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A decade later, BYU AD Tom Holmoe says going independent in football was the right move, but P5 membership is still the goal

In Q&A with the Deseret News, Cougars’ athletic leader for the past 15 years said there is ‘room for improvement’ in BYU’s football program, but it is better off now — thanks to its partnership with ESPN — than it would have been in the Mountain West Conference.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe talks with the media during a roundtable discussion on campus Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Provo.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe talks with the media during a roundtable discussion on campus Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in Provo.
Brandon Judd, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU’s director of athletics since 2005, Tom Holmoe became a key figure in the school’s move to football independence in 2011.

The former BYU football player, San Francisco 49ers defensive back and head football coach at the University of California announced the plan to break from the Mountain West Conference on Aug. 31, 2010, and go it alone in football while placing most of BYU’s other sports in the West Coast Conference.

Holmoe, who hired Bronco Mendenhall, the coach who took BYU into football independence, and replaced Mendenhall with Kalani Sitake in 2016, answered the following questions from the Deseret News for our review of the BYU football program’s last decade.

Deseret News: What was your favorite football moment this past decade?

BYU running back Jamaal Williams is tackled during a run as BYU and Mississippi State play in Provo at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tom Holmoe: I’m not sure I can narrow it down to just one. During the past decade, our football team had the chance to play in some of the great stadiums in college football. That’s been a unique opportunity for our program. We’ve also had some memorable wins over perennial powerhouse schools like USC, Texas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan State, Washington and Mississippi State.

There are also some amazing individual moments that come to mind, like the game Taysom Hill had on the road at nationally ranked Texas and Kyle Van Noy’s dominating performance versus San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Seeing Jamaal Williams become BYU’s all-time leading rusher and watching Cody Hoffman break the school receiving record also come to mind as memorable milestones.

DN: Are you generally satisfied with the progress the football program has made the past decade?

TH: We accomplished some good things over the last decade, but there’s certainly room for improvement as we enter a new decade of opportunities. Independence has provided the chance to compete against some of the storied programs in college football. While transitioning to tougher schedules, we were still able to average about eight wins a year and play in nine bowl games. We also had opportunities to finish some seasons in the top 25 or better but let them slip away with unexpected losses.

Our partnership with ESPN has provided us with the exposure we were looking for in going independent. Over the decade, we averaged almost 10 games a year on ABC/ESPN and are in the top 20 in the country for games played on national television. Those are important things for our fans.

DN: What effect did going independent early in the decade (2011) have on the overall performance of the football program?

TH: Going independent gave us an opportunity to partner with ESPN to increase our national exposure and provided better access to our football program for our large national fanbase. Over the past nine years, 75% of our games have been on national television. The chance to schedule games all over the country and play in front of our fans in some of the great football stadiums in the country has been another hallmark of the past decade. It’s amazing to see Cougar Nation show up by the thousands wherever we play. That kind of support is very unique.

I also knew full well that going independent would not be easy and that success would be measured in varying ways. For example, playing unbalanced schedules, not having a conference championship to compete for and not always living up to our fans’ expectations would be a challenge. The unanswered question is, “Where would we be now if we had stayed in MWC?” Remember at the beginning of the decade our fans were infuriated with the poor television coverage. There were other issues that we tried to resolve, but the MWC wouldn’t budge. Our only alternative was independence; however, our plans were — and still are — to join a Power Five conference in the future.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau (1) bobbles the ball as he is defended by West Virginia Mountaineers defensive back Maurice Fleming (24) at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

DN: What were the impediments to the program having more success than it did the past 10 years?

TH: We were at or near the top almost every year in the MWC. Competition is consistently better in independence, especially the last few years of scheduling. We also went through a coaching change midway through the decade, which brought an adjustment period. It comes down to learning how to win more games with tougher schedules.

DN: What does the program need to take the next step and put together a couple of special seasons?

TH: We need to lock in the identity of who we are in all phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams. Consistency is another area of focus. We also need to continue to improve recruiting big-play guys and add depth to cover missions and the inevitable injuries that tend to happen in today’s game.