BYU’s journey to the Big 12 marked by disappointment, then jubilation

BYU students cheer as Cougars coach Kalani Sitake walks toward the locker room as BYU and Baylor prepare to play in Provo.

BYU students cheer as BYU head coach Kalani Sitake walks toward the locker room as BYU and Baylor prepare to play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. Beginning this Saturday, the Bears and Cougars will be conference mates as members of the Big 12.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Saturday will be a “day of celebration” for BYU fans throughout the world, in the words of 18-year athletic director Tom Holmoe, because the Cougars will become members of a Power Five conference, the Big 12.

“This day is not like, ‘Hey, we made it.’ This day is to say, ‘Hey, it took a long time and there are a lot of people to thank.’ It is a cumulative effort. So that is what this week is, to make everybody feel a part of it, including fans, and supporters, our sponsors and our donors. It is like, ‘Cougar Nation, here we go.’” — BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe

“You have heard me say this before: It’s the culmination of 40, 50 years of twists and turns, and hard work,” Holmoe said Monday. “Not just for BYU football and basketball, but all of BYU athletics. … It is the day we are finally, officially, in.”

Houston, UCF and Cincinnati will also officially join the Big 12 on July 1.

Events and activities marking BYU’s move into a big-time conference have been going on all of June, culminating in “the BIG party” on Saturday from 3-6 p.m. in and around the Smith Fieldhouse, the Indoor Practice Facility and the Student Athlete Building practice fields on the BYU Provo campus.

“It is an artificial day; there are no games (to really kick off membership),” Holmoe said. “But it is worth it for all the people who have been involved in this program. We are bringing in a lot of people to kinda kick off everything and say, ‘Hey, good work, but here we go.’”

Among the invited guests: Patti Edwards, wife of legendary football coach LaVell Edwards, who died on Dec. 29, 2016, but not before getting the Power Five conference ball rolling some 50 years ago when he took over in 1972 and eventually led the Cougars to national football prominence.

The late Edwards, ever the visionary, might not have directly envisioned that some day BYU would need more revenue, more exposure and bigger and better facilities to compete with the big boys of college football. But he did stress a need for a “seat at the table,” Holmoe said, which is exactly what BYU is finally arriving at Saturday.


BYU football coach LaVell Edwards, right, greets Utah coach Ron McBride before the game at Rice Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah on Friday, Nov. 24, 2000. As BYU prepares to enter the Big 12 Saturday, some point to Edwards’ desire for BYU to “have a seat at the table” as one of the reasons BYU finally reached this point.

Johanna Kirk, Deseret News

“I think the idea hatched long before I got here,” said Holmoe, who became BYU’s AD in 2005.

“This day is not like, ‘Hey, we made it.’ This day is to say, ‘Hey, it took a long time and there are a lot of people to thank.’ It is a cumulative effort,” Holmoe said. “So that is what this week is, to make everybody feel a part of it, including fans, and supporters, our sponsors and our donors. It is like, ‘Cougar Nation, here we go.’”

Holmoe continued: “I am not one to dwell on (accomplishments). It is not about what we did. It is now, OK, here we go. Now is the time to play. It has been 40 years, 50 years, whatever the timeframe is. It took all these years, and to everybody that contributed, ‘You are still in it. Let’s go.’”

Former athletic directors Elaine Michaelis, Rondo Fehlberg and Val Hale and former BYU presidents Cecil O. Samuelson and Kevin J Worthen will also attend; a “BIG countdown” is scheduled Friday night at 11:30 p.m. at the SAB Practice Field.

How did the Cougars get here? That question has been asked and answered over and over again since the invitation finally came on Sept. 10, 2021. But it is worth delving into, Holmoe said, as a way to pay tribute to the thousands and thousands of student-athletes, coaches, administrators, fans, donors and supporters who laid the groundwork for the invitation.

Holmoe’s most recent answer to that question: “I think it was stability, consistency and being able to have tremendous coaches and phenomenal athletes. You could go through all of them in all the sports. I don’t know if it was so much winning a handful of national championships, or being successful.

“I think it was more about consistency over time and making an impression on a lot of people throughout the country that BYU is a really good athletic program, and school,” he continued.

When it all began

Football, and television revenue derived from football, has driven conference realignment the past half-century, so the genesis of BYU’s drive for a bigger conference has to be traced back to Edwards, who wasn’t wildly successful his first few seasons, but gained steam and reached the pinnacle in 1984 when BYU won the national championship in football.

Hale, who was BYU’s athletic director from 1999 to 2004 after serving for years in marketing and media relations for the Provo school, told the Deseret News in 2010 before BYU became independent in football that the Cougars made a “quiet run” for Pac-10 membership in the early 1990s while they were dominating the Western Athletic Conference.

Hale told columnist Brad Rock four months before Utah and Colorado joined the newly minted Pac-12 on June 17, 2010, that BYU was closer to receiving an invitation than the Utes in the early 1990s, but the Cougars’ refusal to play on Sundays, for religious reasons, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Also, BYU wanted to bring along in-state rival Utah, but the Pac-10 also balked at that notion, according to Hale, who said he had firsthand knowledge of the process because he prepared some of the reports himself.

The late Glen Tuckett, BYU’s athletic director from 1976 to 1993, said in 2010 that he didn’t recall BYU being as close to Pac-10 membership as Hale believed, but says BYU’s admission was certainly discussed by Pac-10 leaders.

“There was a lot (of support),” said Tuckett, who died in 2021. “All of the (athletic) directors liked us, they all knew us so well, they were all for it. But it’s not an AD’s conference.”

Tuckett told the Deseret News in 2010 that the Pac-10 presidents never voted on the matter, despite some stories that have made the rounds about Stanford’s president allegedly blocking BYU’s path, or that Oregon State and Washington State were against it because they feared BYU, and possibly Utah, would replace them.

“Maybe they did (vote), but no one ever called me or President (Jeffrey) Holland, that I can recall,” Tuckett told Rock.

Did governor of Texas block BYU from the Big 12 in the mid-1990s?

Tuckett, Hale and Fehlberg, who was BYU’s AD from 1995 to 1999, have all said that BYU was close to leaving the WAC in 1993-94 when the old Southwest Conference was falling apart and the new Big 12 was being formed.

In the same 2010 interview, Hale said BYU was at the top of the league’s list, but then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Baylor graduate, said she would stop Texas A&M, Texas and Texas Tech from being a part of the Big 12 if Baylor was kept out.

Hale told the Deseret News that BYU “also prepared material for Big 12 consideration,” but Richards got her way and the Cougars stayed put. The Bears replaced BYU on that big-time league’s invitation list, and the rest is history.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall (3) tries to run away from Baylor linebacker Matt Jones (2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall tries to run away from Baylor linebacker Matt Jones at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. In the mid-1990s, BYU seemed on the cusp of getting an invite to the Big 12, but in the end it was Baylor that received the invitation.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Big Eight Conference, featuring Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, Nebraska and Colorado and Richards’ four Texas schools from the Southwest Conference merged to form the Big 12 in 1994.

Tuckett said at the time that BYU was seriously considered by the Big 12, but wasn’t as close to joining that league as it was to joining the Pac-10.

Obviously, things changed as the Pac-10 grew more and more unaccepting of BYU’s policies regarding social issues, while the Big 12 began fighting for its own survival when the Pac-10 made overtures to Texas and Oklahoma in 2010.

BYU makes a major move

No question about it, rival Utah’s invitation (along with Colorado) to join the Pac-12 in 2010 after Texas and Oklahoma decided to stay put in the Big 12 came as a gut-punch to BYU and its fans and supporters. Fehlberg, who had moved out of the AD’s seat some 11 years prior, called the snub of BYU “religious bigotry masquerading as academic snobbery.”

BYU’s eventual answer came less than three months later with the announcement that it would leave the Mountain West Conference and begin competition as a football independent in 2011. After a secret plan to join the WAC fell apart — sabotaged in part by then-University of Utah president Michael Young and MW commissioner Craig Thompson — BYU placed most of the rest of its sports in the West Coast Conference.

Frustration with the Mountain West’s television deal was largely responsible for BYU’s move out of that conference, and a day after news broke that BYU was bolting the school announced an eight-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN.

Freedom to broadcast sporting events on its own school-owned network, BYUtv, was also a big part of the decision to go it alone. Independence in football and membership in the WCC marked one of the most tumultuous times in BYU athletics history, but Holmoe has said it started preparing the Cougars for what they will realize on Saturday — membership in a Power Five conference.


BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe announces that BYU is going independent in football and joining the WCC for other sports on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

“We went independent for a reason,” Holmoe said in 2019. “That was, we were not on TV. Our brand was getting destroyed. We might have won games, but you couldn’t see the games. Cougar Nation didn’t have access to see us play. We had to make a decision. We had to get away (from the MWC) or we were going to be stuck in that vacuum.”

Big 12 says no to BYU — twice

Between 2010 and 2014, the Big 12 lost four members — Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M. Hope surfaced in Provo that BYU would fill one of those vacancies, but TCU and West Virginia were eventually chosen to stabilize the conference, leaving the Cougars without a seat at the college sports power brokers’ table once again.

Oct. 17, 2016, was a day that Holmoe and most BYU fans will never forget. For while Sept. 9, 2021, was one of pure delight and jubilation, that day two weeks before Halloween was an utter nightmare.

Three months earlier, the Big 12 Board of Trustees had directed commissioner Bob Bowlsby to explore expansion candidates, and naturally BYU quickly rose to the top of the list.

After making a detailed presentation to the board, along with many other hopefuls, Holmoe and his colleagues sat back and waited for the decision to come. 

“When we walked out of the room (after the presentation), I looked at President Worthen and said, ‘We’re in. There’s no question we’re in,’” Holmoe would tell The Athletic. “Then, you know, it didn’t happen. It didn’t work out that way. They decided they didn’t want to expand.”

Around Aug. 8, several LGBTQ groups called on the conference to shun BYU because of its stance on homosexual behavior.

The Iowa State student senate passed a resolution demanding the league keep BYU out, even though the Big 12 already included two other religious-based institutions, and one, Baylor, had an honor code that did not allow students to participate in LGBTQ organizations.

On Sept. 14, Oklahoma president David Boren hinted that expansion might not happen.

Whether those protests had an impact on the board’s decision to not expand on Oct. 17 has been the subject of debate, but the bottom line is that the presidents and chancellors voted against expansion, and BYU was once again seemingly destined for more years of independence.

Monday, Holmoe reflected on that October day five years and eight months ago.

“For a day, it was hard. And then the next day I realized in preparation for that presentation to the Big 12, when we went down there — and a lot has been said about that — we realized how much strength we have,” he said.

“And that was the first time where I had looked and seen all the effort, and realized whether we got in or not, we still are who we are, and it is something special. And, there will be another chance down the road, maybe.

“But we are going to go for it. In this business, in this program, in college athletics, you have to stay relevant. 

“It is hard to do that if you are not paying attention every day. Because there are going to be slippages.”

‘When the time came, we were ready’

A seismic announcement regarding the college sports landscape occurred in the summer of 2021, as longtime Big 12 members Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the conference and joining the powerful SEC. The Big 12 almost immediately opened expansion discussions again, and BYU quickly rose to the top of the desired programs.

Rumors persisted throughout August and early September that BYU was one of the chosen four, and on Sept. 10, the glorious day finally arrived.

“When the time came, we were ready,” Holmoe said that day. “The stars aligned and it all came together. … A lot of fortunate things had to happen.”

Appearing at the same news conference in Provo, Worthen said it was a collective effort, but one man in particular deserved a lot of praise.

“This would not have happened without Tom Holmoe,” said Worthen, who completed his tenure as president and was replaced on May 1, 2023 by C. Shane Reese as BYU’s 14th president.

The additions, particularly BYU, were widely applauded by existing Big 12 members and national media members.

“Of all the possible options the Big 12 could have added, BYU was the most obvious,” said Kyle Bonagura of ESPN. “It has a proud history and recent success in football, a national fan base and minimal red tape to cut through as an independent without conference to leave.”

Said Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy: “Coast to coast, people see BYU as a Power Five team.”

A few months later, Holmoe reflected on Sept. 10, 2021.

“The day that it was announced that we were in the Big 12, people celebrated like crazy, like we had arrived,” he said. “My first thing was, ‘Oh no, we have so much work to do.’”

Monday, the man who did a lot of the heavy lifting said the journey is far from over.

“It doesn’t end here,” he said. “The story now turns into: now what? You are in the Big 12, what are you going to do? Are we going to be able to keep our scruples and do the things that BYU has done for 50 years, to get to this point?”

Few expect BYU to be immediately successful in the marquee revenue sports — football and men’s basketball. Holmoe declined to speculate, but said he’s satisfied with the work that has been done since the call came about 22 months ago.

“Is there going to be magic like there has been?” he asked rhetorically. “That is our hope and our faith, that those things continue, that we get great players that have memorable moments. We have great leadership from our coaches, and the fans come out of the woodwork on the Wasatch Front and across the country and make it happen, day after day, year after year. … I like our chances.”


Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, center, speaks with outgoing commissioner Bob Bowlsby, left, and Baylor president Linda Livingstone looking on during a news conference opening the football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. In mid-July, BYU will participate in its first Big 12 football media days as members of the Power Five conference.

LM Otero, Associated Press

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