You’re going to see us play bigger teams at neutral sites because it works for them, and it works for us as an independent. —Tom Holmoe
Editor's note: This is the sixth of an occasional series exploring the issues related to BYU scheduling football games as an independent.
PROVO — It was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.
When ESPN called BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and offered the Cougars the chance to play national power Oklahoma at the Dallas Cowboys’ brand-new, state-of-the-art, retractable-roofed, 80,000-seat, billion-dollar stadium, Holmoe eagerly worked to make it happen.
As it turned out, about 15,000 Cougar fans descended upon the Dallas area that Labor Day weekend for the 2009 season opener, and they went home elated after BYU sprung a stunning 14-13 upset over the No. 3 Sooners on national television. It was the inaugural college football game played at Cowboys Stadium.
Many Cougar fans sacrificed, scrimped and saved to buy tickets to that showdown, and some traveled long distances to be there. The fact their team won was an added bonus.
That was nearly four years ago — and one year before BYU announced it would be going independent in football.
Now, the Cougars are heading into their third season of independence, and an important part of their scheduling plan includes playing neutral-site games at NFL stadiums.
In 2016, BYU will play two of them. The Cougars meet West Virginia at FedEx Field (home of the Washington Redskins) in Landover, Md., then they face Arizona at University of Phoenix Stadium (home of the Arizona Cardinals) in Glendale, Ariz. FedEx Field boasts a seating capacity of 91,704 — and is the largest stadium in the NFL.
Expect to see BYU involved in more of those types of games in the future, Holmoe said. “You’re going to see us play bigger teams at neutral sites because it works for them, and it works for us as an independent."
It's all part of a growing trend in college football. Many college games have been held at Cowboys Stadium since BYU and Oklahoma first played there.
For NFL teams, hosting college games can be a lucrative revenue stream, and for college teams, playing in an NFL stadium creates a significant financial windfall. In that 2009 game at Cowboys Stadium, Oklahoma reportedly received $2.25 million, while the Cougars earned about $1.5 million.
Some NFL teams are taking it a step further and are getting into the bowl business. In May, the Detroit Lions announced their intentions of starting a bowl game at Ford Field.
Of course, BYU is no stranger to playing in NFL stadiums. In 1985, the Cougars played Boston College at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and met Temple at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. More recently, BYU has played at the old Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., Alltel Stadium (now EverBank Field) in Jacksonville, Fla., the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, and Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
In April, Holmoe and University of Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne jointly announced a three-game series between the Cougars and Wildcats, with the opening game being played at University of Phoenix Stadium. The two teams will then play a home-and-home series in 2018 and 2020.
University of Phoenix Stadium has a retractable roof and seats 63,400. It opened in August 2006 and is the site of the annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
"It's a beautiful venue," Holmoe said. "The last time I was there was for the national championship game for Oregon and Auburn (in January 2011). The way they set it up there was fantastic. The fans are going to realize that it's very fan-friendly The people at the Fiesta Bowl have been so good and so hospitable about putting this together and letting BYU and Arizona put together a great event."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall likes the concept of taking his teams to NFL stadiums.
"Our program at this point is going and playing the best teams on the biggest stages," said Mendenhall. "We're looking forward to competing and as many people that we can get to watch as well, with our intriguing style of play and the unique individuals we get to come here, it's just a win-win for both institutions, both coaches, and I think it will be great for the fans. We have a ton of (LDS) Church members and a ton of alumni (in Arizona)."
Holmoe — like other athletic directors — is in the process of trying to arrange more neutral-site games.
"I think you're going to see a lot more of this across the nation," Holmoe said.
The reputation of BYU’s fan base for attending road games in droves makes it a prime candidate for games at NFL stadiums.
Before the Cougars played the Sooners in 2009, Holmoe said it was an opportunity that had been earned.
"There are a lot of college teams in the country that would never get a shot at this game," Holmoe said at the time. "I really think it's a tribute to our football program, which goes back to LaVell (Edwards) and now is being run by Bronco and all the players who have brought us to this point. But it's also a tribute to our fans, that we wouldn't have gotten this game if we didn't travel well. It's a tribute to BYU fans. It's a feather in our fans' caps that we got this game. They responded how they should. I really appreciate that."