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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe says, "It's nice to have the freedom to do the things that you think you can do to improve your program."

Editor's note: This is the first installment in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and the Cougars' jump to the West Coast Conference in basketball and most other sports.

PROVO — Fans, media and other observers have wondered for decades about BYU's place in the college athletics universe, regularly speculating that the Cougars would eventually join a more prestigious conference.

Then, on Sept. 1 2010, months after arch-rival Utah accepted an invitation to go to the Pac-12, BYU boldly, and shockingly, decided to declare its independence in football and move most of its other sports to the West Coast Conference.

That hasn't prevented people from speculating about how long it will be until the Cougars change addresses again, perhaps to an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series conference.

But BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe reiterated Thursday to members of the media during an informal question-and-answer session that independence is not necessarily a stepping stone to something bigger and better. This is the course the school has chosen to follow — to spread its wings and fly into the wild blue yonder.

"Our plan right now is to go (with independence). We don't have a bailout plan," said Holmoe, looking relaxed and dressed in an argyle sweater. "Our vision right now is to make this be great. I'm excited about what the potential and possibilities are as we go down this road. If for some reason it just did not work, then you'd have to look at possibilities. But right now, without having played a game as an independent or in our new conference, the independent line and West Coast Conference line are exciting."

Asked if membership in a BCS conference is the ultimate goal, Holmoe replied, "It's not realistic right now. I don't try to put my hopes and dreams into things that aren't real. There's been a cycle of (conference realignment) and (other conferences) weren't interested in BYU for reasons that have been gone over, over and over again. To hope that they will change their mind about BYU — we're going to go forward in the paradigm that is real. We've got to be realistic.

"It's fun. We have a chance to be everything we can. It will be a very difficult road, but that's where we're at."

Of course, BYU is not setting out on this road alone. Armed with an eight-year contract with broadcast behemoth ESPN, the Cougars have a partner that can assist, and already has assisted, with scheduling, bowl game affiliations, and other issues that an independent program must confront.

At the same time, BYU will earn significantly more revenue through its television deal with ESPN than it had before. And with BYUtv, the Cougars will have more broadcasting options in order to receive the national exposure they crave.

BYU will kick off its inaugural season as an independent with its own football "media day" on July 12.

"It feels good to be independent. It's nice to have the freedom to do the things that you think you can do to improve your program," Holmoe said. "You're limited when you're in a conference because you have conference partners. In the Mountain West Conference, we were one of nine schools that had input into policies and procedures. There were just a few (schools) that had the same vision of what they wanted to accomplish as an athletic program. That was the University of Utah and TCU."

While Utah is headed to the Pac-12, TCU is jumping to the Big East, another automatic qualifying BCS conference, in 2012.

BYU, for now, has the same opportunity to earn a BCS bowl bid as fellow independents Army and Navy — unlike the granddaddy of independents, Notre Dame, which has automatic access. But that was clear from the beginning, Holmoe explained.

"We made a move where we decided we were going to move out of a conference and go independent. In doing so, there are certain rules you kind of had to follow," he said. "We didn't feel like we were going to go independent and demand that we have a certain point where we would get (automatic qualifying status). We understand that. We realize it's not going to be different from where we are as an individual team than where we were as a member of a conference.

"But we do believe that we can earn it. And that's what our intentions are. As an independent, we'll be looked at differently if we earn respect across the country."

But Holmoe doesn't want to lobby or politick for automatic inclusion to the BCS. He would like to see the Cougars prove they belong by their play. "You have to earn it," he added.

In its first season as an independent, BYU is playing a 12-game schedule, with some tough road games (opening the season at Ole Miss, followed by a game at Texas) and a home schedule that features a handful of WAC teams. Last Sept. 1, when BYU officially announced its independence, Holmoe warned that it would take a couple of years for the schedule to be ideal. BYU has contracted with WAC teams through 2012.

"We had to do that right away to get those games, but we'll probably play WAC teams and hopefully Mountain West Conference teams because we have pretty good traditions built up with those teams," he said.

Holmoe added that he has only one hole to fill in the 2012 schedule, though he wouldn't discuss specifics about opponents for that season. The known games are against Oregon State, Hawaii, Utah, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Utah State, New Mexico State and San Jose State.

One of the obstacles in scheduling is that most teams belong to conferences, and teams want to play their non-conference games before diving into their conference schedules in October and November.

"What we're hoping is that conferences will be a little bit more lenient, that teams will look at the opportunity to play us and be able to be on TV, because we're going to be on TV," Holmoe said. "If we play a team from the (Atlantic Coast Conference) and that game's at their place, they can put on a BYU-at-North Carolina (game). It's their game. We're hoping that we'll be an attractive game. When the game comes here, they're going to be on TV. I think it gives them more opportunities to be on TV.

"Obviously, the top teams in the country are going to be on TV anyway. If you look at the BCS conferences, the middle-of-the-pack, and lower teams, they're not on TV. They're in their conference TV schedules. We have an opportunity to get them on TV. TV likes non-conference games, even late in the schedule. They love great matchups between conferences."

Announcements about future football series could come in the coming months, Holmoe said.

As for the bowl situation, BYU is contracted to the Armed Forces Bowl in 2011, the Poinsettia Bowl in 2012 and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — as long as it is bowl eligible and not invited to a BCS bowl.

"These three games we have contracted now are games that we feel are the best possible bowl that we can (get) based on what was available and what was open," Holmoe said. "We could have been a free agent and wait until the end of the season and see who vacates (bowl games), but I didn't feel it was worth it."

Asked about media reports of BYU creating its own bowl game, rumored to be played on Christmas Day, Holmoe responded, "Never heard one thing about it."

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Perhaps at no time in BYU history has there been more interest in Cougar football, and in BYU athletics in general. Over the past several months, with the confluence of the announcement about going independent; the widespread attention garnered by basketball star Jimmer Fredette; and the exposure provided by ESPN, the nation's eyes are on the Cougars. People are intrigued to see how independence works out for BYU.

All Holmoe knows is, it's imperative that the Cougars win games.

"You don't want to be irrelevant," he said. "That's the key."

email: jeffc@desnews.com