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BYU football: Cougars invited to join Big East, but have not accepted invitation — yet

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 15 2011 7:50 p.m. MST

PROVO — For weeks, there have been discussions between BYU and the Big East Conference about the Cougars possibly dropping their independent status in football to join that league.

It appears those talks are getting more serious.

BYU has been invited to join the Big East as a football-only member, but, for now, BYU has not accepted the invitation, according to a Washington, D.C. columnist.

The Washington Examiner's Jim Williams, whose expertise is sports business and media, has talked to numerous sources on the East Coast that have told him that an invitation has been extended and that BYU officials are in favor of a move to the Big East.

BYU "has a conference that desperately wants them for all of the right reasons and have given them every indication that they will acquiesce to their expectations," Williams told the Deseret News. "But is that enough to get them to get their football program to leave independent status? I don't think anybody knows at this point in time.

"At the end of the day, the Big East has done everything to accommodate whatever it is that BYU wanted," Williams added. "But it's really going to be up to the (BYU's) Board of Trustees as to whether or not that's what they want. No matter how well you charm them, or how well you give them whatever they want, it really comes down to whether or not the Board of Trustees feels this is in the best long-term interest of the university. My understanding is that BYU is willing to accept an invitation. It was told to me that if it were up to (athletic director Tom Holmoe) and (President Cecil O. Samuelson), they would be in. But it's not. It really is up to whether the Board of Trustees give them the okay."

The Orlando Sentinel reported Tuesday morning that BYU is moving closer to becoming a member of the Big East and ESPN.com reported likewise.

After practice Tuesday night, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said he hadn't heard anything new about his team jumping to the Big East. Asked if it's something he would like to see happen, he replied, "Hard to say. I don't know enough details. We're just finishing year one (of independence). It's hard to know, No. 1, who's in the Big East and what the small and fine print is. So I'd rather not say until I know all of the details, if that even is an opportunity."

In 2010, BYU's Board of Trustees signed off on BYU going independent in football and moving most of its other sports to the West Coast Conference.

A little more than one week ago, Mendenhall confirmed and acknowledged that "there is a push, and there are conversations that are in place, for the Big East to convince, or to have BYU join that conference."

Mendenhall also expressed his desire for the football program to have automatic qualifying BCS access. The Big East's BCS AQ status is guaranteed through the 2013 season.

If BYU were to join the Big East, it likely would not begin competing in that league until 2013.

When asked for a response Tuesday to reports of BYU joining the Big East, associate athletic director Duff Tittle issued a statement. "For months, much has been written and speculated about conference realignment involving BYU," Tittle said. "Throughout this process the university has remained consistent in its approach — dealing directly and privately with appropriate individuals and organizations and not commenting on day-to-day conjecture. Nothing has changed in our approach."

Former National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Notre Dame, Big East commissioner John Marinatto, and the league's expansion committee are lobbying hard for BYU to join the Big East, said Williams, who has had dealings with that conference since the 1980s.

Notre Dame is an independent in football, but it has a vested interest in the Big East because all of its other sports compete in that conference. Tagliabue, a graduate of Georgetown of the Big East, serves as an unpaid consultant for the league.

"He has a lot at stake because he's an alum of the Big East. And if there's anyone that knows the networks well, Tagliabue does," Williams said. "He basically negotiated in excess of $17 billion worth of television contracts. There's not a network person that he does not know. Having an unpaid consultant like him is not a bad thing. One of the key elements here is that high-ranking representatives at Notre Dame are working with Tagliabue to make sure that Boise State, BYU and Air Force all understand that they're not going anywhere. Their plans are to stay and to help build the Big East into a stronger conference. Of course, they're also not going to join as a football team."

At the time BYU announced it was going independent, it also announced a six-game football series with Notre Dame.

"Most of the conversations have been led by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. That's gone along well," he explained. "As far as I know, every question that BYU has asked has been answered. They've been assured that they can keep their present network, if that's what they so desire."

The Big East is in self-preservation mode after watching Syracuse, Pittsburgh, TCU and West Virginia announce this fall that they will be defecting to other conferences.

In an attempt to reposition and strengthen itself, the Big East is looking at adding a West Division that would be comprised of BYU, Boise State, Air Force, Houston, Louisville and Southern Methodist. BYU, Boise State, Air Force, Houston, and Southern Methodist would join as football-only schools first, with an opportunity to join as full members down the line, Williams said. The Big East would like to make an announcement in December, he added.

"There's no question that the Big East is swinging for the fences here, trying to pull in BYU, Boise State, Air Force and the rest of these teams," Williams said. "The lynchpin in many ways is whether BYU wants to do it or not. If BYU chooses not to do it, who's next on their pecking order? Is it San Diego State or another West Coast school or a team in the Mountain Time Zone? The Big East wants a national name and a national footprint. I wouldn't say BYU isn't holding up things, but the Big East is willing to wait to get an answer from BYU. But nobody is holding a gun to anybody's head saying they need to know tomorrow. If things are progressing well, if they let it go into January, BYU may be more apt to say yes. I do believe there is a finite period here. The Big East has to have a new contract negotiated over the summer. They need their schools in place by February or March."

One of the main reasons why BYU decided to go independent was exposure. The school signed an eight-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN and it has its own television network, BYUtv. Would BYU be willing to give that up so soon?

"That's one of the biggest things that would be on my mind," Mendenhall said. "The amount of coverage we've received this year is so, so strong, it would have to be a great conference package to make sense. I love the idea of being in a conference, but that would have to be with the exposure and access to the top tier of football. I'm not speaking for the university or anybody else. I'll tell you, the ESPN part of it, that would be very difficult to give up."

"If it were a business decision, I can't fathom how BYU would not look at (joining the Big East) as a good business decision," Williams said. "But if independence is the key to what the Board of Trustees wants, then I don't think anything that Paul Tagliabue says or any amount of money can give to them, or to assure to them, is necessarily going to make that much of a difference. I know BYU has a strong West Coast connection. BYU is a national school. I can't fathom that it wouldn't benefit them to play games in New York, the Washington, D.C. area, Florida and Texas and to move around the East Coast corridor and have a presence on the East Coast. I don't know where that would hurt them on any level. It would enhance their ESPN contract because every Big East game is broadcast now. There's no reason to believe every Big East game wouldn't be televised under a new contract."

Williams said BYU's stance on not playing on Sunday played a big factor in BYU not being invited to the Big 12. There are several Catholic schools in the East Coast that would prefer not playing on Sundays.

"Circumstances are a bit different in the Big East because there are so many Catholic schools that they all have little ways of working around the Sunday schedule," Williams said. "That's not to say they don't play on Sunday, but they do play a limited Sunday schedule."

Cougars on the air

New Mexico State (4-6)

at BYU (7-3)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MT

TV: ESPNU Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Email: jeffc@desnews.com

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