College sports: Utah, BYU candidates for Pac-10 expansion?
Provo » New Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott's announcement Tuesday that the conference is looking "very seriously" at expansion and could be inviting schools within the next six to 12 months to join the conference has naturally drawn the attention of fans and administrators at Utah and Brigham Young, schools that have shown interest in admission into the so-called "conference of champions."
Officials at Utah and BYU reiterated earlier this week that they have not been contacted recently by any conference outside the one to which they belong -- the 11-year-old Mountain West Conference.
Utah athletic director Chris Hill said Tuesday that to comment publicly on expansion would unnecessarily add to the speculation. Duff Tittle, BYU Associate Athletic Director-Communications, said Wednesday that "neither the university as a whole nor the athletic department have been in contact with the Pac-10 about any expansion questions or issues at all."
The Pac-10's latest revelation, though, has re-ignited the decades-old debate along the Wasatch Front: Are Utah and BYU viable candidates?
Scott did not reveal any possibilities Tuesday, but his declaration that the primary factor in the decision would be finding schools that fit "culturally and academically" into the Pac-10 has fueled the prevailing notion locally that Utah will receive an invitation and BYU will not.
A former BYU athletics department official who had knowledge of the Pac-10's expansion talks in the 1990s told The Tribune he believes that Utah and Colorado are at the top of the conference's wish list (assuming Texas isn't interested in leaving the Big 12).
He said that despite what Pac-10 officials say publicly, BYU's religious ties will keep it from ever receiving an invitation.
"It became very clear [in discussions with the Pac-10] that what we were dealing with was good old-fashioned religious discrimination that was masquerading as academic snobbery," said the source, who wished to remain anonymous because of his continuing relationship with BYU. He said he expects the "climate to be even more divisive now" due to hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights that have BYU at odds with the more liberal-leaning Pac-10 schools.
"Stanford, Cal-Berkeley and one or two others would absolutely have a heart attack if BYU was admitted into the Pac-10," he said.
The source said that even 12-13 years ago, the Pac-10 was looking into expanding into new television markets, but did not want two schools from the same TV market, thus eliminating BYU and Utah as a package deal. When it became apparent Texas wasn't interested, talks then were more focused on Colorado and BYU, until the league's hangups with BYU's faith-based nature emerged.
Utah has played its way into the picture with its overall athletic success, led by football, he said.
The Big 12's Colorado is in the Denver media market, ranked No. 16 in the country and No. 5 in the West, according to Nielsen Media Research. The Salt Lake market, of which BYU and Utah belong, is No. 31.
Owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU does not allow its athletic teams to play or practice on Sundays, a factor that creates obvious scheduling headaches for any conference considering the Cougars.
"The Sunday play issue will be a big obstacle" for BYU moving into any other conference, let alone the Pac-10, said Val Hale, who was BYU's athletic director from 1999-2004.
Hale acknowledges some of the aforementioned issues referred to by the other source, but said the overriding issue will be money, and that could favor BYU.
But BYU's other issues, such as its owner's highly publicized role in California's Prop. 8 referendum, and its perceived crackdowns on academic freedom among its professors and students is said to not play well among the people who will be ultimately making the Pac-10's decision -- the presidents and chancellors of its 10 member schools.
Also, though BYU has some of the most stringent admissions requirements in the country -- its average student had a 3.9 grade point average and a 28 ACT score in high school in 2008-09 -- it is not considered to be a top-flight research institution and does not have a medical school. Both factors are reportedly important to the Pac-10, which fancies itself as academically superior to other major conferences in the country.
Utah, on the other hand, is seen as a strong research institution with an outstanding medical school. Although it has a heavy LDS presence -- approximately half of its students are church members and school president Michael Young is LDS and a BYU graduate -- Utah doesn't carry the political baggage BYU does.
Certainly, both BYU and Utah have established themselves worthy athletically, especially in the revenue sports, football and basketball.
Utah's football program has played in and won two Bowl Championship Series games in the past five years, and BYU has won 10 or more football games and finished in the Associated Press Top 25 each of the past four years, going 43-9 in that stretch.
Both schools have BCS-caliber football and basketball facilities; both have had traditionally strong basketball programs, with Utah having played in the 1998 national championship game and BYU having won or shared the last three MWC regular-season titles and currently ranked No. 17 in the national polls.
Utah has nationally prominent gymnastics and skiing programs; BYU has nationally prominent men's volleyball, cross country and track and field programs and has annually finished in the top 40 in the country in the Sports Directors' Cup, given yearly to universities with the most success in college athletics.
And perhaps no school in the country dominates its conference athletically more than BYU has dominated the Mountain West.
In the first 10 years of the MWC, BYU won 118 of the 296 conference championships (40 percent).
Hale said that if the decision were solely up to Pac-10 athletic directors, BYU would be a shoo-in because of its large national following and ability to increase attendance at road venues.
"Pac-10 ADs loved to schedule us because we put an extra 10,000 to 15,000 people in the seats for football and two or three thousand for basketball," he said. "From a monetary standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to add BYU. But money might not be everything here. It will be interesting to see how it plays out."
With its television contract expiring next year and pressure mounting to add a football championship game, the Pac-10 conference acknowledged this that it is considering expansion. Utah and BYU have two of the strongest athletic programs in the West and share the same media market, which ranked No. 31 in the country, according to Nielsen Media Research. What are the chances that the Pac-10 will invite Utah, BYU, or both? And what factors will decide which schools are chosen? Colorado, in the No. 16 television market in the country, is also a strong candidate, according to former BYU athletic director Val Hale.