BYU joins Big 12 Conference

Board unanimously approved invitations for BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston on Friday morning

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University athletic director Tom Holmoe, right, is joined remotely by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, right for the announcement of BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference at a press conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Provo • After weeks of anticipation, the wait is finally over.

BYU has joined the Big 12 Conference.

“Congratulations, Cougar Nation,” BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe said during a Friday morning news conference on campus. “It’s been a long time coming and here we are.”

The Big 12 Conference Board of Directors on Friday morning voted unanimously to extend an invitation to BYU. The board, as expected, also voted to extend membership to Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.

“We have attempted to add the very best — and you can put it in a recruiting [context], the very best athletes that we possibly could,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowslby said. “That certainly is emblematic of BYU and the history and success that the university has had and that the athletics program has had. In adding four members that we have, we will gain as much as we could possibly gain on the football field. We will arguably be the best basketball conference in the country. We will be a force to be reckoned with in a wide variety of Olympic sports.”

BYU’s sports will compete in the Big 12 beginning in the 2023-24 season. The university will remain a football independent until 2023. The Cougars will compete as a member of the West Coast Conference for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons in all remaining sports, except for men’s volleyball, which will continue to compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

“The addition of BYU, with its rich tradition of athletic success and outstanding academic credentials enhances the prestige and competitiveness on the national scale,” said Lawrence Schovanec, Big 12 board chair and president of Texas Tech University. “A bigger, stronger, more national Big 12 is a great thing for college athletics. And, certainly, Brigham Young University brings a broad national interest to the Big 12.”

Friday’s announcement marked the end of a decade-plus search for BYU.

“We have said all along that the decisions about where we play, who we play and what conference we compete in are about the student-athletes first and how we can help them achieve excellence,” Holmoe said in a statement. “Competing on the Big 12 stage provides more opportunities for our student-athletes. That’s what it’s all about.”

News of the conference’s interest in adding new members had trickled out in the months since college football powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma in July announced their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. That trickle had turned into a deluge in recent days, with conference officials moving more quickly than anticipated in shoring up membership.

Now the Cougars, at long last have a Power Five home, among Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and the conference’s three other incoming members.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University football coach Kalani Sitake greets basketball coach Mark Pope as they attend the announcement of BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference at a press conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

“College athletics is changing,” Holmoe said. “We’ve seen a rapid increase in the rate in which change is happening. We see it with conference realignment, we’ve seen it with the transfer portal, governance, and we’ve certainly seen it with NIL. We’re ready at BYU. Today’s news about joining the Big 12 is huge, but it’s not a resting point for us. This is just a new beginning with opportunities for bigger and better things to keep coming for BYU Athletics.”

A move to the Big 12 will certainly mean more revenue and greater exposure for BYU. For football coach Kalani Sitake, a move to a Power Five conference should be a boost to recruiting efforts.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘if only you were in a P5.’ Well, now we are,” he said. “It allows us to get the kids that probably should have come to BYU from the very beginning.”

The Big 12 will allow the Cougars to continue their practice of not playing on Sundays.

“I wouldn’t call it a concern. I would call it a consideration,” Bowlsby said of BYU’s stance against Sunday competition. “We had very open and frank discussions about it. Everybody has their eyes wide open, and we understand that there are scheduling considerations that are going to have to be taken into account. Like all of our members, some are in remote locations, some have more difficult transportation issues than others, and some are a longer ways away. Those are all things that you think about as you consider institutions, and even as you work together within your league, that is something that is baked in, and we don’t feel like it was going to be an issue.”

Wanting greener pastures, BYU announced in 2010 that it would leave the Mountain West Conference and become a football independent. The move was seen as temporary, the quickest way to jump to a Power Five conference.

It took 11 years before that invitation finally came.

“Ten years ago, we charted a new course, on our journey, a new way forward,” Holmoe said. “It was during those years that BYU was able to learn and to grow and to change in the WCC and as an independent in football. We are thrilled to be joining the Big 12. Cougar Nation, we didn’t reach our destination today. The journey will still continue. Together as the Big 12, all our schools will continue to press forward, doing the small and simple things that it takes to bring all 12 of us to this point.”

Prior to Friday, that dream was closest to coming true in 2016 — the last time the Big 12 looked into expanding. BYU received consideration but some in the Big 12 expressed concerns about BYU’s policies regarding LGBTQ students.

The Big 12 didn’t end up expanding in 2016.

“We are embarking on this in a very different way than we did in 2016, when we were sort of going through an exploration process,” Bowlsby said. “This was a much different process. I think it will yield a very fruitful outcome. It will be a very successful partnership and a marriage that will make Brigham Young more competitive, it will make the Big 12 more competitive.”

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy was one voice publicly supporting BYU in recent days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University president Kevin Worthen, right, answers questions form the media alongside BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe during the announcement of BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference at a press conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

“Coast to coast, people see BYU as a Power Five team. That logo. You would, too, right?” Gundy said earlier this week. “If you see that logo, people don’t really know that they’re an independent. People think they’re tied into a Power Five conference.”

One ESPN analyst called BYU “the most obvious” addition for the Big 12.

“It has a proud history and recent success in football, a national fan base and minimal red tape to cut through as an independent without a conference to leave,” ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura wrote Wednesday. “It fits geographically, and the religious component — which is widely understood to be a road block for the Pac-12 — isn’t an issue in a conference with Baylor and TCU.”

WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said the conference understood BYU’s decision and wishes BYU the best moving forward.

“BYU has been transparent in exploring opportunities to find league affiliation for its football program and has been presented with an opportunity that fits its needs,” Nevarez said. “We will continue to value them as a member of the West Coast Conference through the 2022-23 academic year. The WCC has enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years with multiple NCAA championships, and BYU has been a great part of those achievements.”

Sitake, meanwhile, was overjoyed.

“Before I was a coach or a football player at BYU, I was always a fan,” he said. “I’m so happy for the fanbase.”