Provo • Stay the course as a college football independent or go back to a conference?
Seven years after BYU left the Mountain West, a conference it helped form, and going it alone in football, the Cougars’ marquee sports program is at a crossroads.
After a dismal 2017 season in which the Cougars went 4-9 and fired one of the most beloved figures in their football history, Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, the stay-or-go question has divided fans, media members and former players more than ever. It continues to be a hot topic on social media websites, fan message boards and sports talk radio, mainly because of BYU’s struggles last season.
Is the program in a nosedive, or was last season — the worst season since 1970 — an aberration?
Every indication from school officials is that they plan to remain independent in football until at least 2023, when most major conferences' television contracts expire. Until then, BYU’s ultimate dream — an invitation to join a Power Five conference — is on hold.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said at BYU Football Media Day on June 22 that the “status quo” is the preferred route for now.
“When the broadcast companies look to renew the broadcast rights, at that point in time there will maybe be changes in the landscape of competition,” he said.
Still, the topic is worth exploring again as the critical 2018 season approaches.
In a roundtable last January where the football team’s worst season in decades and Detmer’s dismissal were major topics of discussion, Holmoe was asked if BYU would ever “bail” on independence.
“It is the same answer that I have always said: We are not looking right now to get into [another] league,” he said.
National media: That was then, this is now
The debate that won’t go away has heated up again as BYU coaches prepare to begin preseason training camp on Thursday. Having gone 9-4 in 2016, with four losses by a combined eight points, the program appeared on the upswing under the energy and enthusiasm brought by new coach Kalani Sitake. But everything went wrong in 2017, especially on offense.
Another subpar year would be devastating, and perhaps cost Sitake his job.
Though maybe leaning a little too heavily on last year’s results, some national and local media members are now urging the Cougars to reconsider their position and rejoin a league. That list includes Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson, who originally supported the move eight years ago. He wrote that “things have changed” and BYU should rejoin the Mountain West to “breathe some life” back into its football program.
Former ESPN analyst Brett McMurphy, who has covered college football nationally for nearly three decades, agrees.
McMurphy said BYU can’t accomplish the goal of every non-Power Five team, which is to win its conference and get into a New Year’s Six bowl game.
“An 11-1 record as an independent, and BYU is headed to whatever bowl agreement it had lined up in August, the same bowl it would have gone to at 6-6,” McMurphy told The Tribune. “But [go] 11-1 as the Mountain West champ and BYU is likely in the Fiesta, Cotton or Peach Bowl.”
He said only BYU can answer the question of whether money from its ESPN deal is worth more than never having a shot at a New Year’s bowl, and “all the notoriety” that comes with it.
Stewart Mandel of Theathletic.com called it a “tough question” and acknowledges that, from an exposure and financial standpoint, BYU would “probably be better off remaining independent because the TV situation isn’t great for [Group of Five] leagues.”
However, he added: “The problem is they don’t have much to play for in the postseason unless they are having a dream season. There’s no guarantee of a NY6 invitation. … And because of that, I’ve felt like they fall off the national radar completely after September, even before last year.”
Finally, Mandel concluded, “being in a G5 conference and being eligible for that NY6 berth would help solve some of that, though it is understandable why that would be a tough pill to swallow.”
Matt Brown, an editor at the website SB Nation, has written extensively about BYU’s plight as an independent and offers a somewhat different take, while calling the situation “complicated,” with no easy answers.
Brown says a lot depends on the school’s aspirations. He said BYU is unlike any school in the country, which clouds the picture.
“If your goal is to be a top 25 program and compete for bigger bowl games, then I don’t think staying independent is the right move right now,” he said. “But if you want exposure and more revenue and things like that, you’re in a pretty good place right now … and I wouldn’t recommend going back to the Mountain West.”
An Ohio native who now lives in Chicago, Brown has been able to watch BYU play live several times and on television weekly.
“In terms of exposure and [giving] access to its fans, that is mission-accomplished,” he said. “You can’t take that away from BYU.”
BYU fans overwhelmingly prefer independence
BYU fans who responded to an informal Twitter survey prefer staying independent to returning to a G5 conference by a 7-to-1 margin.
“BYU football as an independent has been as successful statistically as [it was] in a conference,” said fan Shaun Gordon. “Fan perception is separate from reality, and the benefits of independence far outweigh the benefits of going back to a G5 conference.”
Indeed, BYU’s average win total in its 12 years in the Mountain West is the same as it has been in seven seasons as an independent: Eight.
However, BYU has posted just one 10-win season (2011) in seven seasons as an independent, compared with four seasons of 10 wins or more in its final seven seasons in the Mountain West.
“Last year just clouds things so much,” SB Nation’s Brown said.
A lot of people believe BYU’s schedule is more difficult as an independent than it was as an MWC member, but that’s not true. It is just front-loaded more, with ultra-tough games early and easy games late. That’s a drawback to independence almost everyone can agree on.
Per figures compiled by the Provo radio station, BYU’s average strength of schedule as an MWC member was 65th in the country. As an independent, it has been 77th.
“Utah fans, Kyle Gunther [a former Ute player and local radio host] and four BYU fans want BYU to go back to G5,” said Cougar fan Kyle Campbell. “The rest of us don’t.”
Added BYU fan Nathan Wagstaff: “The gap between P5 and G5 is widening. Going back to the MWC wouldn’t magically make things like they once were. Things have changed, and the only hope of being relevant is moving forward as an independent and hoping for a major restructuring in college football.”
Of the handful of BYU fans who voted for a change of course in the Twitter survey, most want a change because they believe independence has been a failure.
“Definitely give up independence,” said Don Olsen, the former KSL broadcaster. “It was a fool’s errand that began the program’s downfall. What they are doing now is not sustainable and could force ownership [LDS Church] to pull the plug.”
Another fan, Steve Christiansen, suggests staying the course until 2023.
“If a spot doesn’t shake out in the P5, they’ll have to consider the walk of shame back to G5,” he wrote.
Answering a question about whether BYU football is better or worse off now than in 2010, BYU fan Rachel Mullen summed it up thusly: “Financially better, product worse.”
Several BYU fans mentioned lackluster home schedules, late-night kickoff times and the lack of quality opponents in November as drawbacks to independence. However, several noted that in 2019 BYU’s home slate includes Utah, USC, Washington and Boise State and a trip to San Diego State for the season finale.
Return to MW would be 'devastating,’ expert says
Utah resident Ryan Teeples evaluates the financial viability of organizations in their markets, assesses risk and opportunity, and evaluates advertising value and consumer demand in markets for products and services as the owner of Teeples Consulting.
He’s not affiliated with BYU, but is a fan and has researched the viability and financial aspects of independence. He is passionate about the need for the school to stay independent unless a P5 conference comes calling.
Teeples chalked up some media members’ desire to see BYU return to a G5 conference as a “lack of acumen and understanding about the revenue and financial underpinnings of running an athletic department.”
Financially, there’s no question that independence has been a boon for BYU, Teeples believes.
Although BYU is a private school and does not have to open its books to the public, it does have to report revenue and expenses to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis published yearly by the USDE, BYU’s football revenue in 2016, the latest year available, was $26.1 million.
In 2010, BYU’s final season in the MWC, it was $15.6 million. That’s a pretty big leap.
The Mountain West’s Boise State, which has a more lucrative television contract than any of its MWC cohorts — financial considerations not likely to be given to BYU should it be invited back — reported $21.3 million in football revenue in 2016. The next highest was San Diego State, at $13.7 million.
Pointing to those figures and recent news reports that G5 schools such as New Mexico and Cincinnati are struggling financially and looking at cutting certain athletic programs, Teeples says it would be a “big mistake” for BYU to join a conference outside the Power 5.
“If you look at it from a financial standpoint, and you have to because that bleeds into all of the other areas of competition, going back to the Mountain West would be absolutely devastating to BYU,” Teeples said. “I understand why people want to relive the old glory days, but Utah and TCU are gone and the Mountain West is not the same anymore and does not generate enough revenue to be financially viable long term without heavy subsidies from student fees and state governments. Is that the company you want to keep?”
Teeples also believes that ESPN will continue as BYU’s broadcast partner until 2023, saying the cable sports giant would not have extended its contract with BYU through 2019 last year if it didn’t value what BYU brings to the table, even as an independent.
“In my opinion, independence is the only sustainable course for BYU, barring a Power Five invite,” Teeples concluded.
Could Cougs get a cold shoulder?
Some aren’t sure that the Mountain West, which has 12 football members, wants BYU back. Holmoe said in January that he serves on the NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee with MW commissioner Craig Thompson, and they talk frequently, “but [adding BYU] is not a topic of discussion at this point.”
Holmoe acknowledged that directly after BYU left “maybe there was a freezing period” and some “athletic directors were angry. They thought we shouldn’t have done it.”
He said feelings since “have thawed out” and mentioned that future football games with SDSU and UNLV have been scheduled and talks are ongoing with Wyoming and Air Force.
BYU’s seven seasons as a football Independent
Overall record: 56-35
Record vs. Power 5 & Notre Dame: 13-21
2011 — 10-3
2012 — 8-5
2013 — 8-5
2014 — 8-5
2015 — 9-4
2016 — 9-4
2017 — 4-9
BYU’s last seven seasons in the Mountain West
Overall record: 61-27
Record vs. Power 5 and Notre Dame: 9-11
2004 — 5-6
2005 — 6-6
2006 — 11-2
2007 — 11-2
2008 — 10-3
2009 — 11-2
2010 — 7-6