Betrayal, Pre-Emptive Strikes, and “The Project:” BYU’s Messy Exit From Mountain West Conference
A look back at the break up of the Mountain West as we knew it.
BYU’s path to leaving the Mountain West back in 2010.
Let’s assume the 2017 football season (and its 4-9 record) was an anomaly. Since leaving the Mountain West Conference, BYU has continued to win most of its football games. It has received bowl invitations to places like Las Vegas, Miami, and San Diego. Not bad. Although declining attendance is a concern, BYU has hosted games at LaVell Edwards Stadium against teams from the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC. ESPN extended its contract with BYU through 2019, providing the school with somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million annually. In short, life as a football independent seems to be working out just fine for BYU.
But seven years in, there are a few cracks in the “BYU as the Notre Dame of the West” experiment. Bronco Mendenhall left in 2016 for the Virginia job. The Big 12 did not, after some indelicate poking and prodding, offer BYU membership to its league during the 2016 faux-conference realignment cycle.
Then there have been the petty potshots from rival schools. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, San Diego State is again dishing on “all the disadvantages of being in [a] conference with BYU.”
So should BYU have stayed in the Mountain West? No. Does the private LDS behemoth in Provo need to consider joining even a non-Power Five conference to come in out of the independence cold?
But at the very least, a look back at BYU’s messy exit from the Mountain West Conference, now seven years after it happened, provides some interesting context on how we got here.
The State of Utah Built the Mountain West
Not literally, but pretty close. The presidents of BYU and the University of Utah, joined by their counterparts from Air Force, Colorado State, and Wyoming, presided over the founding meeting of the Mountain Conference in 1998. They eventually invited New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV to join them. The Mountain West emerged from the chaos of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and began play in 1999.
BYU and Utah dominated their conferencemates from the start. During the 12 years in which the two Utah schools competed in the Mountain West, there were 60 opportunities to win the following: the conference championship in football, the regular season championship in mens or womens basketball, and the conference tournament title in mens or womens basketball. The two Utah schools captured 32 (53%) of these marque titles.
In less high-profile sports, the dominance was even more convincing. BYU itself won more than 80% of all possible conference championships in cross country, track and field, and swimming and diving during its Mountain West years.
But when Pac-12 Conference (then the Pac-10) came calling in 2010, it broke up what had been a successful (if heated) partnership. The Pac-12 scooped up the University of Utah; BYU was left looking for its next move.
BYU Had to Leave the Mountain West
Not literally, but pretty close. First off, BYU had never received the rights to rebroadcast its football and basketball games on BYUtv, something it had been promised in a handshake deal in 2004. Second, with its rival leaving for more money and more prestige in the Pac-12, BYU felt compelled to make a move to keep up.
Thus laid the groundwork for “The Project.”
The timeline can get a bit fuzzy, but here’s basically what happened during the spring and summer of 2010.
- Boise State University (BSU) announced it was leaving the WAC to join the Mountain West
- Utah accepted membership in the Pac12
- Rumors of BYU’s move to football independence began swirling
- The WAC commissioner and Utah State’s president courted BYU to join its ranks (this was “The Project”)
- Chaos ensued
- BYU left the Mountain West
- Utah State got screwed
OK, so it’s not that complicated when you just list it out. But BYU’s exodus from the Mountain West got messy, quick. Negotiations between BYU and ESPN began covertly. If BYU could sell the rights to televise its football games, the revenue it earned as a member of the Mountain West would be offset, or even surpassed.
There were risks, football-wise (putting together a schedule, bowl tie-ins, etc), but opportunities too. The ESPN platform could be used to lure opponents to visit Provo, something had become very difficult during the 80s and 90s.
The question was: What about BYU’s other sports? The Mountain West turned up its nose at the prospect of keeping a football-less Cougars. And this is where Utah State’s President Stan Albrecht, a BYU alumnus and former BYU faculty member, became a major player in the unfolding drama.
Albrecht, with the support of Fresno State and Nevada’s presidents, pushed for BYU to join the WAC conference. BYU’s football team, of course, would become an independent. Its other teams would compete in the WAC. The kicker for Utah State was that BYU would agree to schedule several WAC opponents in football each year. The Cougars were always a popular draw. Connecting itself to BYU would be a win for Utah State and the WAC. As emails flew back and forth, the get-BYU-into-the-WAC effort became known as “The Project.”
See, even university presidents aren’t immune to cool sounding code names.
“The Project” was not only about bolstering the WAC; it was also a chance to stick it to Boise State, the school that had recently bolted for the Mountain West. In emails secured by the Salt Lake Tribune in the weeks following the fracas, a picture of ruthlessness and betrayal emerges.
This was high-stakes game of musical chairs. There were not enough conference seats to go around. President Albrecht, thinking the BYU deal was done, reveled in Boise State’s comeuppance. BSU had thought it was jumping to a better conference; now it appeared that the WAC would be the better league. “The world is crumbling around him,” Albrecht (picture Mike Meyers’ Dr. Evil here) wrote of Boise State’s President Bob Kustra. “He is desperate.”
The Mountain West then Went Nuclear
Not literally, but pretty close. Realizing that BYU was about to leave the Mountain West—possibly for the WAC—Commissioner Craig Thompson struck with a vengeance. Offers immediately went out to Fresno State, Nevada, and Utah State to join the Mountain West.
These offers of MWC membership should not have mattered. The WAC schools had only days before verbally agreed to a $5 million penalty for any WAC school leaving the conference. And more than that, the three school offered (FSU, Nevada, and USU) had been at the center of “The Project.” If any WAC schools had reason to be confident in the future of their league, it was these three. No one was going anywhere.
It took Fresno State and Nevada less than four hours to accept the Mountain West’s invitation.
Albrecht was dumbfounded. Utah State held fast, rejecting the Mountain West offer and holding onto the promise of “The Project.” Certainly the multimillion dollar buyouts would keep FSU and Nevada in the fold. Right? With BYU coming back into the fold (sort of), the WAC was on the rise. Right?
Utah State Gets Screwed
Nevada had never signed the $5 million buyout provision. Fresno had, but decided to push forward anyhow. On August 18, 2010 the Mountain West announced the additions of FSU and Nevada. “We’re simply looking at getting better and we got better tonight with Fresno State and Nevada joining our league,” Craig Thompson explained. Regarding BYU, Craig Thompson stated, with a straight face by all accounts, that FSU and Nevada had nothing to do with BYU.
As it became clear that “The Project” was on life support, Utah State officials watched the MountainWest Sports Network in horror. “I’m watching the Mountain and feeling sick to my stomach,” an upper level administrator wrote in an email (again unearthed by the Salt Lake Tribune) to President Albrecht. “Any silver lining?”
Albrecht: “Unfortunately no. [Mountain West commissioner] Thompson hasn’t returned my call. Not a good sign.”
A few weeks later, BYU made it all official. The school was leaving the Mountain West. The Cougar football team would begin independent play in 2011. As for the other sports, BYU announced that it was joining the West Coast Conference. The WAC had become too unstable.
Among the Utah actors in this 2010 drama, the University of Utah emerged better off, a member of a Power-Five conference. BYU forged, if nothing else, a unique and independent path. The school stood poised to capitalize on its unique stature and fan base. It was poor Utah State that lost out. “The Project” flopped and the Aggies of Utah State were left wondering what had gone wrong.