I recently asked BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall about being passed over by BCS leagues during the summer's conference expansion shuffle, and here's what he said:
"We don't intend to change; my job is to continue to uphold the values, beliefs and ideals of the school and the institution, and to win football games to help others understand those (values, beliefs and ideals). And if someone wants that, then great — if they don't, then we'll stand alone — or stand as part of the Mountain West Conference in the meantime."
If BYU declares its gridiron independence, the "meantime" will amount to about three more months in the MWC, after which the Cougars would indeed stand alone, as one of only four football teams in the country to be unaffiliated with a sponsoring conference (Notre Dame, Army and Navy are the others).
While the move would be bold and fraught with uncertainty, football independence would be somewhat appropriate for a program that is "one-of-a-kind" in the current college landscape. BYU is the only FBS football team that requires its players to sign an honor code seen by many as uncommonly restrictive. It is the only program that incorporates a two-year church missionary program as part of its intrinsic structure. BYU features the most married football players of any program in the country. BYU football players sport the highest cumulative GPA among schools responding to an internal institutional survey. The Cougars' community service commitments are substantial, while night-before-the-game speaking engagements at church houses represent another singular aspect of the program.
Just as the football team's operating conditions are unique, so too are BYU's mission and vision. The school's ability to properly showcase those facets through athletics is linked to three key areas: competitive performance, fiscal viability, and television distribution opportunities.
Competitively, BYU football has few peers. The Cougars have won a national championship, 23 conference championships, and 43 wins over the last four seasons — a number surpassed by only four teams nationally.
Fiscally, BYU is a "have" operating under the TV revenue constraints of a "have-not." Any deal BYU could broker on its own would invariably trump the current cash flow under terms of its deal with the MWC's television partners.
On the distribution front, The mtn.'s technical limitations and clearance issues resulted in weakened exposure for the BYU football product. While the network is now more up-to-date technically, and is more widely available via satellite, The mtn.'s national presence is comparatively limited. Additionally, the league's flagship network and other TV partners suffer from a perception problem; correctly or not, national commentators consistently complain publicly about their inability to see MWC games. BYU probably has the clout to attract an established national broadcast partner, potentially supplementing that exposure with school-controlled broadcasts via an existing network.
BYU's "Independence Day" decision will likely have little to do with Wednesday's Mountain West Conference membership maneuver. It will have everything to do with securing an exposure opportunity for the football team as unique as the program itself.