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August 31, 2011

How will independence affect BYU?

For at least two years, the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" could not claim the entire world. ESPN couldn't even claim all of Provo, Utah.

In a cost-cutting measure, BYU's campus TV lineup did not carry ESPN's networks for 2009 and 2010.

As long as BYU dormitory residents didn't care to follow any sport besides Cougars football, they might not have noticed anyway. BYU played a combined four regular-season games on any ESPN network in 2009 and '10. Before that, ESPN's networks had aired only one BYU regular-season game from 2006-08.

That is the crux of why BYU won't challenge for any conference crown this season. Just as escalating TV deals are the reasons for conference-shifting across the nation, TV is at least part of the reason BYU will play its first game as a football independent Saturday at Ole Miss.

"We understand that it's not your typical decision that we've made," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says. "These days, most of these people would predicate that on finances, and we didn't do it on finances. People might think that's hard to believe, but we didn't. The two things we wanted were exposure and access to fans."

The move to independence started with frustrations with the Mountain West's TV deal, which included games on The Mtn. (the conference's own network), CBS College Sports (soon to be called simply CBS Sports Network) and Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network and soon to be the NBC Sports Network).

Shortly after BYU announced its independence, it struck an eight-year deal with ESPN, which will air at least three of the Cougars' home games on its platforms each season. Financial details of BYU's deal with ESPN have not been disclosed, but the Salt Lake Tribune estimated ESPN will pay BYU between $800,000 and $1.2 million per home game.

This season, seven BYU games will be on ESPN or ESPN2. Three games (Utah State, Idaho and New Mexico State) will air on a to-be-determined ESPN network.

And, yes, ESPN is available in BYU's dorms now.

The television generation

With the TV deal, Holmoe's goal for exposure is secured, but the question remains how independence will impact the product on the field.

At least in recruiting, coach Bronco Mendenhall says not much will change. Recruits didn't clamor for a chance to play in the Mountain West the way recruits seek the opportunity to play in the SEC or Big Ten.

"The kids who come to BYU are coming to BYU for the BYU experience specifically," Mendenhall says. "It was always going to be that way, regardless of conference."

Operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU requires all students to adhere to an honor code that forbids alcohol, coffee, tea, profanity and premarital sex. In March, BYU suspended starting basketball forward Brandon Davies for the final stretch of the season after he admitted to having sex with his girlfriend (he was reinstated last week). Mendenhall says the honor code has attracted a handful of non-Mormon recruits who are seeking the environment the honor code provides and a faith-based education.

In addition, BYU generally has one of the oldest teams in college football in terms of age, as its players often leave school for a year or two for Mormon missions. Many BYU players also are married.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says a major reason BYU became a football independent was a lack of exposure for its program. A deal with ESPN will change that. Here's a look at the TV networks that aired or will air BYU regular-season games from 2006 through this season.
TV network201120102009200820072006
The Mtn.07#7#77%6
CBS College Sports02#2#13%2
Fox Sports Net000100
NOTES: * - includes ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and other ESPN networks; # - BYU's game against Utah was aired on both CBS College Sports and The Mtn.; % - BYU's game against Utah was aired on CBS College Sports, The Mtn., and Versus.
"We're recruiting different and unique kids no matter what." Mendenhall says. "We find about 30 to 34 young people every year that meet our criteria in terms of athleticism, academic standards and moral standards."

In part because of the church affiliation, BYU considers itself a national program, similar to Notre Dame. When Mendenhall, Holmoe and BYU officials talk about independence, they often reference Notre Dame as opposed to service academies Army and Navy, the only other independent FBS programs.

As with Notre Dame, BYU has an exclusive TV deal. Unlike Notre Dame, though, BYU does not have unique access to BCS games. Notre Dame receives an automatic bid to a BCS game if it finishes in the top eight of the final BCS standings. BYU would earn an automatic bid if it finishes first or second in the rankings, which would mean a bid to the national title game. BYU also could earn an automatic bid if it finishes Nos. 3-5 in the BCS standings as well. Otherwise, BYU must finish in the top 14 to be a candidate for an at-large berth.

As an independent, BYU likely would have to go undefeated for a chance at a BCS game -- but that was the case in the Mountain West as well. If BYU does not get a BCS bid, the prestige of its bowl tie-ins drops significantly: the Armed Forces Bowl (this season), the Poinsettia Bowl (2012) and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (2013).

Despite the bowl issue, Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist who is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., praised BYU's move.

"It might be too strong a word to call it 'brilliant,' " Zimbalist says. "But this is a very strong and prescient move on the part of BYU from a commercial point of view."

On the other hand, Zimbalist says going independent in football is troubling in the professionalization it places on the football program.

"From the standpoint of a college professor who looks with trepidation at what's happening to college sports, it's too bad that this process is unfolding the way it has, and it's too bad the level of commercialization had proceeded as it has," Zimbalist says. "But given that that's the world they live in and we live in, you have to take advantage of those opportunities."

Not a trend

Still, if BYU's move makes so much business sense, why hasn't it happened more often?

South Carolina left the ACC to become an independent in 1972 and stayed that way until it joined the SEC in 1992. Georgia Tech left the SEC in 1964 and didn't rejoin a conference until 1983, when the Yellow Jackets joined the ACC. Following the demise of the Southwest Conference, every team in the league immediately joined a new league: Arkansas to the SEC; Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor to the Big 12; Houston to Conference USA; and TCU, Rice and SMU to the WAC.

Florida State gave up independence in 1992 when it joined the ACC. Penn State did the same when it joined the Big Ten a year later. Before that, Miami, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Boston College, Rutgers and Temple became charter football members of the Big East.

All the shuffling left Notre Dame as the only independent football program with legitimate national title aspirations.

Although Zimbalist praises BYU's move from a business sense, finances are what pushed Syracuse and others to turn the Big East into a football conference.

"You really couldn't survive as an independent because of the financial requirements," says Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse's athletic director from 1978-2005. "You couldn't do what the conferences were doing collectively, individually. You couldn't get $15 million for a TV contract individually. It was a business deal [to join a league], to put it bluntly."

From the outside looking in, former Florida State athletic director Bob Goin says the key for BYU was finding a partner for its other sports. Goin took Florida State from football independence to the ACC in 1992. At the time, its basketball program was in the Metro Conference, a mishmash of a league in the process of being folded into Conference USA and other leagues. Goin also was the athletic director at Cincinnati when the Bearcats moved from C-USA into the Big East. (He was at the same post when Cincinnati moved from football independence to C-USA, but he was not part of that decision-making process.)

"That's a nice world to be in if you can get it," Goin says of BYU. "They get to keep their football [revenue] and play a national football schedule. That's pretty nice. They have no confinements."

Still, the move has skeptics who predict an independent BYU will encounter the same pressures as independents from the 1980s and '90s.

"I'm not sure that it is viable," Crouthamel says. "There is the obvious exception: Notre Dame is a conference unto itself.

"I don't know that independence is possible to sustain. Initially, that may be the case for a year or two. The money is all in the hands of the conferences, the major conferences."

Holmoe knows there are doubters. But he says BYU's TV network is something the former independents from the 1980s and '90s didn't have.

While most of BYU's football games will be on an ESPN channel, BYUtv will be the home for a handful of men's basketball games and other BYU athletics programming. BYUtv, which claims about 60 million viewers in the United States, is on most cable and satellite providers and also is available internationally. But it is not primarily a sports network. The network is sponsored by the LDS church and carries mostly faith-based and family-friendly programming. On the satellite provider DirecTV, for instance, BYUtv is grouped with other religious channels.

The schedule is the thing

Holmes says the decision to become an independent wouldn't have happened without a secure television future. Once that was found, he moved on to scheduling. BYU hasn't had trouble finding September opponents, but the willing candidates dwindle as most teams enter the heart of their conference schedules in October and November.

keeping up with the joneses?
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of college football knows BYU isn't the only team to leave a conference this offseason. The Cougars weren't the only team to break from a longtime rival when they left a conference, either.

For the first time since 1922, "The Holy War" won't be a conference game. BYU and Utah have been in the same conference since 1922, a run that included the Rocky Mountain Conference, the Mountain States Athletic Conference, the Skyline Conference, the WAC and, finally, the Mountain West.

Utah accepted an invitation to the Pac-12 in June 2010. BYU followed with its announcement of independence a little more than two months later. The timing was -- in a word -- interesting.

But BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says the idea of independence was a topic around the school for a few years before the announcement.

"A lot of people said the reason we went independent was to keep up with Utah," Holmoe says. "That's just not true."

BYU will continue to play archrival Utah, now in the Pac-12. But instead of being the final game in the regular season, the Cougars and Utes have a contract for a home-and-home series this season and next, with the games to be played in September.

The Cougars also have a contract to play Notre Dame six times from 2012-20. Through 2015, BYU already has scheduled games with Houston (twice), Southern Miss (twice) and Utah State (twice).

Mendenhall said he would like to rekindle the series with Hawaii as well. BYU and Hawaii faced each other 22 times between 1978 and 2002 and will play this season on Dec. 3. Hawaii has its own scheduling difficulties in finding teams willing to leave the mainland to play at Aloha Stadium. Army and Navy also face the same scheduling pressures late in the season.

But games against Conference USA teams, Hawaii, Utah State and service academies aren't exactly the scheduling foundation for getting a BCS bid.

Beyond finding teams to play at all, the bigger challenge is finding teams that will play in Provo. Mendenhall says his biggest issue is taking his team into hostile stadiums on a more regular basis. He knows his team will need to be "road warriors" for the foreseeable future.

"That will be a reality for a while," Mendenhall says. "The best teams won't be in Provo. We're going to have to beat them where they are. If we're able to do that, it will bring more credibility."

A league of their own

While the long-term viability of being an independent remains a concern, there are some who question whether BYU will find out.

BYU's latest move -- and any future moves -- is not independent of the changing landscape of major college football. Zimbalist calls BYU's independence one move among chess pieces, and he is among those who could foresee conference expanding further, from 12 teams to 16 or 18, as long as the BCS isn't broken up on anti-trust grounds.

In that event BYU will have no choice but to join a conference if it still wants to compete at a high level in football.

Should Texas A&M and others leave their conferences, BYU could be an attractive candidate for another conference looking to expand. The Big 12, for one, is not opposed to allowing one of its member programs having its own TV network.

Although BYU has yet to play a game as an independent, the Cougars aren't ignorant of the ongoing conference realignment chatter.

"It's important for us to watch, to see what's going on," Holmoe says. "You certainly haven't seen us chime in and get ahead in the game. That's not what we're going to do."

Holmoe points out that the major conferences -- most recently, the Pac-12 -- haven't been interested in BYU in the past, despite the Cougars' track record. BYU has been ranked in the final polls in four of the past five seasons under Mendenhall, and before that, it reached 22 bowl games in 29 seasons under LaVell Edwards, including winning the 1984 national title.

Although BYU has secured agreements with ESPN and the West Coast Conference, Holmoe says both entities are aware that football is BYU's "lead dog." If the direction of college football changes in a way that could leave an independent BYU out, BYU could be on the move again.

"We have a duty and responsibility to watch the environment of what's going on," Holmoe says. "We did what we did because it fits pretty good."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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