Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Although the face of college football is changing faster than Keith Jackson can say, “Whoa, Nellie!” BYU hasn’t blinked. It says it’s staying in the game. Need cash for extra meals and general living expenses? Done, as long as it’s legal and necessary. Expanded health insurance, guaranteed scholarships and all the other things a big-time college football program should have? Let’s talk.
The Cougars say they’ll do what’s “appropriate” to be considered among the highest-level programs. It’s not total dream talk, either. BYU has the following and the resources. The place makes money, something only a handful of universities accomplish.
So when the Y. says it intends to remain viable in the face of the NCAA’s new reforms, it’s a convincing argument. Because of its ESPN contract, private television network and debt-free facilities, BYU can afford things many programs — including most of the mid-majors — can’t. The only question here is the same that’s been asked in half the action movies ever made: How far do you wanna take this?
BYU can pay for cost-of-living stipends and all the between-meal snacks its players can eat, but what then? If this goes the way some predict, college football will soon be nearly indistinguishable from its professional counterpart.
That’s a party BYU might not want to attend.
It’s nice for the Provo school to say it will do whatever is necessary to be at the highest level, but what if the arms race continues? Utah opened a $32 million football center last year, just one of many similar buildings in the Pac-12. Now Utah and others are building starship-like basketball centers, too.
BYU has a student athlete building and an indoor practice facility that are still modern and impressive. But even those don’t have the characteristics of the newer ones.
Does BYU intend to build more?
Former Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) athletics director Garth Hall once said that when he was an assistant coach at BYU, in the 1980s, players would request several pairs of football shoes in a season. By contrast, Ricks players sometimes brought their own.
Hall went on to say he liked the amateurism of small colleges. He had tired of the bigness of major college football.
The Rexburg, Idaho, school went on to drop intercollegiate athletics.
Some mid-major conferences, including the Mountain West and American Athletic, have said they will do all they can to change along with the industry. But those conferences don’t have the television contracts to make wholesale changes. BYU is wealthier and better known than most or all of the MWC schools. It also has a widespread fan base that could donate toward upgrades.
Sports are seen as a missionary tool at BYU. Yet if remaining at the highest level involves getting in an arms race, or throwing money at players, it’s debatable. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week, “I think we'll chase what's appropriate .”
Just what that means remains to be seen. BYU wants to play with the best, but if that requires “professional” treatment, combined with obscene costs, the Cougars would have to consider scaling back or getting out.
The last thing the LDS Church needs to be operating is a quasi-professional football team.
“BYU would have to answer that same question — is it really a good move? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes,” Salt Lake Community College athletics director Norma Carr said last month.
Increased food money, insurance and even a living stipend would seem “appropriate” measures for BYU. Beyond that, the school should have a firm line where it will stop.
The Cougars have always danced to their own music. In the WAC days, they led the band. Nowadays, some conferences consider BYU a big-league operation, others don’t. That seems strange, considering the Cougars are more prominent and profitable than some “Power 5” schools.
Either way, BYU will stay in athletics as long as it’s feasible and conscionable; beyond that, probably not. As Rick College proved, at some point, having a fine school alone might need to be good enough.
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