Many people have criticized BYU football’s move to independence, as other sports at the school were stashed — and in some cases, left to suffer — in the West Coast Conference.
That questioning/commentary is nothing new.
Former football coach Bronco Mendenhall championed the move initially, talking about winning national titles and other nonsense, and then later, when the Cougars struggled to consistently win games against far-flung teams with superior talent, said the status was unsustainable over the long haul.
Others have blamed the program’s cratering last season on independence, claiming it has hampered recruiting, caused the Cougars to over-schedule in the early parts of seasons, tearing the heart and soul out of the players once they repeatedly get beat, and sometimes drubbed, and provided little incentive for athletes to continue to fight through the back half, languishing without tangible motivation to play for something — say, a league championship — and to reach for greatly diminished goals.
Last month, Kalani Sitake said he likes the notion of his players being challenged early in the season against Power 5 teams. He asked: “How can you know what you need to do to improve, to be the best, if you don’t play those kinds of teams?”
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe repeatedly has said he and his school have no plans to bail on independence, all the while hoping some P5 league comes along at some point with an invitation. In the meantime, he has said he’s optimistic that BYU will renew its television contract with ESPN, and enjoy the opportunity to showcase — such as it is — Cougars football on that network’s various channels.
It should be noted that since BYU became an independent, it has been shown on numerous telecasts, on some occasions not in much of a winning way. Exposure is one thing, positive exposure is another. BYU has not sniffed a New Year’s Day bowl, neither has it gotten much run as any kind of a national program, which is one of the reasons administrators gave for going independent, way back in the beginning.
They wanted a higher profile.
Providing a chance for a national audience to witness the Cougars getting beat likely isn’t what the powers that be, BYU’s board of trustees, had in mind under this model.
While critics have been loud, I’ve never had much of a problem with BYU taking its shot at independence. The school got considerably more money out of its ESPN deal than it was receiving as a member of the Mountain West. And it wanted to see how it would do against a greater number of big-name opponents.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the year before last, in Sitake’s first season, the Cougars beat three P5 teams — Arizona, Mississippi State and Michigan State — en route to a 9–4 record.
Last season, that record was flipped in the negative, as the Cougars not only lost to P5 opponents, but also to teams such as UMass and East Carolina. It was ugly, and the latter part of the schedule, as usual, featured an uninspiring slate.
There might be middle ground, though, for BYU to consider as it moves forward. This is a change of opinion in this corner, still nothing revolutionary, and based on Holmoe’s remarks of the past, it probably won’t pursue this, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.
What if BYU rejoined the Mountain West, allowing its teams in other sports to face what typically would be better, more compelling competition, some of it against more regional, traditional rivals, while football gained the advantage of playing for a league championship, even if/after it lost early games against P5 teams?
If the Cougars played that league schedule, it still would leave room for a minimum of four games against marquee programs in the country’s far reaches, enabling BYU to legitimize itself, if it were good enough, against the biggies.
The independent schedule that commences in a little over seven weeks includes Arizona, Cal, Wisconsin, Washington and Utah. It also features McNeese State, Northern Illinois, UMass, and New Mexico State, as well as MWC members Utah State, Hawaii, and Boise State.
That schedule isn’t that much different or favorably varied or better than what BYU could schedule as a member of the Mountain West. In the latter case, it might be a difference of one less P5 opponent.
The competitive advantages are, as mentioned, that the Cougars would have something to play for — and fans would have a reason to come to the stadium for league games — in seasons where they couldn’t take out the larger programs. The players could still stay focused on winning a trophy. In seasons where BYU beat a few of those P5 teams, and then rolled through its league schedule, now it would have not only a chance for a championship, it would have a better shot at qualifying for a major bowl game.
That makes some major sense.
Even if the total TV payout were somewhat diminished.
Taking that route might require the swallowing of some pride.
But it might also breathe some life back into a football program that is suffocating in an environment where it, temporarily at least, and maybe not so temporarily, is unprepared to capitalize on plans of ambition laid for it eight years ago, back when the coach leading the effort spoke in highfalutin absolutes, without a hint of a single chortle, about conquering all of college football.
Things have changed.
Independence, and all its goals of glory, might have seemed a bridge too far back then. Now, it, and they, seem a blown bridge too far, with little left lingering but the smoke of delusion.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3–7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.