BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall recently sat down with the media for some surprisingly candid one-on-one interviews about the state of the program, last year's team, this year's goals, and more. Perhaps his most interesting comments came when asked about the possibility of additional conference realignment, and BYU's standing as an independent in an increasingly expensive sport.
"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."
On one hand, the timing of this sort of remark seems puzzling. BYU's ability to schedule big name, power conference teams has never been better, and it won't be long before a few of the bigger names head to Provo. The Cougars have added home and homes with Michigan State, Mississippi State and Missouri recently, and will get a steady diet of home games against Pac 12 teams soon. While there are concerns about playoff access and bowl pairings, at the very least, the Cougars have shown they can create an exciting schedule with quality opponents.
But that isn't the only concern. The elephant in the room is money, and without membership in a Power 5 conference, BYU won't have nearly as much of it.
Make no mistake, for leaving what was the nation's best non-power conference at the time and venturing out on its own, BYU's money situation is quite good. If there is a college football middle class, its membership might consist only of BYU.
We don't know exactly how much BYU is making from TV, of course. But based on what is known of other ESPN contracts' per-game payouts and depending on how many made-for-TV type games BYU has in a season, it's often estimated BYU makes around $10 million per season from TV (usual educated guesses range from $8-12 million).
In contrast, Boise State's payout for 2013-14 (pre-playoff money, admittedly) was 3.7 million, 2.2 of which came from TV revenue.
So BYU is doing okay, and better than it ever has before. The problem is, however, that BYU doesn't want to just be "doing okay." The Cougars want a seat at the big boys' table, and it's all about having money to keep up and remain nationally relevant. As impressive as ~$10 million is for a school in BYU's situation, it pales in comparison to what Power 5 teams make, no matter how good or how crummy their football product is (I'm looking at you, Kansas.)
In a broad, general look, each school in a P5 league makes anywhere between $20-30 million per year in TV revenue. I have a degree in communication, so I'm no math wiz, but if BYU is making $10 mil/year and Kansas is making, say, $25 mil/year, it takes Kansas four years to reach $100 mil and BYU 10.
It isn't difficult to see how quickly BYU gets lapped, as well as it is doing for itself. So while three years sounds really stark and immediate when Mendenhall says it, it makes sense in this context. In three years from now, any given P5 school could have made upwards of $90 mil, while BYU would stand around $30 mil. That's swinging at windmills, friends.
That's why two months ago, athletic director Tom Holmoe said in a media sit-down, "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."
At the outset of independence, one could see how while not the most ideal, BYU could possibly ride independence forever and be in a pretty good spot. Now, it can still do that -- but the writing is on the wall that having to do so will mean being unable to keep up with anything resembling a Power 5 status, maybe even as soon as another recruiting cycle passes.
The most likely scenario where BYU was expected to finally find its way to a P5 home was assumed to be when the Big 12 added two teams so it could stage a conference championship game -- which many thought was a key factor in both Baylor and TCU being left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff. (It might help if Baylor actually scheduled real teams in non-conference play.)
Now, the Big 12 is on the precipice of being able to add a title game without adding members to its conference thanks to a policy being considered that deregulates the "12+ teams required" rule.
Many Big 12 fans can see how ridiculous it is to have a no-divisions round-robin and a title game...
Can i reiterate how dumb the thought process is of having a RR+ CCG combo?— Landthieves (@LandThieves) April 21, 2015
...but logic is hardly the leading driver of conference realignment. If it was, the Big 12 would have added BYU and Louisville together when it had the chance (and would have built its basketball conference up to a very high level in the process).
So what matters is still money. If the Big 12 can add title game revenue, what it believes to be a better chance at CFP inclusion, and not have add two more schools to which it would share revenue to do it, it's going to go that route, as dumb as it is for the actual integrity of competition.
Bronco posed another way P5 membership might be impacted by money, but it has to do with athletic departments still struggling to operate in the black despite the unprecedented amount of money raining upon them. He told Wrubell, "With fewer than 25 (programs) 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..."
I'd like to learn more about this line of thinking. At its outset, it makes some sense that perhaps a super-division of schools that operate in the black could emerge. Maybe. But in reality, the worse a school is at operating its budget, the more likely it is to cling to the massive paychecks it receives, especially when it knows those checks don't come because of competitive merit but because the school was included with the right big boys decades ago. No school is ever going to voluntarily give up $30 million per year because it suddenly comes to its moral senses, even if pressured from the outside.
I'm not sure if a three-year timeline is the actual drop-dead date for BYU independence. It would delay progress and would be something to endure, for sure, but maybe BYU could at least survive for a decade until the Big 12 TV contract expires in 2025.
Because such things are so speculative, we may have learned more about Mendenhall's future plans than anything. This may have been Bronco's way of saying that in three years, with no P5 membership imminent, "I've shepherded this program into and through independence as well as I could, but we're falling behind and I've done all I can."
I can't imagine it's an easy task to consistently recruit top talent to BYU's situation and have the team consistently perform at a high P5-type level, and I'm sure it's not easy to succeed with a team that travels as much as the Cougars do. It would be tiring, and perhaps Bronco is cluing us all in to his personal drop date, not necessarily a timeframe for the program's viability.
But this much is clear: Power 5 conferences are separating from the rest of Division I at a rapid pace, and BYU's middle-class status can't be maintained forever in the Football Bowl Subdivision as we currently know it. This clarity of class coincides with an increasing lack of clarity on BYU's path to inclusion. (Help us, ESPN?)
Whether it's in three years or not, there will come a time when the Cougars must either find themselves in the club, or starting to understand new ways to run a viable football program in the second-class, delegated Group of 5 -- and it could be sooner than any of us previously thought.