With Utah and BYU being mentioned in conference expansion stories, I got wondering just how close that came to happening in years past.
Was either of them ever truly poised to move to a bigger league?
As far as I could ascertain, Utah was never in a strong position until now. But BYU was. So I phoned a pair of former BYU athletics directors, Glen Tuckett and Val Hale, to see what exactly happened.
Opinions vary, but both agree there were overtures.
In the early 1990s, BYU was the prettiest girl at the Western Athletic Conference dance. That isn't entirely the case now. It's not like the Y. lacks on-field credentials; the Cougars have more overall championships than any program in the Mountain West Conference. The football team finished last year ranked 12th nationally by the Associated Press; men's basketball is currently rated No. 13.
The biggest problem is that Sunday business.
For BYU, Sunday is a day of rest.
For everyone else, it's the first day of the rest of their season, which has kept the Cougars on the fringe of recent discussions about Pac-10 expansion.
But how close was BYU to actually getting in the Pac-10, two decades ago?
Depending on whom you ask, it was either somewhat plausible or razor close.
The one thing both Tuckett and Hale agree upon is that it would probably take divine intervention — or maybe just a plain old schedule change — to get the Cougars a party invitation today.
There are varying stories of BYU nearly joining the Pac-10 or Big 12. Hale, who served as A.D. at BYU from 1999-2004, says a move could well have happened. Tuckett, who was the A.D. from 1976-1993, isn't so adamant.
Though he wasn't A.D. at the time of the Pac-10 push, Hale knows this much: BYU did make a pitch to bigger conferences. He prepared the reports himself. Before he was A.D., he worked in marketing and media relations for the university.
He says BYU made a "quiet run" at the Pac-10 in the early 1990s.
Some believe the Pac-10 A.D.'s were in favor of BYU joining the conference, but the all-important presidents council wasn't. Asked how much support BYU had from the Pac-10, 20 years ago, Tuckett says, "There was a lot. All of the directors liked us, they knew us so well, they were all for it. But it's not an A.D.'s conference."
One story is that all the presidents of the Pac-10 voted to admit BYU, except Stanford's. Others say Oregon State and Washington State balked, fearful that BYU might replace one of them.
But Tuckett says there was never an expansion vote among Pac-10 presidents, as far as he knows.
"Maybe they did, but ... no one ever called me or President (Jeffrey) Holland, that I can recall."
Asked if the Cougars were ever on the verge of being admitted, he says, "Not really. It wasn't like we were invited to dinner; that was not the case at all. You know it couldn't have been too serious because nothing happened. If they had invited us, it would have been the Pac-11. We were never invited, it never got to that point, but if it had, we were the No. 1 candidate."
BYU had another chance to leave the WAC in 1993-94, when the Southwest Conference was dissolving. According to Hale, BYU was among the originals ticketed for the new Big 12 Conference.
Hale asserts that former Texas governor Ann Richards was a Baylor graduate and vowed to block the assimilation of Texas A&M, Texas and Texas Tech into the new conference, if Baylor was excluded.
Hence, BYU had nowhere to go.
Hale says BYU also prepared material for Big 12 consideration, but when the Baylor issue arose, the matter was dead.
Asked how closely BYU was considered by the Big 12, Tuckett says, "Not as close as the Pac-10."
"We were never really close there," continues Tuckett, "except every time an NCAA meeting or a CFA (College Football Association) meeting or an A.D.'s meeting came up, everyone would say, 'We'd like to have you guys; we have a lot of Mormons in the area.' But it was just A.D. talk, as friends, and never got past the talking point."
Whatever the case, BYU's chance to move passed. Just about that time, Utah was quietly putting together a bid of its own. But it wasn't a formal application; it came in the form of a rising football program. Nearly two decades later, when it comes to joining a bigger conference, Utah now has the most momentum.
Would the Utes go?
Asked that question last October, Utah A.D. Chris Hill replied, "Anyone in our league would go to the Pac-10 if they can."
So is BYU sticking in the Mountain West?
If Sunday play remains an issue for other conferences, yes.
There are worse things. If Utah gets in the Pac-10, it may have a theoretical chance to play in the national title game, but a lesser shot at a BCS game. Meanwhile, BYU could be a consistent contender for a BCS bowl game.
Hale, now a vice president at Utah Valley University, says, "I would think BYU would still be attractive" to a large conference, particularly the Big 12.
"It's not so much the regular season Sunday-play issue; the problem is the conference tournaments," he says.
The Big 12 has not publicly said it is looking to add programs. But if, as rumored, Colorado moved to the Pac-10 along with Utah, that would leave an opening.
For his part, Tuckett says he is fine with BYU staying where it is.
"If ESPN or anyone has its games on Sundays, that would eliminate us, and that's OK," he says. "There was a time when we were kind of in a position to get some concessions. Now, I'm not sure we are with that group. We got concessions with our little group, but they're not making many concessions for us now and they wouldn't have to. But when you get down to it, everyone has a lot of respect for BYU."
Enough respect to change an entire conference schedule for one school?
It appears that time, too, may have passed.
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