PROVO — On the day that BYU announced it was going independent in football, Bruce Binkowski, executive director of the Poinsettia Bowl, eagerly e-mailed athletic director Tom Holmoe.
" 'Hey, is there any chance you'd be interested? Because you're going to need a bowl partner,' " Binkowski wrote.
At that time, nearly two years ago, Binkowski saw a golden opportunity for the Cougars to make a postseason return to San Diego. BYU played in seven straight Holiday Bowls there from 1978-84, but the Cougars haven't played in the Holiday Bowl since 1993.
In late 2010, BYU signed a contract to play in this year's San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. The Cougars, who as an independent program can broker their own bowl agreements, will face an opponent from their old league, the Mountain West Conference, on Dec. 20 (on ESPN) — as long as BYU doesn't qualify for a Bowl Championship Series game. The projected payout is $500,000 per team.
"We jumped all over it. We couldn't be happier," Binkowski said of the deal with BYU. "It's been a great relationship with city of San Diego and the San Diego Bowl Association and BYU. To be able to lock them in with the Poinsettia Bowl, we couldn't be happier."
The feeling is mutual.
"Bruce Binkowski has been a friend of mine for a long, long time," Holmoe said. "He was part of the original Holiday Bowl crew. Now we have a chance to get back there. It's been a long time coming. I'm excited to get back. It will be a good matchup, probably with one of our long-lost friends (from the MWC)."
It would mark BYU's first appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl, and its first game in southern California since 2009, when the Cougars defeated San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I love San Diego. It's a lovely place. My wife's excited, too," said senior defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna. "It's something to look forward to, not only for the team, but for our families who are able to come. We know there will be good weather. I'm sure we'll play a great team."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall is looking forward to not only facing a quality opponent, but also to get some surfing in while in San Diego.
The Poinsettia Bowl, which debuted in 2005, is — along with the Holiday Bowl —under the umbrella of the San Diego Bowl Game Association.
"We run both bowl games. Same staff, same volunteers, same everything," said Binkowski, who attended BYU's media day festivities in June. "At the time, with the Mountain West deal, and BYU was in the Mountain West at the time, we thought, 'We'll get them one of these years.' Then they went to the Las Vegas Bowl five years in a row. When they went independent, that's when we had the chance to get them in the Poinsettia Bowl."
Binkowski has worked with the Holiday Bowl since the inaugural game in 1978, which featured BYU. Over the years, the Cougars played a big role in establishing the Holiday Bowl as a premier bowl game.
"This is our 35th year. When we started the game in 1978, San Diego State had just moved to the WAC, and we were going to get the WAC champion," Binkowski said. "We thought this would be a great way to showcase San Diego State football, to play in the hometown bowl game.
"So BYU won the WAC title seven years in a row. And looking back now, that was the best thing that could have happened to the Holiday Bowl. You had the 1980 ("Miracle Bowl") game. Then we had the national championship game (between No. 1 BYU and Michigan) in 1984. I think BYU really put the Holiday Bowl on the map in the early years to get it to where we are today."
In 1998, the Holiday Bowl severed its ties with the WAC and signed agreements with the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) and the Big 12 conferences. Currently, the Holiday Bowl features the third selection from the Pac-12 and the fifth choice from the Big 12. At one time, the Holiday Bowl had the second pick out of the Pac-10 and third pick out of the Big 12.
"When we negotiated our last agreement, it got a little pricey, and we dropped to the third pick in the Pac-12 and the fifth pick out of the Big 12," Binkowski explained. "We would like to move up the next round (of negotiations). Two or three in the Pac-12 is okay. We would like to get higher in the Big 12 or maybe another conference. We'll see. That's going to be our quest, to move up."
Considering all of the changes coming to college football's postseason starting in 2014, what are the chances of the Cougars returning to the Holiday Bowl someday?
"You never say never," Binkowski said. "A couple of years ago, we had the third pick out of the Pac-10. Because the Pac-10 didn't have enough bowl-eligible teams, we almost had Notre Dame in the Holiday Bowl as an independent.
"Is there a way BYU as an independent could get into the Holiday Bowl? Well, never say never. It's possible. It's unlikely, but possible. There's so much we don't know right now. But we're confident that the regular season has been protected with this new (postseason) structure. And we're comfortable that the bowl games that we know right now will be in existence. We feel the Poinsettia and Holiday Bowls will continue to be played. We would like to continue a relationship with BYU beyond 2014 — most likely with the Poinsettia Bowl."
Binkowski foresees the Poinsettia Bowl always having a tie-in with the MWC because of geography.
"I would like to think that the Poinsettia Bowl would keep a high-ranked team out of the Mountain West," Binkowski said, adding that the future could feature deals with the Big East, which will add San Diego State and Boise State in 2013. "We'd love to have Navy, BYU, and Army part of the rotation as well."
When BYU played in five consecutive Las Vegas Bowls from 2005-2009, Cougar fans flocked to Vegas, producing memorable sellouts at Sam Boyd Stadium.
"We saw that 11 times from BYU with the Holiday Bowl," Binkowski said. "Year after year after year, BYU would send thousands of fans to San Diego in the late '70s, the '80s and the early '90s. We saw it with the Las Vegas Bowl.
"We've always coveted BYU. They have a tremendous fan base, a tremendous fan following. We think if we get the right matchup this year with BYU, it could be shades of the old Holiday Bowl. The crowds could be that big, the game could be that exciting. We couldn't be more pleased than to have BYU coming to San Diego, unless they go to the BCS."
Binkowski said the Poinsettia Bowl began modestly.
"We didn't have any great expectations when we started it. We knew it would be a bowl game in San Diego the week before Christmas. That's the slowest week of the year for our tourism industry. Our mission statement is to put people in hotel rooms. That's one of the reasons why we started it. I would say it has far exceeded our expectations. We've been able to tie in with Navy and we've had some big crowds. We had the Boise State-TCU game back in 2008."
"It's by far exceeded our loftiest expectations to this point," said Poinsettia Bowl associate executive director Mark Neville. "With this year's game, we're anticipating seeing our largest attendance ever."
Bowl organizers would love to see a BYU-San Diego State matchup, featuring the hometown Aztecs. It would be a showdown between former WAC/MWC rivals and it would pit Mendenhall against his mentor, SDSU coach Rocky Long.
"There would be a lot of buzz in San Diego for that game," Neville said.
The bowl has the second pick from the MWC. Binkowski said BYU's opponent probably won't be Boise State, since BYU and the Broncos will play in September.
"You're looking at a Fresno State, Nevada, Wyoming," Binkowski said. "We think they'll be facing an old rival. It's been almost 20 years since BYU's been to San Diego for a bowl game. We're really looking forward to this year's game."