Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the first installment in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and the Cougars' jump to the West Coast Conference in basketball and most other sports.
PROVO — Fans, media and other observers have wondered for decades about BYU's place in the college athletics universe, regularly speculating that the Cougars would eventually join a more prestigious conference.
Then, on Sept. 1 2010, months after arch-rival Utah accepted an invitation to go to the Pac-12, BYU boldly, and shockingly, decided to declare its independence in football and move most of its other sports to the West Coast Conference.
That hasn't prevented people from speculating about how long it will be until the Cougars change addresses again, perhaps to an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series conference.
But BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe reiterated Thursday to members of the media during an informal question-and-answer session that independence is not necessarily a stepping stone to something bigger and better. This is the course the school has chosen to follow — to spread its wings and fly into the wild blue yonder.
"Our plan right now is to go (with independence). We don't have a bailout plan," said Holmoe, looking relaxed and dressed in an argyle sweater. "Our vision right now is to make this be great. I'm excited about what the potential and possibilities are as we go down this road. If for some reason it just did not work, then you'd have to look at possibilities. But right now, without having played a game as an independent or in our new conference, the independent line and West Coast Conference line are exciting."
Asked if membership in a BCS conference is the ultimate goal, Holmoe replied, "It's not realistic right now. I don't try to put my hopes and dreams into things that aren't real. There's been a cycle of (conference realignment) and (other conferences) weren't interested in BYU for reasons that have been gone over, over and over again. To hope that they will change their mind about BYU — we're going to go forward in the paradigm that is real. We've got to be realistic.
"It's fun. We have a chance to be everything we can. It will be a very difficult road, but that's where we're at."
Of course, BYU is not setting out on this road alone. Armed with an eight-year contract with broadcast behemoth ESPN, the Cougars have a partner that can assist, and already has assisted, with scheduling, bowl game affiliations, and other issues that an independent program must confront.
At the same time, BYU will earn significantly more revenue through its television deal with ESPN than it had before. And with BYUtv, the Cougars will have more broadcasting options in order to receive the national exposure they crave.
BYU will kick off its inaugural season as an independent with its own football "media day" on July 12.
"It feels good to be independent. It's nice to have the freedom to do the things that you think you can do to improve your program," Holmoe said. "You're limited when you're in a conference because you have conference partners. In the Mountain West Conference, we were one of nine schools that had input into policies and procedures. There were just a few (schools) that had the same vision of what they wanted to accomplish as an athletic program. That was the University of Utah and TCU."
While Utah is headed to the Pac-12, TCU is jumping to the Big East, another automatic qualifying BCS conference, in 2012.
BYU, for now, has the same opportunity to earn a BCS bowl bid as fellow independents Army and Navy — unlike the granddaddy of independents, Notre Dame, which has automatic access. But that was clear from the beginning, Holmoe explained.
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