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It’s been a decade since BYU’s declaration of independence — here’s how it all unfolded

In some ways, what happened in 2010 is reminiscent of what’s gone on during the summer of 2020.

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announces going independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference for other sports and their contract with ESPN on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

PROVO — During the spring and summer of 2020, we’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic force the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and the cancellation and postponement of numerous college football games and seasons.

Those decisions have impacted every school, including BYU, with news changing by the day, sometimes by the hour. Or the minute.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of what happened in the summer of 2010 — a decade ago.

On Aug. 31, 2010, in one of the most momentous, historic decisions in BYU sports history, the school announced a bold stroke — to leave the Mountain West Conference and go independent in football and join the West Coast Conference in most of its other sports. The following day, BYU announced a long-term broadcasting agreement with ESPN. It also provided BYU the freedom to broadcast sporting events on its own network, BYUtv.

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announces going independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference for other sports and their contract with ESPN on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

But that was only after a zany summer in conference realignment that featured programs, like Utah, ending decades-long associations with their leagues and breaking away from their natural rivalries to join new leagues. 

Nobody could have envisioned exactly what independence would bring for BYU.

Ten years later, BYU is the only FBS program west of Texas planning to play football this fall. On Labor Day, the Cougars will be on a big stage, on ESPN, in their season opener at Navy. It will be Monday Night Football, Latter-day Saint family home evening-style. BYU continues to go forth boldly, nobly and independent.

Still, the road to independence wasn’t smooth.

Consider the events surrounding BYU and the Mountain West back in 2010: there were disagreements over television contracts, reports relying on anonymous sources, cryptic comments, a media frenzy, secret alliances, backroom deals and an alleged hacked Twitter account — content worthy of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary. Ultimately, BYU’s move impacted both the Western Athletic Conference (the WAC became a non-football conference in 2012–13) and the West Coast Conference.

Indeed, it was a wild, wild West.

Kicking off the craziness, at least locally, was Utah’s decision to leave the MWC for the Pac-12. 

But BYU didn’t start exploring its options when the Utes decided to leave the MWC. The school had been preparing contingency plans for years. That summer, the time had come to make some program-altering decisions. 

“To me, those days were nothing more than a blur, especially once we got into August,” recalled Duff Tittle, BYU’s associate athletic director over communications. “The thing I remember during that time is putting in 14- to 16-hour days. I’d try to go home to get something to eat and then my phone would be ringing all night long or people texting me, wanting confirmation. And you’re also trying to prepare for the future of something we had never done before.”

It was also a time when Twitter began to become a more powerful tool for reporting breaking news and propagating speculation. 

“Everything was so fluid for me. You’d hear one thing, then hear another that was completely different. Every day was something different.” — Duff Tittle, BYU’s associate athletic director over communications

“Everything was so fluid for me. You’d hear one thing, then hear another that was completely different,” Tittle said. “Every day was something different.”

Even before Utah left the Mountain West, BYU’s relationship with the league was on shaky ground. 

There was plenty of controversy shrouding the league’s television contract, which limited BYU’s exposure. Many games were broadcast on The Mtn., an upstart network that wasn’t available to many fans around the country. BYU had been promised the ability to rebroadcast rights of home games but the league’s broadcast partners reneged on that promise. The MWC’s television contract paid out about $1.5 million per school. 

BYU’s original deal with ESPN was believed to be approximately $6 million per year.

From 2006-09, the Cougars enjoyed some outstanding seasons, producing a combined record of 43-9. But BYU was playing in relative obscurity. 

“Think about what would have happened had we been on ESPN from 2006-2009,” Tittle said. “The exposure would have been unbelievable.” 

Nowadays, many of BYU’s football and basketball games are broadcast on the ESPN family of networks or on BYUtv. Since going independent, BYU has played 71 regular-season games on ABC/ESPN and 38 of those have drawn at least a million viewers each. In January, that ESPN deal was extended through 2026.

When BYU decided to go independent, the stated reasons were access and exposure.

“Those two pillars have never changed,” Tittle said.

“We went independent for a reason. That was, we were not on TV. Our brand was getting destroyed. We might have won games but you couldn’t see the games.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

Last August, athletic director Tom Holmoereflected on that decision. 

“We went independent for a reason. That was, we were not on TV. Our brand was getting destroyed. We might have won games but you couldn’t see the games,” he said. “Cougar Nation didn’t have access to see us play. We had to make a decision. We had to get away from (the Mountain West Conference) or we were going to be stuck in that vacuum.” 

Tittle sees parallels between what happened in 2010 and what’s happening now as BYU cobbles together a revamped football schedule

“Back then, while putting together a partnership with the WCC, I’m guessing it happened because of Tom Holmoe and the people he knew,” he said. “He was respected by people and discussions started because of that. That’s what is happening right now with our schedule. Tom knows so many people that he can make phone calls. The relationships that he’s created over the years certainly have played a role then and now.”

Here’s a timeline of the highlights of events as they unfolded during the summer of 2010, culminating with BYU’s declaration of independence:

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University of Utah president Michael Young speaks at a press conference announcing the university’s acceptance of the invitation to join the Pac-10 Athletic Conference at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, June, 17, 2010.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

June 17

On June 11, the Mountain West invited the WAC’s Boise State to join the league in 2011 as the MWC’s 10th member. 

Six days later, following months of speculation, Utah announces it is officially leaving the Mountain West to join the newly formed Pac-12, along with Colorado from the Big 12, beginning in the fall of 2011. 

For the first time in decades, the Utes and Cougars will no longer be members of the same conference. 

And, naturally, everybody wonders where that leaves BYU. 

BYU officials are quiet about the news and they do not immediately respond to media inquiries about Utah’s move to the Pac-12. 

“It’s going to be a whole new ballgame. I wish we could put the genie back in the bottle. But we can’t.” — Former BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg

Former BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg tells the Deseret News that day, “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame. I wish we could put the genie back in the bottle. But we can’t.”

Legendary coach LaVell Edwards, who had retired 10 years earlier, laments the Utes’ departure.

“I really hate to see it,” he says. “With Boise State coming in (to the Mountain West), we had positioned ourselves, as a conference, to have a lot more opportunity somewhere down the line to be affiliated with the (Bowl Championship Series).”

Asked about speculation about BYU going independent, Fehlberg addresses that issue, in terms of the entire athletic department going independent.

“We looked at it. It’s not viable. Not even close. Even Notre Dame, with all of its history and all of its strengths, financially and otherwise, couldn’t do it,” Fehlberg says. “I don’t think it will ever be duplicated anywhere else. It doesn’t make sense. The scheduling complexities would overwhelm you. People who say BYU should go independent are naive.”

July 16

Holmoe breaks his silence as he meets with reporters at the Student-Athlete Building on campus. It’s the first time that Holmoe publicly speaks about the school’s situation since Utah’s announcement that it was moving to the Pac-12. 

Meanwhile, there are plenty of rumors, or maybe wishful thinking, about BYU possibly joining the Big 12.

Holmoe fields obvious questions about BYU’s next step, including possibly going independent, and the state of the rivalry. 

BYU is exploring every possible avenue to enhance its athletic department’s position financially and competitively, Holmoe tells reporters. 

“BYU’s been working on this for three years. We’re in an unusual position of being in the middle of things, but not on the internal area of things. Instead of being acted upon, we wanted to be proactive. On the other hand, we’re not Notre Dame. We can’t make demands, and we don’t have multiple invitations. So we try to make the best of this jigsaw puzzle and position ourselves for the future.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

He underscores that BYU began assessing its situation long before Utah jumped to the Pac-12. 

“BYU’s been working on this for three years,” Holmoe says. “We’re in an unusual position of being in the middle of things, but not on the internal area of things. Instead of being acted upon, we wanted to be proactive. On the other hand, we’re not Notre Dame. We can’t make demands, and we don’t have multiple invitations. So we try to make the best of this jigsaw puzzle and position ourselves for the future.”

In the short term, the athletic department’s priorities are to crack the Bowl Championship Series and increase television exposure, Holmoe explains.

Among the factors that BYU must weigh — is it better to leave the MWC or stick around and try to help the league achieve Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying status?

Holmoe confirms that joining the Pac-12 was never an option for BYU.

Meanwhile, Holmoe and Utah athletic director Chris Hill have been in discussions about scheduling games beginning in 2011. 

When he’s asked if BYU would schedule a 2-for-1 deal with Utah, Holmoe says no. “What we’re going to do is do what’s best for BYU,” he says. “When we do that, we win.”

There’s speculation that BYU, which is frustrated by the lack of exposure provided by the Mountain West and The Mtn. television network, could be on its own with the help of its own TV network (BYUtv).

“Independence is an option. We will look at everything,” Holmoe says. “There are pros and cons to the Pac-10, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Mountain West Conference, independence. What you have to do is weigh those and measure them against what’s right for BYU. And not just what’s right for BYU in 2010, but what’s right for BYU into the future. That is quite a bit more complex than most people understand.”

At this time, there are only three independent teams in football — Notre Dame, Army and Navy.

Holmoe expresses frustration about the lack of exposure offered by The Mtn. television network. He also extols the value of the school owning its own television network, BYUtv, which reaches a potential audience of 150 million around the world. He adds that BYU boasts a new state-of-the-art broadcasting facility.

“There’s nothing better than that west of the Mississippi,” Holmoe says.

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A look at the exterior of BYU’s state-of-the-art broadcast building on Monday, Nov. 22, 2010, one of the reasons BYU was able to go independent in football.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

July 27

At the Mountain West football media day in Las Vegas, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, while answering questions about BYU’s future, drops a nugget, or maybe a hint of things to come, saying that BYU is uniquely qualified to “go it alone” if necessary. 

BYU is on the clock. The school has until Sept. 1 to make its intentions known, if it is leaving the Mountain West, before incurring a significant financial penalty.

Aug. 17

On a nondescript Tuesday night, while BYU is in the middle of fall camp, Colorado State’s official Twitter account unleashes a firestorm of speculation by reporting that BYU is leaving the MWC and jumping to the WAC. It claims that BYU is holding a news conference to announce the decision Thursday. 

Later, CSU officials claim their Twitter account was hacked and that they did not send out that tweet. 

Tittle tells reporters there’s “not much we can say right now.” He adds that a CSU official has called and “apologized profusely” about the tweet. 

Aug. 18

The plot thickens. 

The day after that infamous CSU tweet, various news stories follow. ESPN’s Andy Katz reports that BYU is going independent, with other sports moving to the WAC.

Tittle tells reporters Wednesday morning there’s “not much we can say right now. We’re looking into everything. Nothing’s changed. We’ve been looking at our options for years.”

Sources at Utah State tell the Deseret News that BYU is leaving the Mountain West in favor of the WAC, a conference that the Cougars belonged to from 1962-1998.

Contacted in the morning by the Deseret News, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes has “no comment” regarding BYU’s potential move to the WAC.

BYU officials neither confirm nor deny the reports. 

After football practice, Mendenhall, who is overseeing a quarterback derby between Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps while preparing for his team’s season opener at home against Washington on Sept. 4, finds himself besieged by reporters and television cameras. When asked questions about BYU’s future, Mendenhall says reporters should be talking to Holmoe and Tittle.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says.

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BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall calls out instructions as the team runs from one drill to another during fall football camp Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

When asked about his comment during the Mountain West media day in July, that BYU can stand alone, Mendenhall says he’s only concerned about preparing his football team for the 2010 season.

Karl Benson, the WAC’s long-time commissioner, says during WAC football media days that the conference would welcome BYU back as a football independent. After Boise State announced it would leave the WAC, the schools’ presidents and athletic directors met to discuss potential expansion candidates but chose to invite no one at that time.

Reached that night, a source at the WAC office says “no comment” when asked about the BYU-to-the-WAC rumors.

The Mountain West reaches out to WAC members Fresno State and Nevada on Aug. 19 to extend conditional invitations to join the league. Initially, the two schools decline. When Boise State left the WAC on June 11, the remaining WAC schools signed a $5 million buyout agreement that would be assessed to any member that leaves the conference within the next five years. 

A source tells the Deseret News that if the WAC decided to expand to 12 teams, there are Mountain West teams that would be happy to join BYU in a move back to the WAC. Boise State has a no-penalty clause that would allow it to back out of joining the Mountain West. 

If BYU and Boise State are to return to the WAC, the Mountain West would be crippled, having already lost Utah. The MWC might have to go after schools from Conference USA to fill the unexpected empty spots.

By that night, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson hosts a hastily organized news conference and announces that Fresno State and Nevada are joining the league — undermining, cannibalizing and weakening the WAC. It is viewed as a preemptive strike on BYU’s potential move to the WAC. 

The Mountain West’s power play leaves the WAC with only six football-playing institutions.

Thompson says he has recently returned from a meeting in Philadelphia with Comcast and CBS officials, who wanted the league and The Mtn. to reach more markets. The league started the network a few years earlier, surrendering national exposure on ESPN.

Thompson says the timing of the announcement, adding Fresno State and Nevada, is driven by television negotiations with Comcast and CBS — not the mounting speculation about BYU’s departure from the Mountain West to the WAC. 

“BYU is a member of the Mountain West,” Thompson says, adding that the nine-team MWC “is soon to be an 11-team league.”

Asked about BYU’s future with the conference, Thompson replies, “I don’t know BYU’s intentions. Those are questions that need to be directed at BYU.”

Pity the WAC. “In a 12-hour period, we went from having a secure future to not knowing what will happen,” Benson says when contacted later.

And it’s not the first time Benson has been blindsided by Mountain West schools. In 1998, BYU, Utah, Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV and Wyoming abruptly announced they were leaving the WAC to create the Mountain West after the presidents of those schools held a clandestine meeting at the Denver airport. 

Benson calls Nevada and Fresno State “selfish,” adding that “there was a similarity (to 1998-99) in the way this was done.” 

“In my opinion, it was very clear to me and the WAC membership that the Fresno State and Nevada invitation was a direct result of BYU’s interest in going independent and joining the WAC.” — Former WAC commissioner Karl Benson

Benson later adds, “In my opinion, it was very clear to me and the WAC membership that the Fresno State and Nevada invitation was a direct result of BYU’s interest in going independent and joining the WAC.”

Trevor Matich, the center on BYU’s 1984 national championship team and now an ESPN commentator, says he would be thrilled at the prospect of the Cougars going independent.

“If it happens, I’d leap for joy because BYU’s built itself to the point that it’s a national program that’s consistently winning,” he tells the Deseret News.

Of course, there are pros and cons to going independent.

“The upside is so high and the downside is really risky,” Matich says. “The upside is, BYU’s a national program. This would allow them to market games to bigger networks, and use BYUtv, which is huge. Texas is looking at starting its own network. BYU’s already got it. BYU would increase its footprint dramatically and potentially increase its cash flow as well, if they can monetize it the right way. BYU’s won at least 10 games the past four years, but you can’t see them on TV. There’s more potential upside, especially with Utah leaving for the Pac-10 … you can’t afford to be second-fiddle in your own state.”

Meanwhile, BYU, as an independent, would no longer have a conference championship to play for, Matich adds. 

Sources tell the Deseret News that ESPN could partner with BYU to help facilitate this move to independence, particularly with scheduling and broadcasting games.

ESPN spokesman Michael Humes tells the Deseret News that “BYU initiated a discussion with ESPN. The conversation will remain private.”

Aug. 19

Over a 36-hour period, there have been a whirlwind of rumors, reports and speculation as it appears BYU could be close to leaving the Mountain West, going independent in football, and placing its other sports in a different league — though likely not in the WAC. Not anymore.

That morning, Holmoe delivers his annual question-and-answer session in front of 150 attendees at BYU’s Education Week. It marks the first time he has spoken publicly since reports about BYU going independent surfaced. 

Before taking questions, Holmoe addresses the elephant in the classroom. 

“As you can tell, it’s our policy or procedure that we’re not going to play out our business in the media,” Holmoe says. “We don’t do that. ... We have some incredible options available to us because of BYU broadcasting and the friends that we have across the country. We’re trying to put ourselves in position to be the best we can, which is exposure across the country, letting our kids shine in the bright lights.”

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe speaks at BYU’s Campus Education Week of the topic, “Athletics at BYU” on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2010. He did not give any insight to BYU going independent.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

He’s asked about reports that BYU could partner with ESPN if it decides to go independent. 

“I don’t think that’s a secret of our strategy,” Holmoe says. “We have a great relationship with ESPN … Our goal is exposure.”

Holmoe is asked how the move of Fresno State and Nevada from the WAC to the MWC affects BYU’s strategy, Holmoe says, “Does what Fresno State does affect us? It does.”

Afterward the class is over, a Deseret News reporter approaches Holmoe for more clarification. 

“Things are playing out right now. I’ll check my e-mail and literally things will have changed in the last hour. It’s amazing. We have people who are watching it and monitoring it on a regular basis.” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

“Things are playing out right now. I’ll check my e-mail and literally things will have changed in the last hour. It’s amazing,” Holmoe says. “We have people who are watching it and monitoring it on a regular basis.”

Which is why Holmoe said he can’t say much about BYU’s situation.

While talking with the Deseret News, Holmoe reaches into his pocket to answer his phone. “Let me get this,” he said. “It’s my boss.”

Then Holmoe excuses himself, turns, answers the call, and briskly walks away — presumably returning to his office on lower campus.

Aug. 31

After the flurry of reports and rumors and speculation, things have been relatively quiet, although everyone understands it’s the calm before the storm. 

The Mountain West has apparently thwarted BYU’s attempts to join the WAC in its sports other than football by raiding the WAC. But the WCC, a league of religious-affiliated schools, has emerged as a league that seems to fit BYU’s needs. The media views the WCC as a viable option for BYU, if it decides to go the independent route. 

The school is facing a Sept. 1 deadline to notify the Mountain West if it is leaving.

On the afternoon of Aug. 31, the much-anticipated announcement comes via an e-mailed release from BYU officials — the football program is going independent and the Cougars are joining the game WCC in 12 other sports.  

This historic announcement happens weeks later than expected.

It’s also been reported that the MWC had been in in-depth discussions with BYU officials in an attempt to keep the Cougars in the league. But those talks broke down the previous week. 

“BYU ultimately decided it could make more money and get more exposure by becoming an independent and having greater freedom to air its sports programming.” — The Denver Post

“A contentious debate over television rights sparked nearly three weeks of speculation over whether BYU would remain with the MWC or go the independent route, joining either the WCC or Western Athletic Conference in all sports except football,” according to the Denver Post. “BYU ultimately decided it could make more money and get more exposure by becoming an independent and having greater freedom to air its sports programming.”

Soon after BYU’s announcement, the MWC issues a statement of its own but, notably, it doesn’t mention BYU. 

“Since its inception, the Mountain West Conference has worked strategically to grow and strengthen the league, in order to position itself at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics,” Thompson’s statement says in part. “We look forward to the future with great excitement — particularly welcoming recent additions Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada into the Mountain West.”

BYU announces a news conference scheduled for noon the following day. 

Mendenhall is asked about independence after practice. 

“I’m supportive of it and I’m anxious to coach the team in a new situation,” he says. “The No. 1 thing that, to me, on a broader perspective other than football, is exposure. And I love the idea of being more visible and I don’t know what all of those details are. I’m sure they’ll be addressed but that part to me is significant.”

Mendenhall says he told his team during practice about BYU’s move to independence. “They cheered and went right back to it,” he says.

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Left to right; Kevin Worthen, Advancement VP at BYU, BYU president Cecil Samuelson, BYU A.D. Tom Holmoe, Dave Brown V.P. of Programming for ESPN, WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich and former BYU football coach LaVell Edwards gather before BYU officials announce going independent in football and joining the WCC for other sports and their contract with ESPN on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Sept. 1

The long summer of speculation and uncertainty is finally over. 

BYU officials, including Holmoe and school president Cecil O. Samuelson, as well as Edwards, ESPN’s Dave Brown and WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, field questions at a news conference at LaVell Edwards Stadium. 

BYU is going independent. But certainly it isn’t doing this alone.

BYU also announces that the school has signed an eight-year contract with ESPN to broadcast home games on the network’s family of networks. 

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe smiles as he answers questions after announcing BYU is going independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference for other sports, as well as their contract with ESPN, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

“This is the pathway we chose to go for,” Holmoe says.

Additionally, Holmoe also announces BYU and Notre Dame have agreed to a six-game football contract that will run through 2020. (The Cougars and Fighting Irish played in 2012 and 2013 in South Bend. No other games have been played or scheduled between the two programs.)

The decision to go independent “comes down to two pillars — access and exposure,” Holmoe explains. “Our vision is to play football games across the country against many of the storied football programs in their legendary stadiums and to those same highly regarded program return to Provo to play in LaVell Edwards Stadium.”

“This is just a tremendous day for ESPN to be back in business with BYU on a formal basis,” says Brown, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisition. “It’s a tremendous addition to our college football schedule.”

Holmoe adds there will be “a transition period of a couple of years before we achieve the full vision of what football independence can become. To that point we are grateful to a group of schools in the WAC who have agreed to play us in 2011 and 2012 to help us get started in this endeavor.”

“We had a lot of exciting games. We started throwing the football before anybody else did, and so that right away created a lot of excitement. ESPN was a new company and we were kind of the new kids on the block. We just kind of grew up together that way.” — Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards

Edwards, who attends the news conference, says the relationship with ESPN began three decades ago. “We had a lot of exciting games. We started throwing the football before anybody else did, and so that right away created a lot of excitement. ESPN was a new company and we were kind of the new kids on the block. We just kind of grew up together that way.”

Asked if this move to independence is tantamount to a temporary landing spot for BYU while it bides time awaiting an invitation to a power conference, Holmoe says, “We don’t see this as a stepping stone or a launching pad.”

BYU officially joined the WCC on July 1, 2011. The Cougars played their first football game as an independent on Sept. 3, 2011, in Oxford, Mississippi, earning a dramatic 14-13 victory over Ole Miss. 

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In BYU’s first game as an independent, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy strips the ball from Mississippi Rebels quarterback Zack Stoudt during the Cougars’ season opener with Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. Van Noy recovered the ball and scored on the play. BYU won 14-13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Since that time, BYU has had some conference affiliation flirtations with the Big East, the American Athletic Conference and, yes, the Big 12.

Before he left BYU to become the head coach at Virginia, Mendenhall said publicly that independence was not sustainable. Holmoe said last January that the goal for BYU is to get into a Power Five conference.

But for now, the Cougars continue to go forth boldly, nobly and independent. And they probably will continue to be independent for the foreseeable future — maybe until conference realignment once again shakes the college football world like it did a decade ago.