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Independence a leap of faith, football and fame for BYU

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PROVO, Utah -- It's at the point when Tom Holmoe stands up in his office and starts, well, proselytizing that you think this BYU independence thing just might work.

The Cougars AD for the past seven years is waving his arms, making bullet points in the air. The former BYU defensive back and Cal head coach is football-fired-up because he sees the future at one of the largest, most influential religious-based universities in the world. He is emphasizing some traditionally un-BYU-like topics like market penetration and production facilities and Internet potential.

'We really want to make this work,' BYU AD Tom Holmoe says. (Getty Images)  
'We really want to make this work,' BYU AD Tom Holmoe says. (Getty Images)  
Face it, until BYU announced last September it was leaving the Mountain West for football independence you probably had never heard of BYUtv. You did, most likely, say to yourself, "What in the Wasatch is BYU thinking?" This is the school of LaVell Edwards, Steve Young and Jim McMahon. This is Quarterback U. This is the last non-BCS school to win a national championship.

One hundred and sixteen of 120 Division I-A football programs can chase a conference title this season. BYU is one of the four that can't. So what is it playing for?

While the program certainly hasn't been the BYU of old, it wasn't scraping bottom when independence was announced. Only eight teams have had more wins the past five years. That BYU has knowingly and willingly cut itself loose from the mother's milk of conference affiliation in an age where that is the best way to grab the BCS brass ring. It has struck out on its own, becoming only the fourth football independent in Division I-A, along with Army, Navy and Notre Dame.

The three existing independents' missions are decidedly disparate: two military academies and a Catholic football factory with its own over-the-air broadcast network. The three have enjoyed independent status for a combined 367 years. BYU kicks off the 2011 season on its own Sept. 3 at Ole Miss, in many ways, not knowing what is ahead.

"We don't see this as a landing spot," before joining another conference down the line, Holmoe said. "We really want to make this work."

The trend, of course, is to go the other way. Florida State was an independent terror but won both of its national championships as an ACC member. Miami gave up independence to join the Big East, then the ACC. Penn State went to the Big Ten. BYU? There is only one comparison to its current situation and even that one is slight.

"We've never come out and said, 'We're just like Notre Dame,'" Holmoe said. "We don't try. It's not our desire to be like Notre Dame. We have incredible respect for Notre Dame, but we're different."

Yes they are. Both schools are flagships for worldwide religions. Both are governed by religious leaders. Both schools observe a higher standard. (See Michael Floyd and Brandon Davies.) Both schools are known for their football. But Notre Dame's rep is so gilded in profit that it gets paid by the BCS even when it doesn't go to a BCS bowl. When it bolted the College Football Association for NBC in 1991, ND's move was perceived as a cash grab. There is seemingly only one main reason BYU has gone out on its own.

Faith.

The Mormon faith that is, and will be, spread by BYU athletic success. Notre Dame is admittedly a powerful, influential Catholic institution but just a part of its faith. This place is the Mormon religion, its center. When BYU lines up on Saturday, it is the equivalent of the Irish playing in St. Peter's Square. So why not keep all the riches -- both heavenly and financial -- that spring from competing alone? The Jimmers (Fredette) and Tys (Detmer) will continue to come to BYU regardless, maybe more so now that ESPN is a partner.

Combine the power of that partnership with a burgeoning school network (BYUtv) and this business/athletic model becomes clear: Free from conference affiliation, the school can spread the word globally through football.

"We were boxed in and they weren't letting us breathe," Holmoe said as an office visitor is compelled to stand with him and share the vision. "With this move, we can do anything."

Hallelujah.

Football coach Bronco Mendenhall sounds like the luckiest man in the world. Well, if you consider lucky a major-college coach who endures 40 percent roster turnover each season because of two-year mission trips and graduation. If you consider fortunate a coach whose academic standards for admission are 3.3 GPA, a minimum 19 ACT (there are exceptions) and adherence to a strict honor code you might have heard about recently.

"If you were to take Stanford's academics with the type of kid that the military academies recruit," Mendenhall said, merge that with top-25 talent and add "the dust of Notre Dame," that is your typical BYU player. He adds that there are 15 players on the roster each season, on average, who aren't Mormon but all of them come for the same reason independence is supposed to work.

"What compels them is their faith," Mendenhall said.

"The Catholic kids that come, the Methodist kids that come, the Lutheran kids that come, I don't offer scholarships unless their parents come on campus," Mendenhall said. "How do you explain through words or pictures what this is?"

It's not like BYU has proved it can't win or produce NFL talent with these limitations. It's just a different stage now.

"If we play well, then the idea is ..., 'Who are these people at BYU? What are these missions? What do they believe?'" Mendenhall said.

The arrangement goes beyond the most obvious problem of being able to find opponents. The majority of the school's other sports, including basketball, will play in the West Coast Conference. The hoops team plays in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night against Florida in New Orleans.

BYU football now has the same BCS access points as Army and Navy, which is to say the worst type of access. Those three schools will be considered for a BCS bowl if they finish in the top 14 in the final BCS standings. The only automatic bid comes if they finish in the top two. Even counting Notre Dame's "special" access, an independent playing for a national championship has happened exactly never in the BCS era.

Spreading the Mormon faith more effectively is a big reason BYU decided to turn independent. (Getty Images)  
Spreading the Mormon faith more effectively is a big reason BYU decided to turn independent. (Getty Images)  
"Now that we've got it, [independence is] a little scary," Holmoe said. "But it's also, 'Hey, this could really be better than we thought.' It all lies in our hands. ... We know what kind of path it is. The alternative is mediocrity."

That's a slap at the Mountain West, which was neutered during conference realignment. Utah jumped to the Pac-12 and TCU agreed, beginning in 2012, to go to the Big East. The MWC that was once hard-charging toward temporary automatic BCS status now looks a lot like the conference it broke away from in 1999 -- the WAC. Boise State (in 2011), Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii (in 2012) have been added but the MWC's momentum just isn't the same.

Independence, then, is the only way BYU could go. The Big 12 wasn't going to go further west after losing Colorado. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott hinted last spring that BYU would be left out of any expansion by his conference. The school doesn't have high research designation from either the American Association of Universities (AAU) or the Carnegie Foundation. All schools in the new Pac-12 are either one or the other. More than half are both. That was an academic deal breaker for BYU with Pac-10 presidents.

BYU's move is driven by religion, yes, but also by the same market forces that caused last year's realignment. Notre Dame and Texas essentially control those market forces. Even when they decided to stay put, there were ripples throughout college athletics. Failing to land the Irish, the Big Ten settled for Nebraska. After the Pac-10's power play to rip half the Big 12, Texas kept the league together by deciding to stay. Scott's fallback was inviting Utah and Colorado. When Utah left the Mountain West, that made BYU's position in the league untenable.

The two rivals -- Cougars and Utes -- separated by church, state and 37 miles, were suddenly in two different worlds.

"Utah is always the school they talk about [in the Pac-10]," Holmoe said. "It would always frustrate BYU fans. We were just kind of looking at where do we go from here?"

Norm Chow knows the landscape as well as anyone. He coached at BYU for 27 years as an assistant. Chow is returning to his alma mater, Utah, this season as offensive coordinator.

"I think it's going to be hard," Chow said. "I remember [at BYU] you geared up for big games ... but when you've got to play that every week, it's tough. What do you tell the kids in November when you've lost a game or two? 'We've got to go win the Las Vegas Bowl?'"

After several years adrift in cable's netherworld, BYU not only has its own powerful cable partner but also one that doubles as a scheduling partner. ESPN will show a minimum of three home games, reportedly paying BYU $800,000-$1.2 million per game. It has rights to all the home games on all its platforms. Any home game that isn't shown by ESPN can be shown on BYUtv.

"I feel liberated," said Mendenhall, possibly the deepest-thinking major-college coach in the land. "We can play anyone we want to play."

Even with the sizable ESPN influence, Mendenhall has the final say in all scheduling. BYU's move has the blessing of Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. The Irish have signed on for a six-game series starting in 2012 and running through 2020. Five WAC schools are on the schedule for the next two seasons. In 2011, there are trips to Ole Miss, Texas and Oregon State. Utah remains on the schedule. There is a monumental meeting with TCU in October at Cowboys Stadium.

That about tough enough? Mendenhall knows he could schedule his way to 10 wins but that would do nothing for his team's BCS profile.

Part of BYU's problem lately has been unfortunate residence and timing. In the past seven years, the Cougars have won 61 games, an average of almost nine a season. In the same period, Mountain West rivals TCU (71 total wins) and Utah (69) have each been to a pair of BCS bowls. BYU was good, but not good enough to participate in the non-BCS revolution in its own league.

Essentially, after a dozen years in the MWC, BYU realized the obvious: You're nothing if you're not on ESPN. The cable giant basically legitimized BYU's move by signing an eight-year deal with the school.

"Could you imagine BYU winning a national championship in this climate, doing it the way we're doing it," Mendenhall wondered, "what it would say to the world?"

It would be that global commercial for the Mormon faith that Mendenhall dreams of. With a U.S. membership of six million, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ranks fourth among U.S. religions. Independence basically gives BYU freedom to maximize its religious reach. BYUtv, the school's decade-old network, is in 60 million North American households on Dish Network, DirecTV and 500 cable outlets.

The reason why you probably never heard of the network lies in the current programming guide. Shows like Jerry Yarnell School of Fine Art and Fons & Porter's Love of Quilting are common but that's about to change.

"Look at the rising generation and how they consume their media," said Ryan Holmes. "That is how the future is going to look."

Holmes is the new face of BYU, the 43-year-old director of BYU Broadcasting's digital group. He came to the school a year ago after designing video games. Soon his division will launch the same iPhone and iPad apps that every BCS conference in the country is exploring as a new way to market their product. But this is one school. Fans will be able to watch their Cougars through their Xboxes and PlayStation 3s. The plan is for BYUtv to show at least one football game per year, a handful of basketball games and explode exponentially with broadcasts of other sports. That is essentially the same programming model that works for Texas' Longhorn Network.

This one works for God and for country for as long as BYU uses it to spread the word.

"If I could do cartwheels, I would," Holmes said. "We're all just stoked."

Hallelujah.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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