Back in the early 1980s, there was a growing sentiment, at least among BYU fans, that the Cougars had grown too big for their WAC britches and a change was in order. It was time to leave the conference, they said. Who needed the Colorado States, Wyomings and San Diego States of the world? they thought.
For more than a decade, speculation about BYU bolting the WAC for the Pac-10 or Big 12 has been a popular topic around Cougarville, especially since the face of the WAC began changing dramatically during the 1990s.But when push came to shove this week, BYU, like Utah and six other fellow WAC schools, looked forward by looking backward. The Cougars will return to the place where it started, aligned with schools like Colorado State, Wyoming, San Diego State. In light of what's happened the last few years, BYU is eager to embrace their longtime WAC foes.
"I'm very optimistic about BYU's future," said athletic director Rondo Fehlberg the day eight WAC presidents announced that BYU and seven other schools would be forming their own conference.
Fehlberg's enthusiasm, though, is tempered by the reality that other longstanding traditions and relationships are being terminated. Following the 1999 season, BYU won't be playing UTEP, Hawaii, Fresno State, SMU, TCU, Tulsa, Rice on a regular basis.
"There's a poignancy to it, too," Fehlberg explained. "I have a number of friends in those communities and there are many BYU fans in those communitities. I'm sure our fans in those places are going through mixed emotions and I'm sure they're disappointed to know they won't be seeing BYU coming to their town."
As recently as last fall, it appeared that if BYU were to leave the WAC, it would be because of an invitation from a high-powered league such as the Pac-10 or Big 12. Fehlberg has conscientiously scheduled Pac-10 teams in football and basketball in hopes of establishing a toehold in that conference.
BYU was not alone in efforts to explore options. Behind the scenes, Utah and San Diego State have been lobbying the Pac-10 for membership.
But presidents in the Pac-10 and Big 12 have gone on record in recent weeks stating they are not interested in expanding. It's something Fehlberg can understand. "Why would anybody give up money?" he said. "There's no incentive for them to grow. Why would they want to divide the pie 12 ways instead of 10?"
Another realization hit home last month when the NCAA decided to revoke the rule that prohibited championship games be played on Sunday. While BYU will never compete on Sunday, a number of conference championships are already decided on Sundays. It would appear highly unlikely that the Pac-10, or any conference, would forgo that practice for BYU's sake.
The Cougars won't have that problem in this new league.
BYU also hopes to avoid familiar pitfalls it has experienced in the WAC since the conference expanded to 16 teams, such as financial concerns, the erosion of rivalries and dissipating fan interest.
Money, though, was at the heart of the decision to move on. For the first time ever, there was a shortfall in BYU's athletic budget this past fiscal year. "We all have been wrestling with these issues for well over a year," said Fehlberg. "We've had committees to look at it and see if we could create the type of dynamics it takes to be a successful conference.
"We weren't where we needed to be," he continued. "This is a logical endpoint."