Provo • A week ago, on the day Texas A&M University informed the Big 12 Conference it was leaving that league if accepted by another conference, Brigham Young University and high-ranking officials of the faith that owns it appeared to be on the cusp of having to make a monumental decision regarding its athletics future.
Stay independent in football and a member of the West Coast Conference in most other sports, or join the Big 12? The possibility of BYU joining the Big 12 in football only was also discussed.
There are strong indications now, however, that the decision won't have to be made at all, because the Big 12 as it currently stands may not exist beyond this school year.
The New York Times and the San Jose Mercury News, among others, have reported in the past few days that Big 12 kingpins Texas and Oklahoma could leave the league for the Pac-12, and most likely would take Texas Tech and Oklahoma State with them, forming the first so-called 16-school "superconference" in college athletics and triggering a seismic shift of the conference landscape.
Oklahoma's president said Saturday the school is exploring its options, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has acknowledged recently that multiple universities have approached the Pac-12 about membership. The Mercury News reported that Pac-12 presidents and chancellors do not want to expand but might be forced into it if the SEC and Big Ten do so.
Where does that leave BYU?
BYU officials declined to publicly comment on The Salt Lake Tribune's report last week that said they were in discussions with the Big 12, referring reporters to last Wednesday's statement that the school was "focused on the opportunities ahead," which is to say their relationship with ESPN as a football independent, and their affiliation with the WCC. BYU signed an eight-year agreement to have its home football games televised by ESPN when it broke away from the Mountain West Conference.
Judging from comments made by BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe since the school declared its independence a year ago, the safest bet, according to one former member of the athletics administration, is that BYU will stay put.
"No way BYU goes [to the weakened Big 12] if Texas and Oklahoma aren't there," said one former BYU official. "Not a chance."
Speaking at July's football media day gathering, Holmoe said, "We feel very good about being independent in football and participating in the West Coast Conference. We had to think that through very carefully. ... This is not a move to where we are going to be a placeholder until we go somewhere else. Our focus is straight ahead. We have no deals going on the side."
But staying put could also be risky for the Cougars, especially if longtime independent Notre Dame capitulates to the superconference wave and joins a 16-team conference. That could leave BYU on the outside looking in as four 16-team conferences are formed. Navy and Army are also independent, but they don't have nearly the big football aspirations that BYU has, with Mendenhall saying several times at media day that the Cougars' ultimate goal is another national championship.
Knowing that BYU will never be invited to the Pac-12 because of its religious affiliation and related reasons, geography could be a factor if the three other conferences are centered thousands of miles from Provo. The Cougars could be on an island in the West.
Football coach Bronco Mendenhall seemed to sense that was a possibility last week at his news conference when he said college football was moving in the direction of superconferences.
"Eventually, it will come to a head, and I think it is getting relatively close," Mendenhall said. Asked if BYU would want to be a part of one of those superconferences, he nodded affirmatively.
"I think our job is to earn our way in. And I think that we certainly deserve recognition and consideration. I think that my job is to make sure we don't leave any doubt. Whenever that is to happen with the number of games, again, that we are winning, and the rankings that we are achieving, I think it would be difficult for us not to be in consideration. But again, the next three years, I would say, are going to be critical, especially to the national landscape."
Now, it appears, it might be the next three days.
Current Big 12 members
Texas Texas, Texas Tech,
Baylor, Texas A&M
Oklahoma Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Kansas Kansas, Kansas State
Iowa Iowa State
Note • Texas A&M has informed the conference it plans to leave if accepted into another conference.
BYU at No. 24 Texas
P Saturday, 5 p.m.
TV • ESPN2