Independent BYU banks on itself
PROVO, Utah -- The signs are all over the football office, a new mantra for a new BYU world:
Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare.
It is a bold statement for a university making one of the boldest moves in recent college football history. The Cougars are bucking convention and going independent, joining Notre Dame, Army and Navy as the only loners in the sport.
Everybody in Provo understands the risk. But no grand plans are laid without taking a gamble and relying on just a little bit of faith. Does BYU know where it will stand five years from now? No. Does anyone in college football? No.
So BYU is doing what is best for BYU and essentially banking on itself to make this work.
"It's a big risk, but it's a risk we're willing to take because we have opportunities. We have resources," athletic director Tom Holmoe said. "One is that we have good players. Two is that we're a national university. We have people all over the country. Three is that we have a football tradition that people know about. Four, we have BYUtv and a relationship with ESPN. We're going to be on as a brand. I feel like we took the best course."
Indeed, independence is a course BYU had often pondered. But the idea firmly took hold when Utah left for the Pac-12. BYU had always been tied to Utah. The two rivals are less than an hour away and had played in the same conference since 1922. Their annual Holy War football game has grown in national stature over the last 10 years.
With Utah gone, BYU had a chance to evaluate its future in the Mountain West. Holmoe said when the Mountain West created The Mtn. network, it was given assurances it would have access to inventory featuring its teams for BYUtv. That never happened, Holmoe said.
"It was pretty plain to see it was going to be an uphill battle," Holmoe said. "After five years of trying to chart a course behind the scenes, we became a little bit more aggressive and teams in our conference didn't like that. Schools in our conference didn't like that we were complaining. But that was promised to us, so from the very beginning what we sought in independence is what we were fighting for and that's what was due us. ... So when we had a chance to leave, we left because of TV. Not because of any of the schools. We had no problem with any of the schools in our conference. None."
Impossible is a big word thrown around by small men. We truly believe that. If you tell us it's impossible, we're going to do it.” -- BYU quarterback Jake Heaps
The Mountain West, in a statement, disagreed with Holmoe's assertion.
"There is very little to be gained in debating a former member institution. However, in fairness, suffice it to say the current Mountain West members and television rights holders would have a different perspective."
The initial plan was to go independent in football and join the WAC for its other sports. A schedule had been drawn up for the BYU football team to play six WAC teams. But that fell apart when Fresno State and Nevada stunned the WAC and left for the Mountain West.
Undeterred, BYU announced nearly a year ago it was indeed going independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference for its other sports. What made the decision even easier was signing an eight-year partnership with ESPN.
That means every BYU football game will be either on its own network or the ESPN family of networks. Right now, 10 BYU football games are scheduled to be on the ESPN family of networks.
Beyond football, basketball and all the Olympic sports will have an audience on BYUtv. The network is broadcast in 60 million homes in the United States and hundreds of millions around the world, helping the Cougars reach their fans everywhere.
In fact, BYU built a state-of-the-art facility for BYU broadcasting, with various studios for television and radio and production featuring all the latest technology and infrastructure. The building was part of a tour BYU gave when it held its media day last month.
There is a dual purpose for BYUtv. Remember, one of the core missions of BYU is spreading its message. Sports are just one way to do that.
So the television piece is in place. Next came scheduling, perhaps the most difficult part of being an independent. BYU was still able to lock in several WAC teams to fill out its 2011 schedule. But finding teams to play every week has been a huge challenge, especially during conference play.
A balance had to be struck. Too many tough teams would make the schedule a backbreaker. Too many easy games and nobody would take BYU seriously. The schedule in 2011 is quite formidable, with games against Ole Miss, Texas, Utah, Oregon State and TCU.
But what may ultimately decide whether this venture is a success is the product on the field. BYU went 7-6 last season. Mediocrity is simply unacceptable as an independent.
"We'll be irrelevant if we play on TV and we're getting beat all the time," Holmoe said. "We can't let that happen. We've got to be really good. Taking on the good teams will be really hard but that's what we asked for. We don't think we could have gone out and gotten the exposure playing a soft schedule. It wouldn't have been legitimate."
That ratchets up the pressure on coach Bronco Mendenhall and his players. They all know everyone is going to be watching to see whether independence can actually work for BYU.
"I'm willing to take the risk," Mendenhall said. "It's intriguing. There are many fans that aren't BYU fans that can't wait to see BYU stumble with all the exposure. It's pretty clear our program is strong. We have a worldwide following, we've partnered with the world-wide leader in sports. With that -- whether folks are BYU fans or not -- I bet folks tune in and are anxious to see what happens."
Many have said being a national title contender as an independent is impossible today, with major conferences holding all the power in college football. Indeed, BYU does not have a guaranteed spot into the BCS. It would have to be an at-large selection to get into one of those games. Short of a BCS spot, BYU is headed to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Texas on Dec. 30 if it can win the requisite six games.
But as their mantra suggests, BYU is not interested in the impossible.
"Impossible is a big word thrown around by small men," quarterback Jake Heaps said. "We truly believe that. If you tell us it's impossible we're going to do it. It's going to happen. We don't know when but it's going to happen, and it's going to happen sooner than later. That's our goal. That's what we're shooting for. It might take us a while. It might not be this year but we're shooting for a BCS game. We're shooting to have that opportunity. We dare anybody to say that we can't."
Or that they can't thrive as an independent.
Andrea Adelson covers college football for ESPN.com.
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