PROVO — For BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, attending his annual Education Week presentation on campus Thursday required him to miss an event that's near and dear to his heart.
"I want you to know it's a big sacrifice to be here today because currently one of the football scrimmages is going on right now (at LaVell Edwards Stadium)," he joked in his opening remarks.
While the team — which opens its second season as an independent in two weeks against Washington State — scrimmaged, Holmoe addressed a large classroom of fans for nearly one hour.
He spoke at length about recruiting successes and failures — from Steve Young to Jake Heaps — and then answered questions from the audience on a wide array of topics, from scheduling ("We'll probably release the 2013 schedule in a month or two"), to BYU's relationship with Utah ("It's strained. … I actually have a really good relationship with their athletic director, Chris Hill"), to the broadcasting contract with ESPN ("ESPN brings us more than we could have ever imagined"), to the chances of Wisconsin playing in Provo ("We're working on things with Wisconsin. … We have a one-game series right now and talks are going on"), to, of course, the latest on possible Big 12 expansion ("There's nothing going on").
But before he started answering questions, Holmoe said at this time of year, the first question fans always ask him is, "How good will the (football) team be?"
Holmoe explained that the difference between winning and losing — in any sport — largely depends on the athletes.
"The secret sauce is our kids. We can't do anything without those kids," he said. "It's really all predicated upon how much they come together. Our teams, just by default, should be really good. BYU is an incredible place to be. There are so many of these student athletes that, from the time they were little children, dream of playing sports at BYU. … We should be good every year. Whether we're better, or our very best, depends on a lot of intangibles. A lot of those intangibles have to do with chemistry and whether the players love each other. I played on many successful teams in my career and the best teams are the ones where the players care about each other. I don't think that's any different in a family, a job or a team. If you care about each other, you have a way better chance for success than if you don't."
Then, Holmoe added, "Believe it or not, at BYU, sometimes there are conflicts."
In recent months, a few high-profile athletes have transferred from BYU, including Heaps, running back Joshua Quezada, and basketball player Damarcus Harrison.
"We lose players on occasion for various reasons, and when we do, it's very difficult," Holmoe said. "We love them, we recruited them and they're part of us. Then there's a breakup, and it's a hard thing. You see it. One of the hard things is, we have to share our breakups with you, every morning over Wheaties."
To illustrate the importance of recruiting, Holmoe asked the audience to shout out a name of a great former BYU athlete. Among those the audience brought up included Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Brandon Doman, Jimmer Fredette and Shawn Bradley. Holmoe talked about the recruitment of each of those former Cougars.
Finally, the audience wanted to know about Heaps, who was regarded as the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country when he arrived at BYU in 2010. Heaps started most of his freshman season, then lost his job midway through the 2011 campaign — he was replaced by Riley Nelson — before transferring to Kansas.
"I would say I love Jake Heaps. He's a great kid," Holmoe said. "He is one of ours. Not was, he is one of ours. He gave up a ton, he could gone to any school in the country, and he came to BYU. It didn't work out for whatever reason. We don't have to get into that. He was probably the very highest recruit we ever had. There was a ton of pressure. There are a lot of tough jobs on this campus. (BYU) President (Cecil O.) Samuelson's is the toughest. I think the quarterback of the football team is the second. I'm not being funny about that. I believe that."
Added Holmoe, "I fully expect (Heaps) to be successful (at Kansas). And I fully expect him to be a quarterback in the NFL. You can put my name on that. I'm not afraid of that."
The way Holmoe sees it, recruiting is a crapshoot.
"If you're at Notre Dame or USC or Texas, you might have a lot of blue chips come to your school. We get those once in a while. But we get good, solid players. If they love and care about each other, and sacrifice for each other, and suck in all that this place has to offer, we'll have really, really good teams. We'll see if these kids rise up. … Our coaches try to find the very best athletes in the world. The scope is really huge. You don't have to be LDS. But our best fits are LDS kids. … The lifeblood of our teams is recruiting. We try to be really good in recruiting, and sometimes we fail."
Holmoe also explained why the football team went independent.
"One of the reasons why we (went independent) was not just for the exposure for our team, but for the exposure for our university and our church," he said. "You have to weigh that. It's not a financial thing. You play those games and you measure whether it's worth it, and sometimes you can't do it in dollars. I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, with our women's soccer team this year. I had three people in Prague come up to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, I watched all the games on TV.' That gives me goose bumps because that's what the objective is. We're a worldwide church. These people are expatriates over there and they watch our games on TV. That means they watch BYUtv. They also watch General Conference. It's all tied in. This is not an athletics venture. This is a partnership with a purpose."
Below are some of the questions from Education Week attendees that Holmoe answered:
Q: How good will quarterback Riley Nelson be this year?
A: "I think he's going to be really good. He's got a great head on his shoulders. He's competitive. He's passionate. The team loves him and he loves the team. He does have the second-hardest job on campus. That's hard to carry on your shoulders. I think he's going to be fantastic."
Q: How hard is it to schedule teams as an independent?
A: "It's hard, but it's going well. We'll probably release our 2013 schedule in a month or two. We're close. We have one game to solidify and one game that we need to sign. Then we'll be done. In 2014, we have three games still out there. We're trying to move things around. In 2015, we have five games on the schedule. In 2016, we have about four. We have two or three games intermittently all the way out to 2021. It's going alright."
Q: Will backup quarterback Taysom Hill get enough experience this year to prepare him for the future?
A: "What young quarterbacks have to do is make their way to where you're supposed to be when you're not in the lineup. It's a very hard thing to be a backup quarterback. But the best ones make strides and they learn their craft as a backup. … You earn your chance in practice. Kids will come into my office and say, 'If they'd only play me.' I tell them, 'You've got to earn your playing time in practice.' 'But I'm not a very good practice player.' Is that true? Are there some kids that get into a game and thrive but they're not very good in practice? That happens sometimes."
Q: What are the pros and cons of being an independent?
A: "When you're in a conference, you share revenue, which is good. You have commonalities, a (built-in) schedule, conference championships and all-conference teams. … Some conferences are really good. The older conferences have been around for decades. They have a lot in common. There are great benefits. There are things that are better about being in a conference. Right now, we don't have that. So we're charting our course and doing the best we can. The WCC has been great. Our teams that play in the WCC enjoy it. The football team is independent. So it's something we're trying to be comfortable with. It's so unique. But it's hard. There are pros and cons to being independent. We're unique in that we can (be independent). There aren't many schools that can be independent. We have resources with BYUtv and our national fan base that allow that to happen. I've had a number of schools call me — I won't say who they are — and say, 'We're thinking about going independent.' I say to myself, 'Be careful.' Even with the things we have, it's hard. They're looking at it for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. People think there are some things that are really attractive about it, which there are. But there are other peripheral things that are difficult."
Q: How is BYU's relationship with ESPN?
A: "Our relationship with ESPN is wonderful. They've been fantastic to us. I can honestly say that I never thought it would be this good. … It's been better than expected. There were only five teams ahead of us in college football that played more national TV games. We were sixth. If you count BYUtv, you add a little more. When you talk to about access to exposure and to our fans, we got exactly what we wanted in that area. ESPN brings us more than we could have ever imagined. It's a good financial deal and they've helped BYUtv. They work closely together. … It's a new era. We're on the crest of this new era. Can't thank ESPN enough."
Q: What is going on with the relationship with Utah (the rivalry will take a two-year hiatus in 2014 and 2015)?
A: "It's strained. When I say that, I mean the games, and that part of it. I actually have a really good relationship with their athletic director, Chris Hill. We talk more than you think. There's reasons why this has happened. I feel bad that it happened, not just for the sake of the games. I feel bad for fans, players and coaches. But it's something that, they don't understand how good that was. But we're not in the same conference. It was really weird. When they left the Mountain West Conference, we had to do a contract for the first time ever with Utah. We had played them more than anybody, but it was weird because we had to do a contract to play them. When teams leave conferences, things change. I try to look at it optimistically. We can't say, 'woe is me.' We have to chart our course. I understand how disappointed people were that they got in the Pac-12 and we're not. We still have to be as good as we can. We can't worry about them but about what we can do to reach all of our dreams, all of our goals."
Q: What can you tell us about the transfer of Josh Quezada?
A: "He transferred (reportedly he will play at Fresno State) and when he left, he ended up getting baptized. It was a great thing. He's a great kid, one of my favorite kids. It's one of those things where he wanted to play more and we have really good depth at our running back position. For him, playing was a priority. Now, he has a chance. I'm supportive of that. I really am."
Q: Does ESPN determine when BYU plays — at night, on Thursdays, etc.?
A: "I'm glad you brought that up. Here's the double-edged sword for me. We want exposure and access. Those are the two pillars of why we went with ESPN. We get on national TV, the sixth-most of anyone in the country. Sometimes we're on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. ESPNU isn't quite up to ESPN2 yet, but ESPNU is getting bigger and bigger. Most of you have ESPN and ESPN2, but not ESPNU. When we play on Thursday and Friday, the ratings for those games are off-the-charts. We have so many people watching them. It's not just our fans now. There are people all over the country that turn on ESPN and watch, no matter who's playing. And we get some of those games. The Friday one, we do because of (LDS) General Conference. … The double-edged sword is, so we get the big TV games, but it's hard for the fans. You have your local fans and you have your national fans. I can't tell you how many times people come up to me and thank me so much for having the games on ESPN. These are people in Provo. They have a big screen TV, they get to sit on their couches and they don't have to come to the games anymore. You lose the ticket sales. Our ticket sales are down a little bit because every game is on TV. It's a double-edged sword, but we'll deal with it."
Q: What can you tell us about the November schedule in the future?
A: "I don't know how many times I can say this. I'm going to start handing out cards. Before we signed a contract with ESPN, and made the announcement that we are going independent, before we agreed to go to the WCC in other sports, I had to put together a schedule for 2011 and 2012. Think about that. I had to agree to games for two years before we left the conference. That's what we had. That's it. People keep asking me about the November schedule. It is what it is. It's harder because every other team in the country plays their conference games. They don't have openings. But we've been able to schedule games with conferences. … Don't read anything into this … Notre Dame plays USC every year in October and November. That means there's one team in the Pac-12 that has to have a bye. There are 12 teams. One of them is not playing, so you have to have a bye or play out of conference. We're trying to find those. Notre Dame can do anything it wants. They have games that are grandfathered in forever with USC. Those are times when we might be able to go to the Pac-12 and say, 'Hey, let us play one of your teams so that you don't have to have a bye.' Some teams don't like byes that late in the season. We can try that. The other thing is, some teams don't like to play nonconference games in the middle of the season. That makes it hard."
Q: What can you tell us about freshman running back Jamaal Williams?
A: "He's one of the fastest guys on the team. He's young and he doesn't know what he doesn't know yet, so that's good. When he gets hit for the first time he'll know he's not in L.A. anymore. Right now he's running around like no one's going to tackle him. But someone's going to tackle him. He's really talented and I think he has a great opportunity to be a really strong player for us."
Q: Can you tell us anything about BYU and the Big 12?
A: "Big 12? You can read the papers. There's not much being said. Some people, their job is to keep that alive. They're writers, they're media. That's their job. There's nothing going on. They will make you think there's something going on. … There's nothing going on with the Big 12, the Big Sky, the Big East."
Q: Does BYU's policy of not playing on Sunday make your job hard?
A: "It makes it hard for conferences because most play championship games on Sundays. When we were in the Mountain West Conference, those teams played on Sunday. WAC teams played games on Sunday when we were in the WAC. They just allowed us not to play. We were kind of the bell-ringers in the old WAC and we were one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference. They needed us. They wanted us. They allowed us to schedule around that. Now when you try to go to an established conference and say, 'Hey, let us in and change all of your games.' That's a little hard."
Q: Are there any games scheduled with Army or Navy?
A: "No games scheduled with Army and Navy. We had a series scheduled with Army, but they called us and said they couldn't do it. I'm really good friends with their athletic director. He was at Stanford with me. He was at Cal with me, he was at the (San Francisco) 49ers with me. That contract was the first thing I did when I got here as A.D. Then later he called and said they were overwhelmed. I let him drop it. He's now at another school, and he owes me."
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