August 31, 2010
BYU officials have kept up a pretty rigid silence lately about the fate of the Cougars' affiliation (or lack thereof) with the Mountain West. But their official withdrawal from the conference tonight to become a football independent makes it pretty clear that breaking the chains of the MWC's lame television contracts and outsider status in the BCS was at the top of their agenda long before the rumors began breaking on rival schools' hacked Twitter feeds two weeks ago.
At that point, the Cougars' exit for the WAC in non-football sports looked like a done deal. If the Mountain West hadn't swooped in to poach Fresno State and Nevada at the last second, rendering the WAC a hollow, six-school shell whose survival was suddenly in question, BYU's defection really would have been a done deal. By all rights, that smackdown should have sent the Cougars running back to the Mountain West, which would then need to add just one more school to the new arrivals from the WAC to split into two six-team divisions and stage a championship game.
Instead, with one day left before the deadline to leave the MWC for the 2011-12 school year without major penalties, the search for an escape route has taken the BYU brass to the far-flung West Coast Conference, an eight-team, non-football league composed entirely of small, private, religious institutions (all but one, Pepperdine, are Catholic) that, before today, hadn't added or subtracted a member in 32 years. The Cougars will move 11 sports under the WCC umbrella and set off on their own on the gridiron.
They've got three reasons to give the indie thing a go: a) To keep some semblance of a pace with rival Utah, which dramatically increased its national profile and bank account when it accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10 this summer; b) To establish BYU as something like "the Notre Dame of the West," a large, flagship religious university with enough clout to negotiate its own television and bowl agreements outside of a conference umbrella; and most importantly, c) To extricate themselves from the Mountain West's hopelessly obscure television arrangement, which has shunned the standard deal with ESPN for a pair of hard-to-find cable outlets, Versus and CBS College Sports, and the conference's even harder-to-find network, The mtn.
The bet is that BYU – owner and operator of an in-house network that reaches a reported 60 million homes worldwide – can strike its own deal for more than the roughly $1.3 million annual payout it earns through the MWC. If it can come to its own agreement for admission to the BCS, a la Notre Dame, the university can keep every penny of the payout (currently at $6 million for an at-large bid) rather than dividing it up nine ways with the rest of the conference. And it can build its own user-friendly schedule to ensure it has a better chance of getting into one of those games.
The WAC, having not only come up empty in its play for the Cougars but also lost two of its strongest members in the process, now looks like an even bigger loser than it did after losing Boise State to the Mountain West in June. At best, a hunt for new members will turn up an existing FBS/I-A program or two, on the order of UTEP from Conference USA; more likely, a Montana, UC-Davis, Cal Poly, Texas State or UT-San Antonio will have to be called up from the FCS/I-AA ranks. That is, if they're willing to come, and the NCAA is willing to admit them in a higher division. If not, either the WAC folds under lack of interest, or the dominoes in the "mid-major" leagues have only begun to fall.
With Boise State joining TCU as the resident football powerhouse next year, the Mountain West isn't facing any such existential crisis. Still, losing its two most prominent flagship members in the span of a little less than two months is discouraging, to say the least, especially as the exits of both Utah and BYU sound a very loud, clear death knell for the league's push for an automatic bid to the BCS for the conference champ. It was a nice dream, while it lasted. But BYU's gotta have some time to find itself, man. It's a big world out there, and a former national champion with a global following and its own broadcasting arm's gotta be free.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.