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Analyzing BYU's Move Towards Independence

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I feel sorry for Karl Benson. The guy had a gift lined up for him by BYU, everything looked in place to capture a series of football games with a strong national contender for the WAC, and provide further strength in sports with the non-football programs. Apparently on Friday of last week, everything looked to be set in stone for BYU to announce its football independence, and the WAC would welcome back BYU as a prized member.

Amazing how things can change in a matter of days.

We can only assume that word of this deal leaked out to other MWC members and Craig Thompson. In that time Craig had several conference calls with the members of the league, and then boarded a plane for Pennsylvania to discuss with the TV partners their potential situation. On Tuesday, unofficial invites from the MWC to Fresno State and Nevada were delivered, with official invites coming from Craig on Wednesday afternoon.

As we start to hear from more schools and individuals, it appears as though the timeline looked like this. Sometime this summer, BYU approached Karl and the WAC with a proposition. BYU wanted to further leverage their TV network to allow the football team to go independent, which would have allowed a far greater monetization of that particular commodity. Unfortunately, such a move would have probably resulted in expulsion from the MWC for the other non-football sports. So to mitigate and minimize the damage from having those other teams also being independent (and the resulting scheduling nightmare) BYU worked a deal with the WAC to give these other sports a solid landing place.

The WAC appeared to work feverishly, yet quietly to put this plan into effect. The big move was to approach the different members last week with a contract that specifies a $5 million conference exit fee, if the school left the WAC in a 5 year period. Seven of the schools signed it and Nevada supposedly gave a verbal agreement. This was put in place to impede or stop altogether a school from moving once BYU's intentions became known. It was likely well understood that the MWC would come knocking and try to take the rest of the top tier WAC football schools once BYU made its move.

From all indications, BYU worked with the WAC in a very secretive way. One could even describe their machinations as Machiavellian when we consider their dealings behind the scenes to essentially eradicate the MWC's chances of getting a BCS bid with BYU's leaving, as well as ensuring a place for their non-football teams to land. With the MWC taken out of the BCS equation due to not only BYU's defection, but also the inability of the MWC to potentially entice the top remaining members of the WAC, BYU would have a greater chance to negotiate directly with the BCS for a sweetheart deal along the lines of what Notre Dame has. By initiating a plan which would accomplish this before the start of this season then BYU's results cannot be used by the MWC for a BCS automatic bid.

One cannot deny an institution like BYU the chance to improve their own bottom line and to allow them to improve their programs as they see fit. However, the lack of transparency, as well as the way this was gone about, severely darkens the intentions of what BYU attempted to accomplish. Certainly the school was not happy with the financial agreement with The Mtn. Network, and they felt they could have a better TV tie in deal with their BYU-TV network. But BYU did not approach the MWC and the partner schools, and instead attempted a plan which would essentially cut off the other schools at the knees when it comes to BCS qualifying. BYU did not become a respected football program in the past half-decade in a vacuum. The majority of the MWC has improved their game tremendously, with Utah, TCU, and BYU leading the way. The other members of the MWC have similarly improved, and the overall bowl record and out of conference results back this up. The overall improvement in the MWC was a definite team effort between the individual schools, and the level of competition that we see today is the best it has been since the formation of the MWC and inclusion of TCU.

It is one thing to be a program like Utah; the first of the BCS busters, MWC champion several times over, and an outstanding Bowl record for this past decade. The PAC-10 came calling, Utah announced their intentions publicly and informed the other members of the MWC, and was greeted by well wishes from other institutions from the conference (though disappointment that they didn't stay and keep the conference as a stronger group overall). It is quite another for a institution to work on secret deals which would in the end be detrimental to the seven other schools which have helped to raise the perception of the conference, all the while preparing a safe harbor for their other sports while the MWC potentially collapses and at the very least expels BYU.

While BYU has a successful pedigree in college football, they have yet to get to a BCS bowl. This past season their showing against OU increased their stature, only to turn around and lay a giant egg in Provo against a middling FSU. The point that I am pursuing here is that BYU has not had the consistency or success since the formation of the BCS to merit or at least condone this type of behavior. Certainly, if BYU had at least one BCS appearance and was more consistent with conference championships (though Bronco's teams have done very well), the perception of "We have climbed the top of the mountain, and we feel that we need to pursue other avenues to achieve our national championship goals" just is not there. Utah on the other hand has had two undefeated seasons along with impressive BCS bowl wins. In other words, BYU is holding themselves back rather than the national perception of being in a non-AQ conference.

So instead of working to improve the fortunes of the MWC, and giving themselves the chance of being one of the marquee teams in an AQ conference, BYU's back channel deals with the WAC gives the impression that they are scrambling hard not to be left in the shadow of arch-rival Utah's elevation to a AQ conference. Of course, the real irony here is that the MWC's record against the PAC-10 for this past decade has actually favored the MWC.

The next question is how did the deal with the WAC leak out? It is no secret that Fresno State and Nevada wanted to be included with Boise State in the invite to the MWC. It is not beyond imagination that Fresno and Nevada, once they saw the BYU plan about to be set in motion, discussed with each other how their fortunes could actually be diminished due to a weakened MWC and an independent BYU. If we consider conference re-alignment, and how Fresno and Nevada have a far greater chance to be invited to the MWC rather than another BCS conference, it is certainly not in those schools' best interests to weaken their only potential ticket to the BCS. The tenuous promise of 4 to 5 WAC teams playing BYU in a season simply was not enough, especially with the potential of this move to decimate the MWC's chances of being a BCS conference.

Karl Benson said that Fresno and Nevada were being selfish, but neither of these schools caused the chain of events that lead to Wednesday's defection. Karl Benson now simply looks like a stooge to BYU's ambitions. As I mentioned before, I feel badly for the man. He attempted to make the WAC stronger, but participated in a plan that was no where above board in terms of integrity.

My guess is that BYU will stay in the MWC for the time being. With the defection of Fresno and Nevada to the MWC, BYU no longer has an adequate landing spot for their non-football sports. Also we must consider that the Mormon Church owns BYU, and any hint of impropriety would have a severe backlash when it comes to the reputation of the church. Craig Thompson gave BYU and the Mormon Church a way to save face here, and I believe the pressure within the church will push BYU to stay in the MWC.

The WAC will survive, as they will likely bring in a few new members from Texas and California. We might even see Montana jump from 1-AA and join the WAC as well. While Karl was outmaneuvered by Craig this round, Karl was handicapped by the secretive way that BYU went about this business.

While it is unlikely that Fresno and Nevada will contribute to the current BCS evaluation period, their defection from the WAC virtually insures that BYU will stay in the MWC for the time being. It also allows the conference to potentially add one more member and reach 12 teams. But that is looking a bit too far ahead, especially in light of BYU's interest of becoming an independent football power.