big schools — you know what you are getting when you play them. You know their brand, you know their logo. You know where they are coming from,” Sims said.
New TCU coach Sonny Dykes
Former TCU coach Gary Patterson, who was forced out last winter, had plenty of familiarity with BYU because the Cougars and Frogs were in the WAC and Mountain West conferences together from 1996 to 2011. Sonny Dykes is TCU’s new coach, after having coached at SMU from 2018-21.
Dykes faced BYU once (2014) when he was Cal’s head coach from 2013-16, losing 42-35 to the Cougars when Christian Stewart outplayed Jared Goff.
Having coached against Houston, UCF and Cincy more recently, Dykes said the four newcomers will strengthen the Big 12.
“This isn’t an indictment on any of the teams that are leaving our league, but if you go back and look at last year’s teams’ (performances) … those teams are as good as the ones that are leaving — or better. And certainly with one of those (departing) teams, they were better. … Anyway, you look at those teams, and those are very good football teams and teams that really care about playing winning football.”