Is BYU Really OK With The Status Quo?
A losing football record and soft in-conference basketball competition may be taking a toll on BYU’s athletics brand.
“Good enough is the enemy of great.”
Brigham Young University was a charter member of the Mountain West Conference which began operations in 1999. Leading up to 2010, the university’s athletic department developed an increasing sense discontent. “We Are The Notre Dame Of The West” became an audacious new mantra that some considered bold, given Notre Dame’s storied history, tradition and accolades.
During 2011, BYU athletics went for the brass ring and quit the Mountain West, with an objective to reap the benefits of a successful Independent football program a la Notre Dame, Army and UMass. These programs have fans seemingly everywhere, and all maintain a major national profile. BYU had a sense of certainty that they also fit the bill.
How is BYU faring seven years later, in 2018?
Whether or not BYU is cashing in: the outward appearance is the BYU sports program is dwindling. Its Independent football program and moderate West Coast Conference membership for olympic sports has left some fans, alumni and the press scratching their heads. The Cougars football team recently posted a losing record this past season. Their basketball team can frequently be found playing small ball in-conference at gymnasium-like venues.
“Vanity is the quicksand of reason.”
BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe continually re-affirms that this lackluster trajectory is “just fine,” as though the Athletic Department is dedicated to preserving the sanctity of their ill-fated choices. Those decisions deny BYU athletics their brand potential; sports progress and prestige with every passing day, week and year.
The Cougars have struggled reach and maintain any significant AP Top 25 football rankings since going Independent. Men’s basketball has never won the WCC Men’s Basketball Tournament. Other sports, including women’s soccer and basketball have had trials and tribulations, causing some to call 2017 the worst year ever in BYU athletics.
Let’s take a closer look at BYU football and men’s basketball, the highest profile sports in collegiate athletics.
BYU touts the benefits of being an Independent football program. The spoils of directly negotiated revenues coupled with marquee games sounds better than fine. Still, during the regular season it has allegedly been difficult for the Cougar Nation to arrange matches with in-conference programs already engaged in their own conference play.
What’s more: as an independent, BYU is denied a championship to aspire toward. A further complication: as an Independent, bowl invites are increasingly difficult to receive. Finally, the formula suffers when an Independent program produces a losing season.
BYU wanted to be the equivalent to Notre Dame but that has not always been the case. Success was there for the Cougars, just not elite success.
The Cougars did make noise in 2014. Undefeated early on, BYU found the AP Top 25 for 4 weeks, reaching 18th before playing Utah State. During the game, QB Taysom Hill was injured and the Cougars lost. Thereafter, BYU struggled for the remainder of the season.
The Cougars spent a total of 3 weeks in the AP Top 25 for 2012 and 2015.
2016 was BYU’s best chance to be in the same class as the Irish. That year, just eight points separated the Cougars from going undefeated. Nonetheless, those were eight critical points and BYU ended 9-4 after the Poinsettia Bowl.
This puts BYU, along with last year’s 4-9 result in a genuine pickle, as it tries to negotiate a place in the Hawaii Bowl for 2018 and beyond. With potential for a four-win record, how can a bowl association guaranty BYU a spot?
The West Coast Conference’s marquee program is Gonzaga, a clear top-ten NCAA basketball brand. It also plays host to St. Mary’s, whose Gaels just went 28-5 but failed to secure an at-large bid while barely successful teams like Oklahoma (entering March Madness as a 10 seed with a 18-13 record) did. What other teams are in WCC besides BYU and the aforementioned? There’s University of the Pacific, USF, and Pepperdine to name a few. . .
It’s a known fact that Gonzaga is deeply pondering exodus from the WCC, and is eyeballing the Mountain West. Mark Few knows his run in the WCC has been epic, with 20 NCAA Tourney appearances. He also knows that the Zags are in a league where only three teams managed a winning record during the 2017-2018 season.
He knows the Zags won’t be all that they can be in the WCC. They want a bigger, challenge, in bigger venues against tougher conference competition. Facing off in conference against Nevada, Boise State, UNLV and San Diego State may better challenge the Zags, and it might just be a lot more fun.
What’s more: with greater strength of conference the Mountain West can realistically become a 12- team program capable of sending four teams to the NCAA Tourney. That’s downright tantalizing.
Fun rivalries in electrifying venues like Viejas and Thomas & Mack; 12,000+ attendees at venues where the ground shakes and players strive at a higher level: this is invigorating. Mark Few would know when he looks other coaches in the eye he will have had to deploy actual strategy to wage victory against formidable opponents in a conference where sports programs have made substantial investments in infrastructure, coaching and development. . .
But this is an article regarding BYU.
If the Zags exit the West Coast Conference, BYU could probably only reach the NCAA Tournament through auto-bid. It will become a coin toss with St. Mary’s, unless BYU’s basketball skills don’t even promise a place in the WCC Tourney finals. If victorious, the seeding will be poor, further hindering a deep run. The season will be full of weak conference play in arenas like Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse, capacity 3100- often under 2000 fans.
When BYU built the Marriott Arena, which seats 19,000, they did not envision games against the Loyola Marymount Lions, with all due respect. The arena was designed for prime time. It accommodates a bigger, stronger conference than the WCC. It suits a conference like the Mountain West, and epic battles commensurate to Jimmer versus Kawhi.
“If you go big and fail: fail quickly.“
Maybe it’s time for BYU to accept that their aspirations were noble but it didn’t come together entirely as planned. Maybe last year’s hard pass by the Big 12, which took Tom Holmoe by surprise signals it is not to be.
If the Mountain West fans loved to hate BYU, then perhaps there was actual love in that hate. Maybe it is good for BYU to have those fierce rivalries after all. Maybe it brings out the best in their program.
So is it time to bite the bullet? The BYU student populace, alumni and athletes deserve the best sports program the university can produce: appropriate competition, championship opportunities, better bowl prospects, proper scheduling, and better recruiting opportunities.
Or, more bluntly: nets, trophies, and AP Rankings- the evidence of success.
Staying the course, on the other hand, will lead to more criticism and more scathing articles like Monson: No, BYU Isn’t OK in the Salt Lake Tribune. These works are a public intervention, pointing out that the university is on the wrong path. At some point, the university might no longer support the (downward) path of the current athletic department. Then what?
Is now the time for BYU to reassess and re-apply to the Mountain West?
If BYU wants to get out of its historic rut: then yes.
“The grass is always greener where you water it.”