PROVO — When asked what the biggest challenge of being independent is, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall didn't hesitate.
"It's scheduling," he said.
That's the reality of a program that must schedule 12 games a year, rather than just three or four, like teams that belong to a conference.
When asked how much time he devotes to scheduling issues now that his program is independent, Mendenhall attempted to quantify it.
"More time the past two months than my previous six years combined," he said. "It's almost every day, and that's not an exaggeration."
BYU's inaugural independent schedule this fall features several intriguing games away from Provo (Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State, TCU, Hawaii). But aside from contests against arch-rival Utah, up-and-coming Central Florida, and in-state rival Utah State, which knocked off the Cougars a year ago, the rest of the home schedule lacks star power (San Jose State, Idaho State, Idaho, New Mexico State).
In 2012, BYU is scheduled to face Oregon State, Hawaii, Utah, Boise State, Utah State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, New Mexico State and San Jose State, which means three games still have not been announced.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe explained one of those games is done but not contracted yet.
"We have two that the irons are in the fire, but it is complicated," he said. "One of them is going to happen. The other two are complicated."
Holmoe agrees with Mendenhall, that scheduling has been the most daunting challenge of independence.
"Yeah, especially early, because the first two years (of independence), most people are done (with scheduling)," Holmoe said. "Without the WAC giving us those games this year, we wouldn't have been able to do it. We had to have that agreement with the WAC. And then we have some for next year, too. Thank goodness we do, or we literally would not have been able to go independent because we would not have games.
"We are still trying to put together some 2012 games. We are working hard. There's less tension right now for 2013, 2014 and beyond. But we are working on them. We have games that we are working on in 2016, 2017, 2018."
Speculation has run rampant about which teams BYU could schedule, such as Nebraska, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, USC, UCLA, Syracuse and Arizona State. Mendenhall has mentioned that he would like to play Army, Navy, Boston College and Ohio State. He would like to see some of those games played at neutral sites, like Yankee Stadium in New York City.
Twice in its history, BYU has played in foreign countries. The Cougars played UNLV in Yokohama, Japan, in 1978. They took on Colorado State in Melbourne, Australia, in 1987.
Holmoe said playing games outside the country is an option in this era of independence.
"We're exploring that," he said. "It's kind of exciting. It's hard. We can do it, we're used to doing it. We're used to traveling around a lot. You have to have to right (opponent)."
Notre Dame is playing Navy in Dublin, Ireland, in 2012.
"Notre Dame's doing it. That will be great," Holmoe said. "Once they do it, we'll be able to use the Notre Dame model."
Power of ESPN
Mendenhall loves the partnership with ESPN, which is helping the Cougars schedule big-time opponents.
"The power of ESPN has absolutely amazed me to this point, of what teams will do to get on ESPN. Balance is what I'm seeking in our schedule. It's difficult, but my biggest challenge now is saying no to all of the great opportunities," Mendenhall said. "(ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisition) Dave (Brown) is really helpful and he's bringing opportunities to us all the time. Tom and I are bringing our contacts to him all of the time. ESPN is ESPN. People move games to be on ESPN. They'll move from a date to get on ESPN. Dave has a huge influence."
Why scheduling takes time
Many Cougar fans were hopeful that during the school's first national media day, there would be some announcements about future opponents, but no such announcements came.
Holmoe shed light on why scheduling opponents is such a drawn-out, time-consuming task.
"You have to get used to the process, and the process takes time," he said. "We have some games that are in contract form. When you sign a contract with BYU and we're doing our best to please our fans, a lot of the contract is TV and radio (rights). We can do whatever we want in football. We want to do repeat (broadcasts) of our games. For example, when we play on the road against Ole Miss, we had to negotiate with Ole Miss to have the replay of that game so that as soon as that game ends, BYUtv has it (to replay). That's a beautiful thing.
"If we play a team in a game that's not broadcast on ESPN, we have to work out contractually to get those games," Holmoe continued. "In many cases, we're close to getting those. I'll wait. I don't care who wants to know who we're playing. If that game can be on TV or not, I can do it right now and not have it on TV. I'm going to wait and have it on TV. That's one of the reasons it's taking longer … I have to negotiate radio rights as well as TV rights. When you go to an away game, they have rights. I've never spent so much time with lawyers in my life as since we went independent."
Holmoe compares the scheduling process to the NBA or NFL draft.
"It says you have 15 minutes before your pick. Why do you wait until the last 10 seconds? What's the answer to that? You know who you're going to pick ... the answer is, in 15 minutes, someone can call you and say, 'Hey, I've got a deal.' "
Traffic light approach to scheduling
Finding the right opponents to play is complex enough that Mendenhall said he and Holmoe have created a color code to categorize teams.
Mendenhall compares it to a traffic signal — red on top, yellow in the middle and green on the bottom. The Cougars would like to play two top-10 caliber opponents every year (red); four top-25 opponents, plus in-state rivals Utah and Utah State (yellow); and four games that they should have little trouble winning (green).
"Green is the ones you believe you're going to win for sure," Mendenhall said, "yellow are the ones you're not quite sure, and red is, proceed with a lot of caution. Stop and look both ways and make sure you're ready to go."
More night games
Holmoe acknowledges that as part of BYU's ESPN contract, the Cougars will play more night games than fans have grown accustomed to in recent years when BYU played in the Mountain West Conference.
"When we were with ESPN originally (with the WAC and in the early years in the MWC), people complained that the games (were late)," Holmoe said. "There were a lot of complaints. You can't please everybody. I would say our decision was, let's get the games on national TV. Then, if someone chooses not to come to a game live, they can see it on TV. That's a win-win. Believe me, it's better to be on national TV with ESPN than not."
And what about the possibility of BYU playing on Tuesday or Wednesday nights?
"If it was a great game and a great opportunity for BYU, then we would do it," Holmoe said. "Thursday night is a big night for ESPN. We could play some. We don't have any scheduled right now. We don't like to do Friday night games because of high school football. But if we have an opportunity to play a great game on a Friday, we'll do it or look seriously into it."