Cougar Tracks: Boldly Independent

Cougar Tracks: Boldly Independent



Estimated read time: 29-30 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

College football realignment ripples are again traversing the sport's rarely-tranquil waters. Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt Conference are the players in the latest act of the drama that is the now-annual "Gridiron Shuffle."

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CUSA and the MWC, while putting the brakes on a merger, are both leagues in expansion mode, ostensibly by picking off teams from the WAC—-a conference that appears to be on death's door, if current rumors of multiple defections are proven accurate. The SBC, led by former WAC commissioner Karl Benson, may be able to survive the latest round of musical chairs.

Concurrent with the latest realignment news is the notable development that emerged from last week's summit of 11 conference commissioners and one athletic director (from Notre Dame), tasked with reforming college football's postseason structure. While a majority of the details remain unknown, it appears clear that a four-team playoff will replace the current Bowl Championship Series in determining a national champion.

Less certain but reportedly likely, is that six conferences' status as "Automatic Qualifiers" will be eliminated; yet to be decided is the ratings protocol that will identify the playoff teams. Also up in the air is how bowls outside of the playoff games will fill their slots; that said, the words "open market" were floated to illustrate what might become of currently locked-in bowl matchups.

This brings us to the reason I am writing: to address BYU's status as a football independent (and WCC member), particularly in light of college football's anticipated new-look postseason.

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The history behind BYU's move to football independence and departure from the MWC in all other sports is well-known and requires very little re-visiting in this space. Suffice it to say that once the league began fragmenting with Utah's departure to the Pac-12, BYU's link to the league was irreparably harmed. Utah and BYU were historically vested partners, with each other's interests superseding those of any other conference member, regardless of the conference in question. Yet, Utah's invitation to the Pac-12 was not a package deal; the in-state partnership was effectively ended with the Utes' split, and much of BYU's motivation to remain a member of the Mountain West Conference went with it.

The MWC, while a good idea at the time of its inception, had become somewhat of a millstone around BYU's neck. BYU was neither properly valued by the league's revenue sharing and media rights structure, nor afforded the freedom to utilize assets and exposure opportunities that were overwhelmingly exclusive to BYU. BYU had long struggled with the frustrating and confining aspects of MWC membership, and the summer of 2010 presented the school with an opportunity to essentially view its place in the college athletics landscape through a new set of eyes.

Barring a coveted invitation to join a BCS conference, BYU was faced with a decision: remain part of a collection of programs that appeared on the verge of inexorable decline, or put to use those assets and exposure opportunities that among MWC schools, only BYU could reasonably pursue with any expectation of success.

BYU chose the latter. BYU was bold. BYU was thinking big.

BYU was not and will likely not ever be invited to join the Pac-12. BYU was not and has yet to be invited to the Big 12. By any objective standard (on the field success, in-stadium attendance, TV ratings, level of national interest, academic standards, facilities, fiscal status, geography), BYU was and is worthy of inclusion in one of the nation's top football conferences—-BCS conferences, according to the current vernacular. Yet, BYU remains on the outside looking in on the nation's most powerful athletic associations. The primary reasons are BYU's religious affiliation and no-Sunday play policy.

Indeed, in a recent media session, BYU AD Tom Holmoe said if one of the "power leagues" is interested in BYU, Sunday play is really the only non-negotiable item on the table. In the summer of 2010 and since, head football coach Bronco Mendenhall referenced those not interested in BYU for religious reasons. On July 27, 2010, Mendenhall said:

"BYU isn't any other place; there are some conferences that quite frankly don't want a faith-based institution, regardless of performance, regardless of how many people are in the stands, regardless of how many games are won, regardless of the tradition; conferences look for alignment as well."

"We don't intend to change; my job is to continue to uphold the values, beliefs and ideals of the school and the institution, and to win football games to help others understand those (values, beliefs and ideals). And if someone wants that, then great--if they don't, then we'll stand alone or stand as part of the Mountain West Conference in the meantime."

The meantime lasted only a few more weeks. A little more than a month later, on August 30, 2010, BYU chose to stand alone: the school announced its decision to pursue football independence and affiliation with the West Coast Conference.

At the same time, BYU announced an eight-year contractual arrangement with ESPN to televise the majority of the Cougars' football games on its family of networks. Now free of the MWC's media restrictions, the school gave to BYUtv the freedom to bring a variety of BYU Sports programming to a worldwide audience, implementing facilities and technology that are quite simply the envy of every other aspiring college network.

BYU had looked into the distance and seen an uncertain future. At the same time, attractive although somewhat risky options were crystal clear. There is no doubt in my mind that given the situation at the time, and given what has unfolded since, BYU made and continues to make the right decisions.

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FOOTBALL

Football independence is not without its challenges. If it were easy and trouble-free, more programs might be pursuing it. For a school founded by a church of pioneer pedigree, challenge and risk—-often in the face of scorn or doubt---should not be and were not impediments. BYU's leaders, athletics officials, coaches and players, bravely embarked on a path few schools have ever navigated successfully. How easy it would have been to merely accept an invitation. How much harder it is to write your own charter.

Football independence means sacrificing pursuit of a league championship, and that is a big deal to many players, let alone fans. It means more difficulty in populating a 12-game schedule, year in and year out. It means (because of the aforementioned split) seeing your chief in-state rival bow to its own schedule pressures and consider dropping the annual game with BYU for fear of over-loading its plate with teams that are tough to beat. These are some of the hurdles associated with going it alone on the gridiron. They are not insignificant, but they are also not the end of the world. As is portrayed on posters and displays throughout the BYU Football offices: "Impossible is Nothing." The entire Muhammad Ali quote from which that slogan is derived states:

"Impossible is just a big word thrown about by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."

Relating those words to BYU's situation, the school was confronted with turmoil in the Mountain West Conference, but explored the power it had to change its situation. Opinions about BYU's ability to survive football independence are many and occasionally negative. BYU has in essence been dared to make it work. Yet, BYU seeks to play its best and determine its true potential. The most obvious struggles of independence may turn out to be temporary. In the end, BYU's decision-makers and football program members have decided that football independence is not an impossible situation.

Is football independence ideal? Perhaps not, but it is too early to even say that. BYU has played one season as an independent, won 10 games (again), appeared on ESPN networks 11 times, was fiscally autonomous and has entered into agreements with multiple national names for games many years into the future. The 2012 schedule can be seen as an improvement over 2011's slate, while the 2013 and 2014 schedules are promised to be among the toughest BYU has ever faced. Independence gives you the ability to schedule as many good games against big names as you want—as long as those teams will play you. You may have to play more two-for-ones than you would like, but that is a cost of doing business as an independent.

If what BYU wanted most was to know it had eight or nine guaranteed games every year, BYU would be in a conference. It is clear BYU wants more than simple schedule certainty, because we know BYU was last fall offered a chance to join the Big East Conference—a BCS conference for at least two more seasons, although not likely beyond 2013.

The Big East overtures were interesting, because they gave us a window into what BYU really thought was important in the current college athletics environment. On November 28th, 2011, Holmoe told me on KSL Radio that "they (Big East) were eager to make this happen and get BYU on board. We weren't at that time ready to do it, so we gave them a proposal. In that proposal, we said 'we could do that; we could sign on right now, if there were TV rights for our home games,' but that would have been certain--we would have known exactly what we were getting into at that time. Outside of that, we wouldn't have known."

Clearly, BYU's TV agreement involving ESPN and BYUtv has created a minimum expectation for exposure. The Big East Conference (with a tenuous hold on its auto-qualifier status) had no way to guarantee BYU what the league's new TV deal would look like, and that did not meet BYU's exposure expectations last fall. BYU had been down the road of nebulous TV promises before, and was not about to make that mistake again. Will the Big East be more stable in the future, with a TV contract that would make a school like BYU think twice about joining? I'm not convinced, but Holmoe left the door open to that and other possibilities:

"At this point and time, we feel it's important to continue to monitor, to see where we're at. We feel at this point and time that where we are in independence gives us an opportunity to get exposure and grow the program, but at the same time, we're continually looking for conference affiliation, if it were to come along."

Holmoe at the time acknowledged that conference membership and BCS access (which may or may not mean the same thing in 2014) are "very important factors in the building of a program," noting that the giving up of a league championship chase and affiliation that could guarantee certain access was part of the "give and take" of independence. But again, given the opportunity to choose something other than independence, even with a (likely temporary) promise of entrée to college football's upper tier, BYU opted to stay the course. Knowing what we know now about the Big East and what a future football postseason will look like, I again think BYU made the right decision.

Yes, the Big East is likely to offer its football-playing programs substantially more TV money via terms of its next media deal, but BYU is doing relatively well for itself as an exclusive program partner with ESPN, and not having to share TV revenues with any other entity is in and of itself beneficial.

By the same token, BYU is an institution that fully funds facilities before they are built, and lacks for very few of what are deemed necessities when it comes to athletics (indeed, BYU's sports facilities are among the nation's best; BCS-caliber, some would say). Money was not the primary motivator in BYU's move to independence, and while the bottom line has been boosted, exposure and control were the catalysts, and resulting by-products, of football independence.

So, to recap: BYU has chosen independence over the Mountain West Conference, and has chosen independence over the Big East. BYU has not chosen independence over the Big 12. BYU has continually surveyed the landscape and decided that standing alone remains the best thing for the football program. It is the same thing Notre Dame has done for decades, and that school continues to stand alone.

Notre Dame, you say? How can you compare BYU's decision-making to that of Notre Dame? Yes, Notre Dame is a brand unto itself in college athletics, but beyond the obvious difference in perceived athletics stature, the two schools share a somewhat similar profile, and are subject to many of the same current market pressures.

Both institutions are religiously-affiliated, of course, although Notre Dame places no restrictions on Sunday play. Both schools have relatively high academic standards, and "honor codes" that are well-publicized (BYU's governs a wide array of student conduct; Notre Dame's is academically based). Both BYU and Notre Dame have football programs that have secured national TV contracts; BYU with ESPN and Notre Dame with NBC.

As college football independents, both have to fill a 12-game schedule on their own. Notre Dame's schedule is annually one of the more difficult, as historical rivals and others line up for the prestige points that playing the Fighting Irish afford. BYU's independent schedules, while improving, were assembled on the fly for the first couple of seasons. The Cougars will play regional games, but also seek to travel the country and play programs with similar objectives and profiles, and also "big names" that excite fans and TV audiences.

Neither team plays for a conference crown, and while Notre Dame has been granted special BCS access, the Irish qualified for a BCS bowl game only three times in 15 opportunities, and went winless in all three games. Notre Dame last won a national championship in 1988—almost a quarter of a century ago. Notre Dame aspires for BCS bowl games, not just bowl games. Notre Dame aspires for national championships, not conference championships. While operating without the same kind of prior BCS access allowances, BYU finds itself in the same boat. For both programs, one loss likely scuttles national title hopes. For Notre Dame, it might take another loss or even two to torpedo a BCS bowl bid, but again, the Irish have been on outside of the BCS bowl picture 80% of the time, since the BCS came into being.

So, we have two programs which are historically seeing national title dreams dashed, and rarely playing for BCS bowl bids. There may be a certain faction of the Notre Dame fan base that wishes for conference membership, and with it a potentially easier path to the BCS and/or a national title. Yet, for as long as the sport has been in existence, Notre Dame has been content with high performance standards and its outsider status, as long as certain access allowances have been made.

The fact that Notre Dame has recently not met those standards or been able to take advantage of those allowances doesn't change the fact that independence still works for Notre Dame. I am of the belief that whatever is good enough for Notre Dame should be good enough for BYU, because even though BYU lacks the same prior allowances, it has to do what Notre Dame has to do, to reach its highest goals: play a tough schedule and win a ton of games.

Notre Dame enjoys a national name and the tremendous benefits of fiscal autonomy associated with football independence and a network TV contract. BYU enjoys a national following and similar autonomy by virtue of its ESPN contract. Both schools are worthy of the attention and exposure they receive. There is a market for both schools' games on television. Bowl games organizers find both programs attractive, with followings in practically every postseason locale. Until Notre Dame is compelled to run for conference cover, BYU should feel pretty good about its situation—even as the newcomer to independence, and even without a "seat at the table," relative to college football's new postseason structure.

I don't think I am naïve when I say that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, while pursuing his school's own interests, is acting philosophically in concert with any program not playing football in a conference. His concerns are serving as proxy for BYU's concerns, even if the Irish may be given a head-start after the gun sounds on college football's new playoff structure.

In the end, any team good enough to qualify for a four-team playoff won't be getting in simply because it belonged to or won a particular conference. Playoff teams will have to demonstrate that they are clearly one of the four best programs in the country, and BYU can theoretically do that as well as Notre Dame or anyone else. What it will likely take for the Cougars is a killer schedule and a perfect record. In that respect, nothing will have changed from before, but what will have changed (if all goes as hoped) is that mere conference membership will no longer guarantee windfalls that should be earned, and not simply awarded.

Imagine a football postseason (beyond the playoff bowls) in which the biggest and best bowls seek the best teams and best matchups, regardless of conference tie-ins. I would argue that one of the prime movers in the push for a playoff has been the annual onslaught of poorly-attended bowl games featuring poor TV ratings—BCS bowl games included. Certainly, the power conferences will find a way to make sure their programs are well represented in the postseason, but any system that can create more of an open market and better games in front of bigger audiences will be a success.

If given more freedom, bowls with their hands currently tied to league placement slots could help produce a postseason that has at least a little more intrigue, even though I acknowledge that outside of the biggest bowls, these postseason games are really just another game. At least, that is how I have come to view them, as most of the drama and much of the appeal has been sucked out of December/January college football.

Perhaps the hope for a more inclusive postseason and less power for the power conferences is a pipe dream, but time will tell. In the meantime, relative to BYU, I choose to view recent developments as neutral at worst, and positive at best. The months to come will allow us to see whether such a belief is misplaced, but I don't see BYU any worse off as a football independent today than it was before the most recent realignment ripples were felt, and before the BCS appeared to crumble before our eyes.

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BASKETBALL

One thing you need to know about me: I'm a West Coast Conference guy—-I'm all-in. I called play-by-play for three seasons of BYU games in the WAC, and 12 seasons of games in the MWC, and I just completed my first season in the WCC. I really liked being in the WAC, and I really liked being in the MWC. Most of BYU's rivalries were retained across both leagues, so the 1999 conference change was really in name only. I love being in the WCC, which has introduced new partners and rivals, new itineraries, and new fans—both friendly and hostile.

For the first 15 years of my play-by-play career, the hoops season represented a familiar slate of teams and destinations. BYU was hated in most venues, barely tolerated in others, but rare was it that a BYU game did not represent a highlight on the conference opponents' winter calendar. The fact BYU left the MWC as the league's all-time winningest program in overall and conference play testifies that the Cougars helped make that league into what it is today, which is one of the most respected and competitive leagues in the country.

The MWC's new-found status as the "best in the West" left many fans concerned about BYU Basketball's departure for the West Coast Conference, a league that while boasting two nationally strong teams at the top, was not viewed as a basketball power and may have been seen as a bit of a late-night novelty on ESPN.

Basketball observers are well aware of the presence of Gonzaga and St. Mary's among the country's top college programs, but beyond that, the WCC, like any forward-thinking league, would welcome an even stronger identity, even greater relevance, and even more exposure on the Worldwide Leader in Sports. BYU's availability in the summer of 2010 provided the WCC an opportunity for all of those things; to add an institution with a faith-based foundation and philosophical underpinnings that matched perfectly the private school profile of a league that had been one of the most stable in college athletics more than half a century, while at the same time elevating the league's basketball reputation and level of competition.

Operating in conjunction with BYU's plan for football independence was the school's original intent to place non-football sports in the WAC. When that plan fell apart at the last minute, WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich provided the leadership and the opportunity BYU absolutely required to make its objectives possible.

Leaving the MWC, BYU Basketball found a perfect landing spot in the WCC—a previously eight-member grouping that will expand to 10 teams in 2013-14, with the addition of University of the Pacific, another private institution and charter member of the conference. BYU went from a 2010-11 season that featured not a single game on an ESPN Network in the year of "Jimmermania," to a 2011-12 season that had the Cougars playing on one of the ESPN networks a total of ten times. BYUtv, previously handcuffed in the MWC, broadcast a total of 21 games. Those are 31 full-clearance national TV exposures, compared to the scattering of coast-to-coast- appearances BYU had in the MWC—even during the most publicized season in the program's history. From a TV standpoint alone, the WCC has been a home run.

BYU worked for years to get to a point in which the MWC could be seen as a multiple-NCAA Tournament bid league. In its first year with BYU in the conference, the WCC saw three teams dance the Big Dance, for only the second time in conference history. BYU was selected for a sixth straight season, an ongoing school record, and won an NCAA Tournament game for a third straight year, a new school record. BYU's 14 seed was not ideal, but then again, BYU's league was good enough that the Cougars were third-place finishers. The top two teams (St. Mary's and Gonzaga) received favored seeds, and there is no reason to believe that multiple bids will not be an annual expectation moving forward. The Pac-12's two bids and the MWC's four show that competition for the title of "best in the West" has been joined and will be hotly-contested; BYU will help the WCC remain in that mix, just as the league's top teams will help BYU improve in its quest to win a first conference crown.

Regardless of what happens on the football side of the equation, when it comes to basketball, there is very little that the Big 12 could offer BYU that it needs outside of the WCC. Venue size arguments ring hollow with me; I just don't care about the size of the building. I care about the energy of the crowd, and the level of competition.

In the WCC, audiences were invested and loud, and more often than not, BYU's fans made impressive showings in away arenas. It is true that there are no matches for The Pit, the Thomas & Mack Center or Viejas Arena in the WCC, but I would take the crowd of 2,875 at San Francisco over a gathering twice that size in Laramie's Double-A—which was the norm for the last few seasons of BYU's MWC tenure. Atmosphere was in ready supply at WCC venues this past season, and as rivalries heat up and the bottom teams rise to meet those at the top, I foresee good things for a league on the cusp of cementing its identity as one to be reckoned with when considering the nation's very best basketball conferences outside the "Power Six."

The WCC is not the Big 12 in terms of top-to-bottom caliber of competition--that fact is not in dispute—but BYU does not need to be in such a situation to accomplish all of its program objectives. In BYU's last season as a member of the MWC, the Cougars rose as high as #3 in the national polls, and a number one NCAA Tournament seed was in the mix until Brandon Davies' departure. Whether BYU could have risen as high as a member of the WCC is a legitimate point of debate, but the school did not require BCS league membership to rise to the top of the college game, just as Jimmer Fredette did not need to play in such a league to be named as the National Player of the Year. It is more likely that the WCC supplants the MWC than the MWC supplants the Big 12 when it comes to a national basketball profile, and I think the WCC is on its way up. Two of the top three coaches in active career win percentage (Mark Few and Dave Rose) call the WCC home, and both coaches, along with St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett, are considered among the top 50 coaches in the country. There are good coaches and impressive players up and down the league roster, and I think the WCC's rising tide can help float all basketball ships.

BYU can go to the NCAA Tournament in the WCC. BYU can get a good NCAA Tournament seed in the WCC. BYU will be seen on national TV (including ESPN Networks) dozens of times each year in the WCC. BYU will draw crowds in the WCC. BYU will sell out home games as a member of the WCC. The players Dave Rose recruits will indeed sign with BYU in the WCC.

Butler played in consecutive national championship games out of the Horizon League (as a 5 seed and an 8 seed). BYU can climb as high as it aspires to, nationally, in the WCC. If BYU is in the WCC for the long haul, count me among the people happy to be along for the ride.

(I didn't mention the fact that mid-winter forays to places like Stillwater, Ames, Manhattan and Norman don't excite me as much as the trips to San Diego, L.A., Malibu, the Bay Area and the northwest, but consider that just another reason why I am quite alright with life in the WCC)

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THE FUTURE

I recently engaged in a dialogue with many different fans on my Twitter feed (@gregwrubell), with the discussion seemingly centered on these fans' collective belief that I am wrong in either a) being satisfied/content/happy with football independence and WCC membership, or b) not being counted among the lot that believe BYU can only survive or thrive in the Big 12 or a similar league.

While I am generalizing the nature of these fans' views, it became clear that some BYU supporters believe BYU Football is a dead man walking if the Cougars stay independent, and that only the Big 12 (or perhaps a revitalized, re-legitimized Big East) can save the BYU Football program.

On the first presumed point: I happen to believe that football independence works and can continue to work for BYU, in lieu of a better alternative. At this juncture, BYU has already had a couple of very visible opportunities to weigh some alternatives, and BYU is still a football independent. BYU's leaders are smarter and more in-tune with the dynamics of the situation than I am, and they have concluded that right now, BYU is best served as a football independent.

The challenges of the situation are offset by many benefits, some of which have already been listed. As a broadcaster and fan, I look forward to the schedule's annual novelty, additional opportunities for program exposure, competition against nationally-significant teams and the ability to visit and interact with fans who would rarely have seen BYU play in person, in the past. The autonomy of independence is "liberating," in Bronco Mendenhall's words, and I can appreciate that part of BYU's "go it alone" approach.

As I have stated, I also think the WCC works for BYU Basketball. In short, I am looking at the reality of the current situation. I am seeing BYU make the best of it, and I am in turn seeing the best of it. It's always okay—indeed it is recommended--to aim higher, want more, and hope to play succeed at the game's premiere level. Just because BYU is not where some fans wish it to be does not mean BYU is settling—-for anything.

I want BYU fans to be proud that they support a school with the means and desire to take the path less traveled, and do so successfully. I want BYU fans to support the Cougars for who they are, not withhold support because of who they are not.

Many Latter-day Saints are familiar with a saying that former church President David O. McKay observed written on a stone carving over a dwelling's stone doorway, years ago, in Scotland. The saying was "Whate'er thou art, act well thy part." Right now, BYU is a football independent and a WCC member. I think BYU can and should be the best football independent and best WCC team out there, and I know that is what the players and coaches are trying to accomplish. The fact I am not endlessly wishing for something else doesn't mean I don't want the best for BYU; I want BYU to succeed in the arena that the school judges is best for the Cougars.

On the second presumed point: BYU has not been invited to join the Big 12. BYU has been given a chance and turned down a recent opportunity to join the Big East. In short, BYU's leaders (among whom are leaders of the church to which most BYU fans belong) have preferred football independence to the Big East, but have not even been given a chance to state a preference relative to the Big 12.

Those who are upset that BYU is not in the Big 12 should be slightly mollified by the fact that BYU has not been invited to join that league. Whether the league and BYU could ever come to an agreement (such an agreement would likely include all-sport membership) remains a question for which I don't have an answer. Despite a constant stream of rumors and speculation, we don't even know that the Big 12 prefers BYU as an expansion candidate. Until such a time as that is confirmed, my refusal to pine for a Big 12 invite is not a rejection of its prospects or merits, but rather a pragmatic realization that the league hasn't even said it wants BYU to join.

Until such a time, I know BYU has football games lined up with Notre Dame, Texas, Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Nebraska, Boise State, multiple Pac-12 teams and others as yet-to-be-announced programs that will give the Cougars even more opportunities to make national noise. I know that Dave Rose has a loaded roster for next season and seasons to come, and that the 2012-13 WCC race is going to be a wild one.

I anxiously await the next milestone moment, the next unforgettable play, the next "I can't believe he just did that" highlight—-whether it comes in September, November, or February. We are all BYU fans, and I think we are all lucky to cheer for the team that consistently puts us in front of our TVs, next to our radios, and in the stands. The BYU Cougars are not just a team we like. For most BYU fans, the school and its players represent a shared belief, requiring a deep understanding of the school's unique mission and its coaches' and players' circumstances.

BYU's first president Karl G. Maeser promised a "different kind of education"; we are probably a "different kind of fans" as a result. This isn't to say that BYU's supporters have to temper high expectations or happily accept defeat or disappointment. They're sports, after all; they keep score. Winners celebrate, losers weep. Every BYU fan can choose to what extent wins and losses, conference membership or independence, opportunity or lack thereof will affect his or her outlook on the Cougars and feelings for the program. If you're upset that BYU is a football independent, I get it. If you wish BYU was numbered among the schools in the Big 12, I understand.

But I close with this: the other day, I was watching highlights of BYU's December 3rd, 2011 football game at Hawaii--a comparatively meaningless game, all things considered. BYU already knew its bowl destination, there was no league title on the line, and basketball season was already underway. I got to the point where a banged-up Riley Nelson ricochets out of a hit, regains his balance, and throws a deep ball for Cody Hoffman, who reaches out a single hand and hauls in a spectacular touchdown (pictured above). I must have gone back and watched the play ten more times.

The game meant very little, but that play meant a lot, to me. It meant that these guys—your guys—were still giving everything they had at that moment, in early December, late in a season of considerable disappointment, upheaval and unmet goals. Independent or not, nationally-ranked or not, it was still about going all out. Memories like those are what I will take with me into the season opener, and into every ensuing game and broadcast—all of which I hope are wins. If a loss is to occur, I, like all of you, will be disappointed, or maybe even upset. Then we'll all get ready for the next week, and wait for that next touchdown that makes us go back and watch it ten times.

Go Cougars.

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Greg Wrubell

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