PROVO — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe was standing at the back of the room at the Armed Forces Bowl press conference, a day before BYU's 24-21 victory over Tulsa, when he struck up a conversation with a reporter.
Before long, Holmoe found himself surrounded by several reporters, resulting in an impromptu 15-minute question-and-answer session about the state of Cougar football. Holmoe addressed a wide array of salient topics.
Year One of Independence was certainly an eventful one. In between the narrow season-opening victory at Ole Miss, and the narrow win in the season-finale in Dallas, there were plenty of storylines, including the mercurial quarterback situation; unprecedented exposure thanks to ESPN and BYUtv; the challenge of late-season scheduling; rampant conference realignment speculation; uncertainty about the long-term future of the rivalry with Utah; and the transfer of quarterback Jake Heaps.
How does Holmoe assess the inaugural year of independence overall?
"In hindsight, it went well," Holmoe said. "As you look at it as a whole, it's just really different …. All things considered, it works … Notre Dame's been doing it forever. Army and Navy have had different experiences. For us, it works right now. With everything going on around us, it's probably a good place to be."
Even before making the decision to go independent last year, Holmoe said it was imperative to have a bowl deal in place. BYU entered an agreement to play in the Armed Forces Bowl last April.
"It came together considering it was our only shot. The alternative would have been to try to be a free agent and go, 'OK, pick us.' I didn't even look at it to see how that would have gone, if someone vacated a bowl, we could have gone," Holmoe said. "In the first year of independence, I wasn't about to get left out. It's possible you could get left out. It's turned out good."
Next year the Cougars, if they post a winning record and are not selected to play in a BCS bowl, are set to participate in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. In 2013, BYU is under contract to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.
"They are ESPN bowl games," Holmoe said. "That was one of the discussions that happened ahead of time — what about bowl games? We actually kind of solidified the bowl games before we solidified our contract (with ESPN). This is the one shot that we had because there was an opening this year. The other ones were bowl games that we felt, being an independent and without a lot of openings in bowl games for independents because they're already locked up, San Diego and San Francisco are two areas that we have a lot of fans and those are areas that we'll be in a lot. We felt like those were good games for us to get to — good for our fans, good for our players, good for recruiting. ESPN games."
As for the future? Bowl contracts are going to expire in the next couple of years, which means BYU is trying to look ahead.
"We're starting to talk to people," Holmoe said, explaining that the Cougars could work their way into a contract with a bowl that is looking to avoid similar matchups every year.
Meanwhile, last week, the Pac-12 and Big Ten announced a plan to start competing against each other on a regular basis by 2017. Such a scheduling scenario could limit the possibility of Utah scheduling BYU in football.
For now, the Utes and Cougars are under contract to play next season. Beyond that, no other meetings have been announced.
"From what I've heard, they're not going to start it up in football right away. It's an interesting concept for all of the other sports," Holmoe said of the Pac-12 and Big Ten agreement. "It's kind of interesting to me to think that there aren't a lot of times when the Pac-12 and Big Ten play each other in non-conference games. As we talk to Big Ten and Pac-12 teams, they're very careful about their non-conference schedule. I don't think you'll see them play a full array of games. That would leave two other games, and who are you going to play? It could affect us possibly adversely. But we're kind of scheduled out for a few years. Not scheduled out, but we have some of the bigger teams on our radar."
BYU will host Washington State, and newly hired coach Mike Leach, a BYU alum, in the 2012 season opener. Among the other opponents include Utah, Boise State, Oregon State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. Holmoe said the school is "pretty close" to announcing the complete 2012 schedule.
While BYU played a steady diet of WAC teams this season, and are scheduled to play more next year, that contract with the WAC won't continued after next season.
"We needed to do that to be able to fill out the schedule," Holmoe said. "We figure that if we want to play a WAC team in the future, we'll just try to schedule it. It gives us a little bit of time to try to do that. We didn't have time before."
During the season, BYU entered discussions with both the Big 12 and the Big East as both leagues explored expansion. Ultimately, the Big 12 opted to invite TCU and West Virginia instead of BYU, while talks between BYU and the Big East ended with the school deciding to remain an independent.
Asked if he was surprised that the Big 12 did not invite BYU, Holmoe once again acknowledged that BYU was under consideration, but he didn't elaborate.
"If I were to step into (the Big 12's) shoes, there would be pros and cons," he said. "We didn't really talk about those pros and cons. They made a decision with TCU and West Virginia and they were smart not to delineate the reasons why other schools weren't the choice."
Holmoe said there are no burned bridges in the relationship between BYU and the Big 12. "They are very good people. We have great respect for them. What happened a couple of months ago, up to a year ago, and what happens in the future, is business."
Holmoe added that BYU's situation right now "gives us the opportunity to be independent in the sense that we're not tied down anywhere. Our other teams outside of football are in the (West Coast Conference). We'll see what happens. The best thing that can happen for BYU, the university, and the school, is the course that we'll pursue."
A major concern for BYU is, what if super conferences emerge in college football? What would happen to the Cougars?
"It's speculation. It's something that every athletic director keeps their eye on," Holmoe said. "If you're in a BCS conference or not, you want to see what's going on. When ADs get together, what do you think we talk about? Conference realignment. Everybody watches it, so we have to watch. You wouldn't want to be left out. That's pretty obvious ... We're trying to position ourselves to do what would be best for BYU."
At the beginning of December, Heaps, one of the most high-profile recruits in school history, decided to transfer. Heaps, who lost his starting job midway through the season, is enrolling at Kansas.
"We never want a kid to transfer, never. When a kid transfers, we look at it as, we lost him. We didn't do our job," Holmoe said. "That's the way I look at it. I'm responsible as the athletic director. If a kid's not really happy and doesn't feel like he's able to reach all of his goals and thinks he can do it better somewhere else, then we're not going to stand in the way. In this case, we're friends. That kid had a ton of pressure on him from the very beginning. I kind of admired the way that he dealt with it. Things went well in some areas and not so well in others. I really kind of tried to stay close to him throughout the last two years and encouraged him to keep going and be strong and do well. He just felt like it was time. I wish him well. I like the kid a lot. I hope he does really well."