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It was almost five years ago that BYU announced the decision to leave the Mountain West Conference in all sports and forge a new path as an FBS football independent. According to head football coach Bronco Mendenhall, it was the correct decision, but may not be the long-term solution to the growing disparity between FBS haves and have-nots.
In a one-on-one interview I conducted with Mendenhall last week, the coach talked at length about BYU's current standing in the college football landscape and his projections for the future. His comments follow by almost two months and echo remarks from AD Tom Holmoe, who said in late February that "it's our intention that we would be playing in what they would commonly call a 'Power 5' conference sometime in the near future...I think I've been open enough to say that we're not in that league. To try to compete in every aspect at that level, without having that (financial) support, is hard. I don't think we can do it indefinitely."
Mendenhall reiterated Holmoe's stance and even got specific with personal expectations, relative to what might be perceived as BYU's window of opportunity for P5-conference inclusion.
"When I speak in absolutes," said Mendenhall, "I know that doesn't work very well for expectations, because then that just means they're going to be met or not. But at some point, inclusion has to happen.
"I hate to be pinned down, but if someone were to force me, I'd say three years--it has to happen within three. Could it go longer than that? Yes, it could. Is it desirable, to me, to go longer than that? That answer is no."
Both Holmoe and Mendenhall have expressed a belief that one more college football realignment shift is forthcoming, and that it is imperative BYU be in a position for P5 inclusion if and when that shift occurs.
"2015 and 2016 schedules show a direct and clear vision that we have to and want to play the very best teams on the biggest stages, in front of the most people, to continue to demonstrate credibility and inclusion.
"The sustainability part to this is...how long can you do that without the same resources? If you are part of a Power 5 conference, TV revenue alone is going to be somewhere between 20 and 27 million dollars (annually). That is not what our contract is with ESPN."
Mendenhall thinks two scenarios could precipitate another round of realignment, and that "one has already slightly started to happen," involving the new College Football Playoff.
"If the playoff isn't expanded," Mendenhall says, "someone will be left out. There are five P5 conferences, and only four (teams) get in. This past year, the conference that did not get in did not have a championship game. That, to me, has to change.
"If I were one of the teams from the conferences that had a championship game, I would demand and influence in every way possible, that all five of the conferences have a championship game. That is one thing that I think has to happen."
Legislation allowing for the deregulation of conference championship games was recently drawn up by the Big 12 and ACC, and if passed, would allow for leagues to stage title games with or without as many as 12 teams, and without or without up to or only two divisions.
Mendenhall acknowledged the pending legislative process, but noted that "if a ten-team league wanted a championship game, they would get their cake and eat it, too, meaning that they qualify now for the pressure of having a championship game, but they keep revenue without dividing it with two more teams. It will be interesting to see how that plays out."
"If a conference wanted to add more teams...if they think that someone like BYU could add value to their conference in terms of credibility, revenue, marketability, viewership and identity, they would love the ability to do that, then somehow sort out the way their championship or divisions would work.
"I think the issues surrounding championship games and/or increased divisions within a conference--both of those things I think are going to be looked and would then precipitate the next shift if it happens."
Mendenhall intimated that a third condition could impact P5 membership, and it is a purely monetary one.
"We talked about this within the American Football Coaches Association board: of the 125 schools that are playing FBS football, fewer than 25 are operating in the black, currently, even with the money that's being paid out. Now we're going to pay actual cost of attendance.
"With fewer than 25 that are actually in the black now, there will possibly be schools that are Power 5 (conference members), that might not be able to keep up with their P5 conference status, financially; they might have to drop down...or there might be mid-tier schools that are going to drop football as they try to figure out how to keep up with the financial part, which is increasingly becoming a driver of college football.
"Unintentionally, I think, we're kind of hurting the collective game of college football, through money, when the intent was to promote (the game). I think it is going to backfire."
Mendenhall says while the BCS era has given way to the CFP era, a similar fiscal dynamic remains in play. The biggest programs have been granted substantial paydays for years; they will continue to cash massive checks, and Mendenhall says many of them "haven't figured it out yet."
"Now they're going to pay more out, for (cost of attendance). Unless student fees are going to the generation of this (extra money needed for COA), at what point will communities and/or institutions raise the question of supporting (football) until you show that you're in the black. Until then, what's the deal?"
Mendenhall said BYU is passing through the second of two distinct phases of FBS independence, noting that the second phase is concurrent with the new CFP and its even greater financial windfalls for members of the P5 conferences.
"There was the initial phase of absolutely having to leave the Mountain West Conference for what I thought was progress and to show upward mobility," said Mendenhall. "When two of the 'Big Three' (Utah and TCU) were taken to different conferences, to me it was not an option to stay (in the MWC).
"BYU had to move forward, as I thought the conference would lose momentum with only one of us there. Not knowing what independence really looked like, if for no other reason than exposure from ESPN, that was going to be progress, which has played out exactly right.
"I absolutely think it was worth it; I actually think it was the right move at that time."
Mendenhall says FBS independence "is more difficult than the Mountain West Conference was. The travel is more difficult, the unique variety of teams we play, and the psychological part of managing the schedule is much more difficult. After experiencing both, the unique challenges of independence are harder, and that is as objective as I can be."
"We're going into a new phase of independence, a new phase meaning now there is recognized Power 5 conferences. With that is now more access and exposure, to even make the schedule more difficult.
"Independence was already challenging; it is now becoming more challenging. I welcome that, because I want progress. Progress is only going to come by pursuing and climbing, rather than reverting. I am not interested in reverting."
BYU has decided to adopt the same cost-of-attendance protocol that P5 conferences have recently enacted, permitting programs to offer annual stipends beyond the traditional scholarships afforded student-athletes. Mendenhall says with that commitment, "we are doing everything at the same level and hopefully on the field of play as anyone that is after the elite level of college football."
That said, BYU is doing so at a resource and a scheduling disadvantage, pointing out that most of BYU's highest-profile games are being played away from home in the coming years.
"If we were in a conference meeting, and let's say the conference schedule came out and had you playing the best five teams on your schedule, all on the road. A coach would just say 'this is not fair.' There would be a giant uproar.
"We are welcoming that (challenge) currently, because we are in the position we are. That is currently what we're doing. Managing that with some of the psychological challenges of playing a lesser opponent at home, and maybe at a time where your stadium might not be full--that is a unique challenge in and of itself. Then, there is no conference championship, as we know.
"None of those things make (independence) less desirable, it just means those are realities that we are working through. Hopefully, in this new stage of independence, which will even be more difficult to get to (P5) inclusion, the best way I know to do it is to play our way in, and that is what I have chosen to do."
Mendenhall says despite the myriad hurdles faced as an FBS independent in the current college football climate, "I am completely confident in our long-term stance. Three years from now, what the landscape will look like, I don't know, but what I am positive about, and absolutely know needs to be pursued at BYU is the elite level in college football, even with all these challenges.
"I hate even the thought of conceding that that isn't what we're after. I am not willing to concede that. I am very clear now about what the challenges are that work up to that, and who can actually can come to BYU. It will take a lot, but a lot is worth pursuing."
More from Mendenhall, on...
The weight of BYU's September games (at Nebraska, v. Boise State, at UCLA, at Michigan): "There is a lot of weight, and that is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities of independence. All the same things that are challenges are opportunities, to really make it work. The schedule is backwards. It decelerates, in terms of difficulty, rather than accelerates.
"If you were in a conference, you would be playing lesser opponents early, then get into your conference race, which then starts really mattering. What if you drop one of those first four games? Managing that, psychologically, is that different than being in a conference? Yes.
"A lot of weight (goes into September). You hate to say, as a coach, or in an organization, those are 'make-or-break' games. To me, another bowl game, and winning a bowl game, is still success. Number of wins is still success. Getting the most out of a given team is success. But as an independent, do the early games matter a ton? No question."
If he's concerned about facing Nebraska without a to-be-announced number of players benched as a disciplinary measure following BYU's Miami Beach Bowl brawl: "Sure. Any time you take a good player--just one, as learned with Taysom (Hill) last year--off the field, at a position of critical need or exposure, does that decrease your chances (of victory)? Yeah, it decreases your chances. We will have fewer resources for Nebraska than we would have had if we did not have our fight after the Memphis game.
"Even one player, against the teams we will be playing, and the level we want to compete against and can't wait to take on...every player matters, especially if they are a starting player."
Team chemistry and leadership: "Chemistry can shift even within the season. Right now, it is very very strong, I would say. I've been very pleased with leadership, so far, through the off-season and through the spring. It's easy for any coach to say that, but to me I'm really encouraged by what I'm seeing."