Is BYU right to think independently?

BY foxsports • September 15, 2010

If you have traveled enough outside the United States, chances are you have run into earnest, neatly dressed young men speaking English in a place where it is not often spoken. It might be Krakow or Kuala Lumpur, or some place where Catholicism, Islam or some other -ism is deeply ingrained in the culture.

No matter, these young men are there to spread the word of the Book of Mormon, even if it seems as if they are mostly tilting at windmills.

This vision of sincere young men and their unshakeable beliefs comes to mind with Brigham Young University’s decision to strike out on its own as an independent in college football.

Of all the moves and machinations that have taken place over the summer, as schools and conferences position themselves to gain a greater share of the television revenue pie, there is none that is as intriguing as the one made by BYU.

After getting shut out of the Pac-10’s expansion – in large part because it is a religious school – BYU then saw Utah leave the Mountain West. It considered staying in the Mountain West, fortified by the addition of Boise State and Fresno State, or returning to the WAC.

Instead, BYU envisioned itself as Notre Dame Lite, and took the leap toward independence. In all other sports, it will join the West Coast Conference, a group of faith-based schools that includes Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Loyola Marymount.

BYU took the plunge with a couple of sizeable life-preservers – a six-year series with Notre Dame and an eight-year deal with ESPN, according to the terms of which the network will televise at least four of its home games each season. That leaves BYU free to show the rest of its games on the church’s own state-of-the-art network.

John Eaton, an associate professor of marketing at Arizona State, said because BYU is in a relatively anonymous conference, the risk it is taking is minimal.

“It’s not like they’re leaving the SEC to try it on their own,” Eaton said. “I don’t think the financial risk is as great as it would have been for a traditional powerhouse. There’s a lot of potential, too. They’ll probably never have the national following that a Notre Dame does, but they weren’t going to do it in a conference that only gets seen on the West Coast.”

Jeff Marks, the Chief Operating Officer of Premier Partnerships, a West Coast sports marketing company, believes this is only a temporary move.

“It’s like musical chairs,” Marks said of the summer’s activity, in which the Big 10 and Pac-10 expanded and the Big 12 nearly dissolved.

“Everyone is sitting back, waiting until the music stops. Even if there’s no chair left, they feel like, `We’re BYU, somebody will bring us a chair.’ They know it’s a supply versus demand issue, and that someone’s going to come ask them to join the conference.”

And at that point, within the next few years, BYU will be better positioned as an independent to dictate where it wants to go, and how quickly it can move, Marks said.

And yet one question that remains unanswered is how far BYU can reach beyond its mostly Mormon audience?

The Cougars have had some solid teams in recent years, winning 10 games each of the last five seasons and along with TCU and Utah dominating the Mountain West Conference. Last season, they shocked then-No.3 Oklahoma to open the season.

And yet, as a football team, the Cougars are simply good – not captivating.

That was not the case more than 20 years ago, when BYU was to college football what Boise State has become.

In an era when the wishbone, the veer and the Power I were the offenses of choice, the Cougars winged the ball all over the field, led by an assembly line of future NFL quarterbacks: Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer, who would win the 1990 Heisman Trophy.

BYU became the first mid-major to win a national championship in the modern era when it went undefeated in 1984. In 1990, the Cougars upset No. 1-ranked Miami, and in those years regularly took on teams like UCLA, Florida State, Penn State, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State. Even if the BYU didn’t win those games, they typically moved the ball up and down the field against the big boys.

Now, the Cougars are distinguished only by their viewpoint. There has always been an us-against-them tilt to BYU, which Austin Collie, the Colts receiver expressed three years ago after catching a last minute 49-yard bomb on fourth-and-18 that led to a victory over rival Utah.

“If you do what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it,” Collie said. “Magic happens.”

Of course, one man’s righteousness is another man’s holier than thou.

So, as BYU prepares to step out on its own, the question about who will be watching, of whether the move to independence is forward looking or foolish, is not much different than others that involve BYU.

It is, as usual, a question of faith.

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