Multiple sources have confirmed that BYU will leave the Mountain West Conference in 2011. The university plans to become an FBS Independent in football while joining the Western Athletic Conference for all other sports.
This decision comes in the wake of sweeping changes to the conference landscape in what was formerly Division 1. It was perhaps most directly motivated by the departure of the Utah Utes; earlier this year, Utah accepted an invitation to join the Pac 10 , leaving the MWC and its in-state rival Cougars behind.
But clearly, there are other factors at work.
BYU has long considered itself separate from other universities due to its religious affiliation. Like Notre Dame, college football’s best-known Catholic university and Indpendent program, BYU is the most famous representative of its founding faith. The university was established by The Church of Latter Day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church, and this move towards independence is rooted in that distinction.
The school has previously considered severing conference affiliations for football, but was unable to do so because its other sports require league support to maintain themselves. But earlier this year, WAC officials stated that if BYU were to resume its quest for independence, the smaller conference would be willing to incorporate its non-football athletic programs.
With that stumbling block removed, BYU was able to better evaluate its options. In addition, BYU enjoys some measure of independence already, having its own television network. BYU-TV is carried by the major satellite providers, and is scheduled to transition to high definition in an effort to increase national appeal.[pullquote]BYU’s move effectively kills any chance the MWC had of pursuing an automatic BCS bid. That reality will be a crippling blow to programs like TCU and Boise State, and could result in the further collapse of the conference.[/pullquote]
The recent changes to the MWC probably hurried the process along. BYU had hoped to draw some interest from the Big 12, assuming that the depleted conference would want to try and replace Nebraska and Colorado, who left for the Big Ten and Pac 10 respectively. But the Big 12 elected to stay a 10-team league, leaving BYU stuck in the changing Mountain West.
While the MCW lost Utah, it gained Boise State, and in the grand scheme of things would have been as strong as ever. In that regard, BYU’s departure is a little mystifying. But the Cougars may have thought that without Utah and BSU, the MWC wouldn’t be able to achieve its goal of becoming a BCS conference– that is, a league that earns an automatic bid to one of the 5 BCS bowls.
For its part, the MWC is pulling out all the stops to get BYU to stay, up to and including a renegotiation of television revenues. But if the university is determined to leave, very little will stand in its way.
BYU has stated that it will not seek an arrangement similar to Notre Dame’s. The Irish have a clause in the BCS rules that guarantees the team an at-large berth if it finishes the season ranked eighth or higher in the BCS Standings. BYU will get no such consideration, although BCS officials will be free to consider other possible accommodations for the Cougars.
Reports indicate that the MWC is also reaching out to potential replacement programs including the WAC’s Fresno State and Nevada and Conference USA’s Houston and UTEP, according to ESPN’s Joe Schad. Unfortunately, such an addition won’t be easy. After Boise State jumped to the MWC, the WAC had its remaining teams sign a $5 million buyout agreement. That means that a departing program would have to shell out that amount before being released.
If the MWC is unwilling to foot that bill, the WAC might not be an option, leaving C-USA schools as prime targets.
Either way, BYU’s move effectively kills any chance the MWC had of pursuing an automatic BCS bid. That reality will be a crippling blow to programs like TCU and Boise State, and could result in the further collapse of the conference.
My immediate reaction to this news is that it seems to be a selfish and opportunistic maneuver on BYU’s part. The school wants to enjoy the freedom of being on its own in a lucrative sport while still enjoying the protection of conference affiliation for the less profitable sports. The decision hurts the MWC tremendously, which is a slap in the face. BYU and the conference have enjoyed a mutual benefit from their partnership, and to dissolve that at such a critical juncture is questionable.
With the college football landscape in a state of upheaval, BYU is essentially trying a get-rich-quick scheme without regard to whom it might affect. Though the power play might work to the university’s advantage, there is a larger picture to consider.
This isn’t the same as Utah’s change of allegiance. This is another example of a program wanting the best of both worlds, milking the system to further its own interests.
On Wednesday afternoon, the MWC extended official invitations to Fresno State and Nevada, both of who are currently part of the WAC. For either to join, the school or the MWC would have to pay the $5 million buyout necessary for release.