SALT LAKE CITY – The news that BYU-Hawaii is phasing out its sports program rated about a two on a scale of 10, in terms of national news coverage this spring.
But the next time an LDS-owned school drops athletics, it’s sure to be a 10.
Which will be:
B. When Sunday interferes.
One thing seems certain: BYU won’t quietly leave big college athletics.
The viability of Cougar sports wouldn’t even be a discussion, except that Sunday play keeps intervening, in one sport or another. That’s at least one major reason BYU wasn’t accepted into the Pac-12.
Rather than staying in the Mountain West, the Cougars went independent in football and joined the West Coast Conference in other sports. It was difficult but workable. But with big conferences mandating nine league football games per year, and instructing their teams to play major inter-conference games, scheduling worries have again arisen for the Cougars.
Some have speculated now that BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii have dropped athletics, BYU-Optimus Prime is sure to follow. The LDS Church isn’t likely to get into an arms race. Still, the university has private donors who would shell out millions to make sure the Cougars remain at the top level.
“I think it will be for them (BYU) to fulfill what they want to do,” says Garth Hall, who was athletics director at BYU-Idaho when it axed athletics in favor of what Hall calls an “activities program.” He notes that when he was in office there were 268 athletes, but the redirected money “has blessed thousands.”
He estimates 10,000 students annually are involved in some phase of the replacement programs. That includes intramural and tryout sports, outdoor and fitness activities, and service and talent development.
Meanwhile, there’s BYUH, which was faced with ever-rising travel costs and virtually zero national visibility or revenue.
In some ways, comparing BYUs Idaho and Hawaii to the big BYU is like comparing apples to, well, potatoes and pineapples. BYU has a contract with ESPN and draws over 60,000-plus to every football game and nearly 16,000 to basketball. Also, it has its own television network.
But costs are enormous.
For Hall, watching the changing landscape has been a sport all its own. He was an assistant coach at BYU for nine years and an assistant at Utah State, Wake Forest, Tulane and Oregon State. He also spent four seasons as head coach at Idaho State.
That all preceded his period as A.D. at Ricks College/BYUI, when the LDS Church shuttered the school’s intercollegiate sports programs. Along the way, Hall has seen the expenses soar nationwide.
Twenty years ago, he predicted college football programs couldn’t sustain themselves and many would cease.
“Not many have,” he admits.
How long things will continue, he says, is partially dependent on how far donors are willing to go.
“It will probably last as long as the current tax code,” he says.
At the same time, he marvels at how things continue to escalate. The University of Utah spent roughly $34 million apiece for its football and basketball centers. BYU now must decide whether to follow with the latest in recruiting accouterments.
Hall admits he has no inside information on BYU’s plans.
“You’re probably talking to the wrong guy,” he says.
On one hand, the university will continue to run up against the issue of Sunday play, which limits its options for joining a conference, which limits its scheduling and playoff options. At the same time, BYU seems unlikely to go the same route as smaller LDS schools. There’s too much visibility, i.e. missionary opportunity, for that.
Not to mention the large fan base.
“I don’t think people are going to give up their sports. Whatever it takes, they’re going to do,” says Hall, expressing admiration for what BYU has done to remain viable. “The Cougars are the same as the rest of the fans (nationwide). They want their programs.”
The worry is whether conferences will want them, too.
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