It happened on a late spring day in 2010. The few unwitting souls who knew and understood what was happening hardly had time to fully comprehend the seismic strength of the day's potential before, just as quickly as it had arrived, it vanished forever into the Western skyline. Even now, most people are still not fully aware of what happened on June 11, 2010. What happened on that day, or perhaps what didn't happen in the few short days that followed, would indelibly alter the trajectory of BYU's football future. Without a doubt there were other teams that would be deeply impacted, but not even four years later one really has to sit and wonder if it wasn't all a final death blow by the hand of the one thing that has proven to be the real purpose of college football (hint: it's green and definitely rhymes with shmoney).
On June 11, 2010, Boise State University accepted an offer from the Mountain West Conference to become its 10th member. Boise State, in the midst of an historic run that included two top 5 finishes (2006 and 2009, both unbeaten seasons) and a pair of Fiesta Bowl wins, lent perhaps the final piece of big-time football credibility to the conference. To the fan of the MWC, BSU's addition represented the decisive push needed to springboard the increasingly popular mid-major conference into the elite AQ club and by so doing marking a straightforward path to a BCS bowl, with all the trappings that went with it. Perhaps most important of all was the potential for vastly increased TV revenue and a way out of the frustratingly impotent network (the Mtn.) that made it difficult for fans to watch the games and consequently made the members of the conference paupers in comparison to the AQ conferences around the country.
How compelling was this newly improved Mountain West Conference? The numbers speak for themselves. Between its top three members (BYU, Utah & TCU) and now the addition of Boise State, this group of four teams would go a collective 216 - 45 (0.827) from 2006 - 2010. The group would make five BCS bowl appearances and win all of them with the exception of TCU who lost the 2009 Fiesta Bowl to Boise State. Additionally, they produced sixteen 10+ win seasons (BYU - 4, Utah - 3, TCU - 4, BSU - 5). Further, this conference, which drew from many of the traditional up-tempo West Coast offense teams like BYU, played an exciting and high scoring brand of football. A kind of football that even the most casual football fans across the country love to watch. Thus, an upgrade to AQ status was seemingly inevitable, or at least very likely. A TV network befitting of such a conference was merely a matter of time. Yes, things were looking up for the MWC.
But why was this phenomenal event ultimately dead on arrival? Just six days after Boise State's announcement to join up, Utah announced that it was leaving to take a promotion (and a big pay increase) with the Pac-10, shortly to become the Pac-12. Alas, faster than a Mormon housewife can tear through the Twilight series, and in an attempt to not be outdone by its bitterest of rivals, BYU announced on August 31, 2010 that it would be leaving to go independent in football. Apparently if the MWC wasn't good enough for Utah then it certainly wasn't ﬁt to possess the Cougars.
Fast forward to present day and we find the world of college football flipped completely on its ear. The BCS reign is officially over and our would-be premiere members of the MWC each find themselves in various predicaments, none of which are ideal by any stretch.
Utah, once the pioneer BCS-buster of 2004 and then the guys keeping the "major" and handing the "mid" to the likes of Nick Saban and the demigods of Alabama, now find themselves nothing more than the kid brother on the playground getting repeatedly shown that he is, in every sense of the phrase, out of his league.
Two-time BCS-buster and former Rose Bowl Champion TCU is stomaching a very similar fate where the program is struggling to even appear competitive in Big 12 games, much less win a reasonable number of them. Who knew 2010's Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin could feel like it was merely a long-ago dream?
And then of course there is BYU. Never a BCS-buster but still a program that consistently churned out double-digit win seasons for the better part of a decade and finished in the top 15 in 2006, 2007 & 2009. Now independent and benefitting from a lucrative ESPN deal, they went a different route than their former conference mates. And where has independence landed them? Well, it's complicated.
You see, when it comes to college football, winning is the key objective of seemingly only some of the teams but not necessarily all of them. Given our three MWC divorcees, all indicators point to all of them falling under the "not necessarily" category. For Utah and TCU, it's fairly straightforward. They both traded in their success and notoriety on the ﬁeld for money - and lots of it. How much you ask? Both teams were pulling in somewhere around $2 million in revenue per year while in the Mountain West. Now with the Pac-12, Utah took in approximately $10 million in 2012, $15 million in 2013 and will receive their full share of $20 million in 2014. As for TCU, their scale is similar starting at around $12 million in 2012 and reaching $26 million by 2015.
BYU on the other hand doesn't have it quite so nice. While they are reportedly earning in the neighborhood of $10 million per year from a combination of their ESPN contract and games that air on BYUtv, it's difficult to see that amount growing at the same rate as Utah or TCU in the subsequent years. Furthermore, with the start of the playoff format to begin next season, BYU all of a sudden finds that being an independent in football is pretty much the last thing on earth you want to be. This is because the new playoff system is designed to largely benefit the "big 5" conferences (SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, and Pac-12) by dividing the bulk load of the projected $500 million to those conferences, shedding a modest amount to the mid-major conferences, and then essentially leaving the only two independents left (BYU and Navy) just enough to light up the stadium for a few home games (about $200 thousand).
There is no doubt whatsoever that BYU's TV deal with ESPN is eons better than what they had with the Mtn both in terms of money and in national viewership. In that respect it's been a win/win for both BYU and its fans who are scattered across the entire country and many of whom had little to no access to watching games prior to BYU's independence. But unless they can pull another rabbit out of this increasingly crowded and disappearing hat, BYU could actually find itself even less able to become a premiere college football program again and possibly even not making much more money than the teams that remain in the MWC.
So, did Utah, TCU and BYU sell themselves short in their own specific ways by bailing on the Mountain West? Is it possible that had they all stuck together with the addition to Boise State that the "big 5" would have been the "big 6" and that year-in and year-out the MWC would at least have been guaranteed a spot each year in one of the "New Year's Six" bowl games? Would the money compare to what they're making now? Even if the money wasn't as good as Pac-12 or Big 12 money, wouldn't winning and maintaining a spot in the national consciousness make up for the difference? Or is it really just all about money?
Finally, did BYU's own pride by needing to keep up with the Utes blind them from avoiding what is now looking like a pitfall due to independence under the new system? Should they make their way back to the MWC? Could they? Is now a good time to revisit talks with the Big 12 and perhaps be a little more willing to let go of the exclusive ESPN deal? Regardless of what your responses may be to these questions, the fact remains that top minds at BYU need to figure out something and fast.
Something tells me that the more competitive and difficult it becomes to get into that final four playoff, the less likely that good, ranked teams will be inclined to enter into home-and-home agreements with a team as strong as BYU when in light of their own difficult conference schedules they can play more of the UTEPs and Miami of Ohios for their non-conference opponents.
Note to Readers: This article, while possessing its share of accurate statistics, dates, events, etc., is in signiﬁcant part based on speculation aided by the beneﬁt of hindsight. While some of the conjecture presented here is just that, the overriding intent of this piece is to cast some deeper introspection into the ultimate dismantling of what once was one of the most exciting and noteworthy conferences on the rise in college football and to give into that nagging question: what could have been...?
(Contributing writer: Zach Christensen)