While BYU has been pining for Power Five membership for decades — and often looking like and having certain qualities of a Power Five program sans that status — the Cougars have been working diligently toward this achievement.

Last Saturday, BYU officially joined the Big 12 Conference, along with UCF, Cincinnati and Houston. 

Now that the Cougars have arrived, athletic director Tom Holmoe says the priority is making the transition into a bonafide Power Five program — the BYU way.

“We have tried to strengthen ourselves through the time as an independent and in the West Coast Conference. Some of our teams have gotten stronger. They’re really prepared,” said Holmoe. “Some of our teams have been a little bit stalled. We’re working on reasons why that’s happened and how we can get better.”

Holmoe has been working closely with coaches and players to find out how he can help them reach their potential.

“We have a lot of units in this department that I spent a lot of time on when I was in my early days as AD at BYU, where I had my hands in a lot of things. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t the smartest thing. The last five years or so, I’ve spent way more time with the coaches and the players. That would be what I’m going to do. Our athletic department has been challenged in every unit, just being able to create.”

Holmoe added that this is a time in the world of college athletics “where it’s not normal.”

There’s name, image and likeness; the transfer portal; realignment issues, to name a few.

“There are so many new features. During COVID, not just in athletics but in every field, people took off and made great things happen with themselves personally and individually,” said Holmoe. “If you can do it when there’s a pandemic, we learned something from that. We can be better. I’m asking for creativity in every area.” 

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Even though BYU now has a seat at the Power Five table, Holmoe reiterated that BYU will remain true to itself. 

“We’re going to look the same in many regards. We are who we are,” he said. “You’ve all seen that. We’ll be the same but different.”

Holmoe addressed a variety of topics regarding the Big 12 during last Saturday’s news conference with reporters. 

On commissioner Brett Yormark: ‘He’s got us all on our toes’

New Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark has already made his presence felt in the year that he’s taken the reins, including brokering a lucrative media rights deal and promoting several innovations. 

“There’s no better person right now in college athletics than Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark. No one’s more creative. No one thinks outside the box more,” said Holmoe. “No one has delivered or executed better. When I say that, the Big 12’s played games but we haven’t been in there as 14 teams right now, 12 after this year. I think that’s rubbed off on me to say, if our conference, the Big 12, can be ahead of the game, let’s try to figure out ways that we can do that, without changing.”

Yormark works differently than other commissioners, according to Holmoe.

“His input is super important to us. But he’s active. The strategy is, he doesn’t run things by the ADs at a really simple level. He’ll come and challenge you like, ‘this is what I want to do.’ The first couple of times he did that, the ADs were like, ‘Woah, this has never been done before.’ We’ve adjusted and adapted and changed some things. 

“He’s been good about, when the vast majority of the room says, ‘not the right time,’ he’ll drop it. But he’ll push it a long way down the road. He doesn’t give up easily. He’s got us all on our toes. I think that’s a good place to be.”

‘Football is king’

When BYU was a member of the West Coast Conference, from 2011-2023, Holmoe attended meetings with other athletic directors from that league. 

At first, it was “a strange change” for Holmoe because football wasn’t a topic of conversation. The WCC, of course, doesn’t play football. 

In the Big 12, it’s a much different dynamic. 

“In this conference, football is king. You say that knowing that the Big 12 men’s basketball is the best in the country. … Your priority in the Big 12 is football. Make no mistake about it. Our priority at BYU is football. I’ve said that a thousand times.” 

But, just like any conference, not every university in the Big 12 see eye-to-eye on every issue and question. 

“But as ADs, the closer that we are together as partners, the better off the conference is going to be. We have to figure out ways where we can fight each other and have those backyard brawls as brothers but still continue to work together,” said Holmoe. “If there are politics, it will hurt us. I’ve been in (Big 12) meetings for a year-and-a-half. It seems like the collaboration with the schools have been very strong and I don’t expect that to change. It’s a great time to be coming into the Big 12.

“When Oklahoma and Texas left, the eight schools in the conference office did some amazing work … They kept it alive, they asked us to join and they brought us in like we were part of it,” he continued. “Texas and Oklahoma have been very good with us. They realize they had two more years of competition (before leaving for the Southeastern Conference next year).

“It’s been a different feel. The competition will be strong and good. For me, no animosity at all. … That’s a positive. I don’t think there’s a lot of politics in that room but we have to protect our sports.”

Big 12 Mexico 

In early June, the Big 12 announced the launch of Big 12 Mexico. It’s the league’s move into Mexico, with conference games being scheduled there in men’s and women’s basketball, women’s soccer and baseball. 

The first Big 12 contest will be held in December 2024 with a men’s and women’s basketball showdown between Kansas and Houston at Arena CDMX in Mexico City. 

The league is also exploring the possibility of establishing a bowl game in Monterrey, Mexico, starting in 2026. It would be the first bowl game played in that nation.  

“Mexico is a natural extension to the Big 12 footprint, and I’m thrilled to introduce Big 12 Mexico as the conference’s first-ever international presence,” said Yormark in a statement. “Through Big 12 Mexico, our student-athletes will have the opportunity to compete in an international setting, and our conference will have the chance to showcase our brand across Mexico.”

Because of the mission of BYU’s sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Holmoe jumped at the chance to hold events in Mexico and gain international exposure.

“It’s BYU. I was the first one to raise my hand,” Holmoe said about that concept when it was broached. “It fits right into our mission and the goals that we have, to be able to get access and exposure. Those are two key pillars that we focused on in independence. Those aren’t going to change in the Big 12. Now, because you have teams from Texas (and) there are a lot of Hispanic people in the state of Florida, around Orlando. Then you have the church. I’m super bullish about certain promotions and programs that will highlight our opportunity.”

Support from the board of trustees

Holmoe was asked about the role of BYU’s Board of Trustees when it comes to dealing with the athletic department and the move to the Big 12. 

BYU promoted C. Shane Reese to president of the university on May 1, replacing Kevin J. Worthen. 

“We’ve had conversations with President Reese and President Worthen for a year-and-a-half. Those conversations are weekly if not daily. The commissioner of education, Clark Gilbert, is very involved with the university and the athletic department. … We’re close in that on a day-to-day basis. There’s a lot of other important things in the church that take priority over athletics. But we’ve always felt, and will always feel, their support. That’s never been a question for us.”

Facility upgrades 

No doubt, BYU has some impressive facilities, including LaVell Edwards Stadium (which was expanded in 1982); and the Marriott Center (built in 1971).

But Holmoe acknowledged that upgrades will be coming at some point. 

“There are a lot of things that are important to us. We have excellent venues. But in this day and age in college athletics, it’s like keeping up with the Joneses. We won’t do that at BYU,” said Holmoe. “It’s not the style. It’s not the manner that we go about our business. If you look at the Marriott Center, that was built in 1971. We have people come in here and think it was built five or 10 years ago because they’ve done such a great job of (maintaining it). It’s a great venue. The football stadium, we have a great advantage. It’s a great place to play. But that’s a stadium that needs some work. Olympic facilities, we take after those and get started soon, with what we want to do, when we want to accomplish it for the purposes that we want.”

Holmoe added that these pending facility upgrades will “keep me awake” at night. 

Facilities are an important function of recruiting, just as is NIL and the transfer portal. 

“The thing that’s important about facilities is that it goes back to recruiting. Everything comes back to recruiting,” said Holmoe. “It all comes down to recruiting. Facilities is one of the big ones. If you’re not up to snuff in certain areas, you have to refurbish or recreate. That’s on our minds. All of our coaches have said, ‘Now that we’re in the Big 12, we need this.’ We make note of it. The question will be when, how and why do we need it. A good example is the (football) locker room downstairs (in the Student-Athlete Building). It was built 20 years ago and two or three years ago we re-did the locker room. It had a big splash. Now, it’s time to take a look at that. You have to stay relevant with the recruits. That’s the lifeblood of every team in the country.”

Possible expansion

Yormark has been very open about the possibility of adding even more teams to the Big 12 after Texas and Oklahoma depart for the SEC. 

“If you’ve read what Brett Yormark has said publicly, then you can imagine what he’s saying privately,” said Holmoe. “There’s no question about it. That’s one of the key elements moving forward with conferences. There are so many changes right now. … When you see the impact that UCLA, USC, Oklahoma and Texas have on the total landscape of college athletics, the domino effect is amazing. You have to be paying attention to membership. There’s a ton of discussions about that. One thing that Brett does very well is, he handles a lot of that. It keeps our focus on the Big 12. We have to be great at what we do and not get distracted by the what-ifs or possibilities. I feel that he brings us the perfect amount of information so we’re not distracted.”

More financial resources 

Chris Pezman, the athletic director at one of the newest members of the Big 12, Houston, has said that he would like his athletic department budget to hit $100 million. 

“I can see why he says that. There are certain things he’s looking to do. Every one of us that’s coming in has different strengths. All four of the schools are going to bring strengths that the others don’t have,” said Holmoe. “In fact, we each have weaknesses that the Big 12 will try to exploit. Houston has some campaigns that are super important for them. Ours is different. I’ve never had a number (for the athletic department budget). I don’t think the number is important. What we want to accomplish, the goal, we have to be able to hit that. Sometimes to be able to get to a point, it costs money. Do we have numbers and targets and projections? Yes. We are a private school. So that’s a good thing. We don’t have a number that we’re shooting for. But it does cost money to compete with these dollars.”

Appreciation for BYU fans

Over the weekend, BYU celebrated its official entry into the Big 12 and involved the fans in the festivities. 

Holmoe explained why. 

“A couple of years ago (during COVID-19), we played football games and basketball games and other games with no fans. They were competitive, we battled and they counted. But it wasn’t the same,” he said. “During those times, it landed home for me that we need those fans. At this time, I’m super appreciative to the fans because they made it possible. … This is a tribute to them. It starts with the student-athletes and the coaches and the teams, putting together great moments over extended periods of time with fairly good stability. That equals this today.” 

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe smiles during an event held in the early hours Saturday, July 1, 2023, in Provo. | BYU Photo