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Dick Harmon: Mountain West Conference will sorely miss BYU, Utah

Published: Saturday, March 26 2011 10:47 p.m. MDT

Mountain West Conference basketball bid farewell to BYU and Utah this past week.

It was a good ride while it lasted.

You don't just replace a Utah or a BYU. It will be very difficult to replicate their fan bases, their TV ratings, their resumes and buildings. It will be a challenge to throw replacements Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada in the pan and come out with the same meal.

"Yeah, it hurts to see them all leave. I'm human," said MWC commissioner Craig Thompson this week after watching San Diego State lose to UConn in Anaheim. "The frustrating part is the conference matured in a way we envisioned. But now it all changes."

I saw this past week where a Denver newspaper columnist wrote good-riddance to both BYU and Utah — just go, get out and be gone.

Well, it has happened.

While some around the league feel betrayed by the departure of the two Utah schools, it sounds like selective whining.

There's not a MWC president or athletic director who wouldn't jump at the invitation to join the Pac-10 like Utah did. No brainer.

I'm told LDS Church leaders who govern BYU never would have allowed BYU to leave a conference on its own without Utah. These two schools have been welded at the hip through many leagues throughout history. Until now.

When Utah announced it would leave, BYU immediately explored options that were only theories for many years. Given BYU's resources for exposure and Utah's leap to the Pac-10, it was a no-brainer for BYU to go independent.

Some, like this Denver writer, opined that BYU was dishonorable to leave for independence this coming June 30. Again, selective whining.

The truth is the MWC tried to get its TV partners to honor promises given to BYU's administration when the league signed up for its own network. That didn't happen and the MWC and BYU were betrayed by TV entities that kept changing ownership after the original league deal.

BYU simply took action to correct a breech in an agreement to utilize its campus broadcasting facilities, a promise made from the start.

I am told back in that crazy week in August, the MWC tried to contact its TV partner and further work out TV concerns that might atone for ignoring promises. The TV partner didn't return phone calls.

Stuff happens.

None of the MWC presidents who wrestled with that TV pact in the beginning remain at league schools as the 2011 fall season begins. There is talk the new president's council might approach ESPN.

Again, action by necessity and self-interest.

MWC hoops will survive. San Diego State and UNLV immediately become MWC basketball pillars. And if New Mexico will beef up its RPI, the MWC can still be a three-bid NCAA Tournament franchise.

The league will sorely miss these two pillars from the Beehive State. Utah began this year with the 11th-most wins in NCAA basketball history (1,676, now 1,689) and the Cougars were 17th (1,608, now 1,650).

Universities don't win that often without a passion for the game over decades of time. That passion has rarely subsided in Salt Lake City and Provo.

Utah gave the MWC its only No. 1 NBA draft pick in Andrew Bogut in 2004. BYU and Utah provided its only national players of the year in Bogut and Jimmer Fredette.

The Utes provided seven first-team All-Conference stars in the past 11 years, including Alex Jensen, Hanno Mottaola, Britton Johnsen, Bogut, Marc Jackson and Luke Neville. Utah produced four MWC player of the year winners.

The Cougars had 11 first-teamers and they include Mekeli Wesley, Terrell Lyday, Travis Hansen, Rafael Araujo, Keena Young, Trent Plaisted and multiple-year appearances by Lee Cummard and Fredette. Five of these players were named league players of the year.

These two MWC brothers combined for 516 total wins, including 213 in league play. They combined for 11 conference basketball titles outright or shared. BYU had six, the Utes five.

BYU ends its MWC existence with a Sweet 16 run, a 276-116 overall record, 126-54 in league play. The Cougars' MWC winning percentage will forever stay at a glossy .700.

Utah finishes 240-147 overall and 107-73 in MWC competition. The Ute league winning percentage stands at 59.4 percent, something two-thirds of the league would die for.

Utah and BYU were charter members of the MWC and helped create and design it. They represented a building block for the new league with storied traditions of NIT and NCAA championships and superstars, many records and lots of glitter.

The Jon Huntsman Center and Marriott Center: The images of these two arenas speak volumes.

Utah and BYU's final run in the MWC didn't come without drama. For the Utes, it was the dismissal of coach Jim Boylen after a disappointing 13-18, 6-10 campaign. It was not the exit Utah fans counted on.

For the Cougars, it was a title and a special player, Jimmer Fredette.

The college basketball story of the year was in the MWC's own play-pen.

It was MWC fans that got to see Fredette up close and personal. From Clune Arena to Viejas Arena and the Thomas & Mack, it was an unforgettable show.

And that's how it ends.

The MWC basketball run is over for the Utes and Cougars.

Who knows when the remaining MWC schools and Utes and Cougars will tangle again.

Only time will tell.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

TWITTER: Harmonwrites

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