In its 10th year without a conference, independence ultimately saved BYU’s 2020 football season

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe listens as BYU basketball coach Dave Rose talks about his career. Rose announced on Tuesday that he was retiring after a 14-year career in which he became BYUÕs all-time winningest menÕs basketball coach.

Provo • Nine years ago, if BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe would have gone back to the Mountain West Conference to ask for help, he would have been denied. A decade ago, the Cougars announced they would be leaving the Mountain West and instead become a college football independent.

Since then, many have hoped BYU could find a way out of independence and into a Power Five conference. Those hopes have — at least to this point — been dashed, leaving disappointment in its wake.

But just as BYU has mended its relationship with the Mountain West Conference, it has also mended people’s perception of independence.

Yes, Power Five membership is still the goal, but ultimately, independence was what saved the Cougars' season this year, amid the pandemic.

“As an independent, we’re a little bit more fluid and a little bit more mobile to be able to get those games,” Holmoe said Friday, during a Zoom gathering with reporters.

Back in August, as conferences started making decisions to postpone the fall season, BYU saw its best independence-era schedule be torn to shreds. Originally, the Cougars were going to face six P5 teams, along with three Mountain West foes and a sprinkling of other teams.

Quickly, BYU was left with only three games on the schedule (and that was after Holmoe had already added Navy as the season opener).

While it seemed BYU wouldn’t give up the chance to play, Holmoe said he did consider conceding at one point.

“We really never wanted to concede, but it was a realistic, viable possibility,” Holmoe said. “And it wasn’t so much that that’s what BYU wanted, but we always felt from the beginning that we weren’t going to be one of the first ones out. We were going to try to hang in there, predicated on health and well-being.”

Holmoe believes the decision from the SEC, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences to move forward with football led the NCAA to allow fall seasons to still be played. Had those three conferences gone the same route as the Pac-12 and Big Ten — which originally postponed their fall seasons — the 2020 season would have been scrapped altogether.

So while BYU is still on the outside looking in at the P5, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 allowed the Cougars to get their foot in the door for many fortuitous opportunities that would end up saving the season.

Holmoe said it was a difficult balance early on as those that were trying to still play a season, BYU included, questioned if it was the right thing to do when it still wasn’t clear how COVID-19 would affect teams.

“That’s why you saw some people make decisions over here and some people make decisions over here, and I don’t have hard feelings about any of them,” Holmoe said. “Everybody needed to make a decision based on their own unique situation at their school, their personnel, their county health departments, their state health departments. There were a lot of factors. So I didn’t want to try to judge anybody making difficult decisions at the time and we just kind of put our arms around each other here at BYU.”

Two months ago, BYU lost games against Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Utah State, Missouri, Northern Illinois, Boise State, San Diego State and Stanford, leaving the Cougars just with two originally scheduled opponents — Houston and North Alabama.

But since then, BYU has added Navy, Army, Troy, UTSA, Texas State and Western Kentucky, and gotten Boise State and San Diego State back on the schedule.

However, the Army game was postponed due to a small outbreak of COVID-19 cases among the Cougar team. While both programs want to play the game, and both teams have open dates later in the season, neither can commit to a date at the moment because the pandemic has forced teams to be more fluid. Should more games be postponed due to outbreaks, those late-season openings will serve as place holders.

For Holmoe, navigating through the pandemic and trying to put a schedule back together was almost like a dance.

“In some days we take three steps forward and the next day we take two steps back,” Holmoe said. “When we got into the dog-day afternoons of scheduling, I’d take three steps forward and 10 steps back. And those were the days I wasn’t sure. And those were the days where it wasn’t necessarily going to be BYU shutting it down, but it would be there wouldn’t be enough teams to play.”

And the uncertainty continues.

A week ago, Holmoe didn’t know the Boise State and San Diego State games would be back on the table. In the case of the Mountain West, Air Force’s relationship and history of playing Army and Navy led the conference to allow one nonconference opponent, even if it meant shortening the conference-only schedule.

Holmoe isn’t too clear on the details, but he believes when the nonconference game opportunity arose within the Mountain West, someone from Boise State volunteered BYU. The game was already scheduled and both teams had the originally scheduled date still open, so it fit.

“That Boise State game just seemed like the stars were perfectly aligned and we had very good assistance from the Mountain West Conference,” Holmoe said.

While Holmoe isn’t sure if more games will be added or changes will need to be made as the season continues to play out, he’s grateful for the opportunity the pandemic provided — a chance for Holmoe to reconnect or build up new relationships with other ADs throughout the nation.

Athletics has become large business, but the pandemic forced everyone to take a step back and focus on their priorities. And while looking for opponents to build up their schedule again, Holmoe spoke to a lot of different people. Even if those conversations didn’t result in a game, or may never result in a game, Holmoe found it useful to just make those connections.

“What I’ve tried to convey to all the people in the country is we’re just going to be mobile — we’re going to be flexible,” Holmoe said. “There’s so many things we can do not being in a conference, so just keep an eye on us. I think when people saw that we could put together a game with Navy so quickly, and Army so quickly, I hope that people are going, like on the back burner, ‘if anything were to happen down the road, BYU is pretty flexible.’ And I know so many people out there that if it were to happen, then I could make that call.”