It's always with caution I approach the subject of BYU and the Big 12. Attitudes across the BYU fan base on the matter are varied. Some of you are Big-12-info addicts,
snorting up rumors like coke guzzling down rumors like Mountain Dew. Some of you avoid such rumors as to not get your hopes up. And some of you loathe the rumors and wallow in unbelief, a veritable Great Apostasy of Conference Expansion. But ... here we go.
We've received many small bits of information on the subject in the two-plus months since we last wrote about it, and with the one and only Greg Swaim recently revisiting the matter, fan discussion is starting to heat up. So it seems a good time to put some things down on the matter.
In coming into contact with even more people with legitimate connections, combined with other information available, all signs still point to BYU and the Big 12 being a when-not-if situation.
When the dancing began, BYU seemed poised to make the jump. Then, according to many, BYU said "no." Or the Big 12 did. Or both. Then the Big 12 surprisingly invited TCU. Prevailing sentiment was that BYU to the Big 12 was therefore dead.
BYU wants to be in the Big 12. When the deal was "dead," issues arose which made BYU brass unsure of Big 12 membership's commitment to things that were already assumed to be worked out or were presumed to be non-issues. But nothing ever died, as the timeline below will show.
I don't have any new, cogent, specific on-the-record statements from sources that can be passed along right now. But all the small bits and pieces we've been told over the past two months that can't really be made into actual articles do point to the same thing. What we know is consistent with what you will read in this on-the-record timeline from the "real" media:
SEPTEMBER 26, 2011
In the middle of it all.
If you hear reports out of Texas or Oklahoma that BYU is not interested in the Big 12, it is only an interpretation of BYU negotiating its talking points. - Dick Harmon (link)
OCTOBER 19, 2011
Days after TCU joined the Big 12
BYU will be in the Big 12.
I'll go it one more: It doesn't matter if Missouri goes or stays in the Big 12. - Dick Harmon (link)
In these, Harmon was straight about his thoughts. These were hunches, likely based on some sources, but thoughts he presented as his own opinions. This was all during the time of uneasiness when the Big 12's future was unsure.
Three months later, a more-stable 10-school conference calls itself the Big 12. Three months after the last article mentioned, Harmon started to shift gears from possible source-based hunches to something more. He said on a radio interview:
JANUARY 28, 2012
The atmosphere has changed from back in August and September ... From BYU's perspective, the time was not right to be jumping here or jumping there ... Now those changes have been made. The threat of [Oklahoma/OkState/Texas] leaving is gone, at least it seems those things have settled down.
The [latest] on expansion talks came out of basketball meetings .. it was capped by The [Chronicle] Of Higher Education ... mentioning the Big 12 would look to expand and the prime candidates were BYU and Louisville. Coming from that publication, which I've read for three or four decades, it's kind of the voice of the NCAA, an academic type of publication -- to have it start there ... you got ... a different flavor.
I've always felt the Big 12 would be an option. I've not changed my tune from when I wrote about it in September and October. I've felt that would be the move that they would make when the time came ... The atmosphere is more mature for those kinds of discussions, and changes and decisions, than it was three or four months ago. - Dick Harmon (link)
From "mature atmosphere" to "wide open," Jay Drew of the Salt Lake Tribune gave our own Rise & Shout Podcast this exclusive:
MARCH 6, 2012
Q: Anything on conference expansion that is of any concern? ... Anything new? Or same old same old?
A: The only thing I will say is I've talked to a high-ranking BYU administrator and said "Hey, can you give me anything [on these rumors]." This person said, "All I can tell you is that communication channels are very open -- wide open -- between us and the Big 12. They have never really died." - Jay Drew (link)
It was this same week when West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich was asked about conference realignment on ESPN during the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. I was unable to track down video or text of it, but Zaninovich said the WCC understands the desire to play big-time football, and used the specific phrase that the conference "won't stand in the way" if BYU gets an offer that increases its profile. He expressed that it is part of college athletics, and you simply grow your own product and culture and don't worry about the rest.
(This ESPN interview is what Greg Wrubell quotes and references toward the bottom of this edition of Cougar Tracks. He went many more steps in March on the subject then he did back in September with ESPN's Andy Katz.)
Perhaps I read too much into the interview that took place in Las Vegas, but I remember distinctly when I saw it live, the words Zaninovich chose and the tone he used intimated that in the back of his head, he knew BYU's departure was coming -- further legitimized in my head by the fact that Zaninovich did take the discussion a few extra steps than he did six months ago.
And last week, Brad Rock of the Deseret News threw in his two cents. He cites no sources and has nothing to break, but reads between the lines of quotes and events to come up with his educated guess. And to our knowledge, he's right -- except for the Big East part. A LOT would have to change for BYU to revisit the possibility of the Big East.
A moment on the Big East: Why was BYU so keen on joining the Big East initially (based on Mendenhall's public comments) then later turned it down? (You're welcome SDSU.) I think something as explicit as a phone call or as tacit as a "controlled, back-channel information leak" from the Big 12, telling BYU not to get wrapped up with the Big East too soon because they certainly weren't done with them, would do just that.
BYU hit the brakes knowing that the Big East offer is likely a standing one. The conference took SDSU in football, for crying out loud. Holmoe and Co. thought: Let's keep working with the Big 12 before going and getting married to the Big East. No need to go to the prom with the average girl if the hot one just texted you. Sure, you had a disagreement with her a month before, but in your head it still makes a lot more sense to be with her. And you have to leave open the possibility of a much more enjoyable evening.
Taking that string of speculation one step further before being done with it: perhaps Mendenhall's initial positive opinions on the Big East were more strategic than anything, hoping to elicit that very response from the Big 12.
But Rock's inclusion of the Big East aside, his ideas are correct. Comments from Mendenhall this spring have indicated his distaste for November schedules as an independent, and indicated it is going to be difficult to change that and keep November strong from year to year. The Pac-12, B1G Ten, and ACC are all going to nine-game conference schedules, which means 38 BCS-conference schools (just over half of them) now have one less game they can schedule (and an increased motivation to find non-conference games that can be won).
A natural conference with which BYU would schedule is the Pac-12, but none of its schools can sign new contracts for non-conference games outside of the first three weeks of the season. And you have Georgia Tech cancelling two games with BYU because of the nine-game conference schedule.
In that vein, I saw Tom Holmoe's episode of the BYUtv series Legends last week.
In it, he says he spends time *every day* on football scheduling, and that it takes probably 25 phone calls and 50 emails just to schedule one game.
In short, football scheduling as a new independent is hard, and it's only getting harder. Yes, BYU has some good games on the slate, and its 2012 independent schedule is good. I'm not saying it's bad. But I am taking some liberty here to speculate: Like our source told us about getting into the Big 12 before Mendenhall is done, I get the same feeling about the position of athletic director and Tom Holmoe. I'm not sure there's anyone else out there who wants to tackle this like he has.
My personal speculation on independent scheduling aside, the above public, on-the-record timeline coincides with what we've heard behind the scenes -- even from people outside the BYU circle (read: Louisville). Everything adds up to When, not If.
Some initially pointed to the Big 12's new television contract that was announced as a sign no expansion would occur. But it later came out that expansions clauses did exist in those contracts. The new TV deal, in my opinion, gives little insight on expansion matters.
So why the wait? Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and BYU will always protect itself after what went down with Comcast and The Mtn. There are still some things for both sides to feel out, such as what new postseason format school presidents decide upon. The Big 12 will also be naming a new commissioner in the next three months as well. (Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick would be an encouraging sign for the Cougars, one would assume.)
But when it's over, we feel confident all that will be left to say is:
"Dick Harmon was right all along."
Zach Bloxham also contributed to this article.