Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — Along the way, the road was filled with bumps and potholes and featured plenty of twists, turns, dead ends and detours.
But in the end, BYU reached its planned destination, at least for now — football independence.
The school announced Tuesday it is leaving the Mountain West Conference, which BYU helped form in 1999, to compete as an independent in football. Meanwhile, the Cougars will join the West Coast Conference in 12 other sports — such as men's basketball — offered by that league, for the 2011-12 season. The move is effective June 30, 2011.
Athletic director Tom Holmoe was not available for comment, but a news conference is scheduled for today at noon at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU had until today to notify the MWC if it was leaving after the 2010-11 season.
The announcement came about two weeks later than expected, and it involves the WCC, not the Western Athletic Conference as originally planned. Two weeks ago, BYU was set to bolt the MWC and join the WAC in its other sports, but that plan was thwarted when the MWC hastily invited WAC members Nevada and Fresno State to join the league.
Since then, BYU officials have been working feverishly, exploring options to enhance the future of its athletic department.
BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall addressed the big news after his team's practice Tuesday, just days before the season-opener against Washington.
"I'm supportive of (the decision to go independent) and I'm anxious to coach the team in a new situation," he said. "I don't consider myself a real student of all the national landscape. The No. 1 thing that, to me, on a broader perspective other than football, is exposure. And I love the idea of being more visible and I don't know what all of those details are I'm sure they'll be addressed (today) but that part to me is significant."
As an independent, BYU will have the opportunity to set up a 12-game schedule every season. Officially, the Cougars are scheduled to play at Oregon State and at Texas and host Utah State in 2011. It is expected that BYU will continue to play archrival Utah, which will begin its first season in the Pac-12 next year.
Before its deal with the WAC disintegrated, BYU had devised a mock independent schedule that also included WAC schools Hawaii, Nevada, Fresno State, New Mexico State and San Jose State. The Cougars could still play Hawaii, New Mexico State and San Jose State in 2011.
"The only thing I've been told so far," Mendenhall said, "is there will be some elements of existing WAC partners, which would be a portion of the contract, but then a national schedule, basically East Coast to West Coast, and trying to get as many quality opponents from as many parts of the country as we can get to continue to promote our program and generate excitement for the teams we're playing, which will be a real positive thing."
As part of the plan, BYU has formed a partnership with ESPN, which would televise a number of games, particularly high-profile contests.
Starting in 2012, the Cougars are already scheduled to face Boise State, which joined the MWC over the summer, in a four-game series though 2015.
Other possible future opponents include the other three independent teams in college football — Army, Navy and Notre Dame.
Mendenhall said he's looking forward to scheduling opponents from all over the country.
"I'd love a long-term series with Notre Dame. I think that would be a great one. That's what's fun now, possibly the idea of who you'd like to play and develop some natural rivalries and learn more about different parts of the country and add more to the college experience for these kids. The chance to have choices like that, I'm excited about."
Mendenhall said he told his team during practice about BYU's move to independence. "They cheered and went right back to it," he said.
"We didn't know how to react. We didn't think too much of it. That's a long way off," said quarterback Riley Nelson. "We're all pretty focused on the task at hand — that's Washington. We trust in our administrators and our coaches and all the people who made that decision. We're excited about it and we know it's the best for us and the program and the university. I know we definitely want to leave the Mountain West on a good note — and that's with a conference championship, as, I'm sure, is the goal of every other team in the conference. But we definitely play every game strong — especially our league games this year."
Without a conference affiliation in the future, BYU will not have an automatic bowl tie-in or a shot at a league championship. But Mendenhall said those issues won't be a hindrance to the football program.
"I'm confident there will be tie-ins, and tie-ins every year. The BYU brand … is a marketable thing. I believe as the details come out, that will be proven," he said. "Certainly (not having a conference championship to play for) changes … I'm not talking about this year but after that. But the national landscape is such that you have to win as many games as possible against the best opponents you can to be considered for the next tier of bowl games or competition. That really doesn't change a thing."
BYU is heading into independence without a guaranteed spot in the BCS. Notre Dame is guaranteed a BCS berth as long as the Fighting Irish are ranked in the top eight in the final BCS standings. There is not a similar arrangement for Army or Navy.
Legendary coach LaVell Edwards, who coached BYU for 29 seasons, told KSL-TV that the move to independence is "exciting, I'll tell you that. It'll be a lot different. I've always been a conference person in the sense that it's a lot easier to try to win a conference championship than it is to play for a national ranking to get what you can from that. But I think from the same token it'll open it up for our scheduling of other games that they probably wouldn't have been able to get. It's going to be kind of exciting to see how it goes the next few years."
Added Edwards: "It's certainly not a knee-jerk reaction or decision or anything. I think it's something that's been well-thought out and studied over a period of time with (BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson) and others involved in the decision and I think that it's something they just felt like they had to do and in a lot of cases not left with a whole lot of alternatives. I just don't understand the Mountain West Conference and the way they've handled this whole situation."
The past couple of weeks, the MWC was having discussions with BYU officials in an attempt to keep the Cougars in the league. But those talks broke down sometime last week.
Soon after BYU's announcement, the MWC issued a statement of its own.
"Since its inception, the Mountain West Conference has worked strategically to grow and strengthen the league, in order to position itself at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics," MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson said. "Our board of directors' diligent exploration of options to advance the membership's objectives is ongoing. This includes conversations with our television partners to address issues of mutual importance, as well as determining the optimal configuration for the Conference and investigating the possibility of various collaborative alliances. We look forward to the future with great excitement — particularly welcoming recent additions Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada into the Mountain West."
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