Independence Train Not Off the Tracks

Independence Train Not Off the Tracks

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Two of the most interesting and telling e-mail passages in the Salt Lake Tribune's fascinating narration of the "Double Cross Heard 'Round the West" were both authored by WAC Commissioner Karl Benson--one was sent to Fresno State President John Welty and the other to a "group of WAC officials" (emphasis added):


"BYU continues to tell me that they are way too far down the road and are prepared to go forward regardless of what the offer (from the MWC) may include..."


"Looks like Craig Thompson/Mt. West has realized that the BYU issue is real and is now mounting an effort to convince/persuade BYU to stay in the Mt. West. On the other hand, BYU president ... has reiterated his position that BYU is going forward regardless of [whatever] Mt. West may offer."


Both e-mails indicate BYU's determination to move ahead with a plan that was centered on football independence and departure from the MWC, without consideration to anything the MWC might try to present as an inducement. The affiliation with the WAC was necessary to facilitate competition in other sports and assist in football scheduling, but a decision on football independence had clearly been made.

As I have written before, independence is the riskiest and most complex element in BYU's athletics equation, but also the element BYU is most prepared to pursue successfully.

Even though BYU's deal blew up spectacularly, I can't see how the school will allow what happened last week to take BYU off course relative to its plans for football independence.

Certainly, BYU was left scrambling by the actions of the MWC and those two institutions, and the options remaining may not be currently perceived as ideal, but BYU had already decided to sever ties with the Mountain West Conference; I don't see BYU remaining in a league that:

a) it had drawn up plans to leave


b) is now seen to have harmed BYU


The Mountain West Conference was in a tough spot when it got wind of BYU's intentions. The loss of BYU might conceivably convince Boise State to remain in the WAC, which could then be in a position to raid other MWC schools; Commissioner Craig Thompson was facing the possibility of his league's irrelevance or dissolution.

Having seemingly failed to sufficiently address or satisfy BYU's historical concerns relative to revenue sharing, broadcast distribution and protocol, etc., the league was left with a nuclear option: cut BYU off at the knees, and hope the Cougars come back to the table.

Thompson portrayed his league's acquisition of FSU and UNR as proactive, but it was a clearly reactive move designed to eliminate BYU's departure destination, thus forcing the school to reconsider its plans. What the above e-mail passages indicate is that whatever the MWC had in mind, it wasn't going to be enough to keep BYU in the fold. And that was BEFORE the league blew up BYU's planned affiliation with the WAC. How much more willing would BYU be to now sit down and work things out with the MWC?

Parenthetically, there was Thompson's intimation that the MWC would mitigate any buyout-related fiscal hardships Fresno and Reno might encounter ("We're not going to bankrupt them to come into the MWC"). That must have gone down well in Provo; legacy member BYU can't get meaningful concessions from the MWC, but non-members (and perceived back-stabbers) Fresno State and Nevada can?


Not that the MWC is without motivation in wanting BYU to stay. Despite Thompson's public indifference, his conference's TV viability depends a great deal on BYU's membership.

An e-mail from Utah State President and deal-broker Stan Albrecht to FSU President Welty included this line:

"They (the MWC) are concerned about losing their TV contract entirely" if BYU leaves the league, and from what I know, that is an extremely valid concern.

I have talked to someone with knowledge of the MWC's external TV deal who says the contract is voided if both BYU and Utah leave the conference. A departure of one or the other would not be enough to negate the deal, but if both schools were to depart, the MWC would basically be starting from scratch with its media partners.

TCU and Boise State are both Top 10 teams, but how much are individual schools going to make a in a new TV deal for a ten (or possibly 12)-team league--none of them being BYU or Utah?


BYU has not been considering football independence for a few weeks or a few months; it has likely been a plan in the works for years. One bad day and two minor schools are not going to force BYU to abandon a vision that is as expansive as its base of supporters.

Common sense tells us that BYU's plans had outgrown the Mountain West Conference. The school's marquee athletics program needed a bigger stage; its other sports needed a different home.

The football team's stage appears to have been constructed, while BYU may still be house-hunting for its other sports. But something tells me the "status quo" ship has already sailed.



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