In 1999, the Mountain West Conference welcomed Brigham Young University into its league. For the next 12 seasons, the Cougars became the team to beat among the other members of the conference. Fans from other universities seemed to circle the BYU game on their calendars and label it their rivalry game.
Now, in the 2011-12 season, the Cougars have become a member of the West Coast Conference, and the rivalries may start anew among different teams and new arenas.
However, these rivalries don’t stem from any kind of hatred or animosity, but rather a respect for the talent of the new addition.
“[BYU’s] a great school and it has a lot of prestige,” said Jerry Hewett, a lifelong Gonzaga fan from Lewisville, Idaho. “BYU is going to demand the respect of other teams in the conference and is going to make it very interesting.”
For the past 11 seasons, the WCC has been dominated in both men’s and women’s basketball by Gonzaga, which has won eight straight regular season championships in the women’s league, and the men’s streak of 11 straight came to an end this season, finishing No. 2 behind Saint Mary’s, with BYU coming in at third.
This year has seen several men’s teams be able to compete at a high level with every other team, and show a formidable talent and potential for any team to win the tournament.
“There are four or five teams that can win the entire tournament this year,” said Joseph Barker, a Cougar fan and former BYU professor for 35 years. “Anybody here can beat BYU, and we just hope we do well.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the target on BYU’s back is the traveling crowd that has the ability to overwhelm other teams’ fans in visiting stadiums. The more than 34,000 students enrolled at BYU is several times bigger than any of the other schools in the conference and its connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps easily fill another team’s arena.
“I think that locations are going to be a little bit shocked by coming into their arena and hearing BYU fans screaming,” said Dave Crittendon, a BYU fan from Davis County. “They could take offense to that. It’s a tremendous opportunity for our fans to support their team, but I think that’s going to create some rivalries and heighten the competition a little.”
Rather than taking offense, some fans from the other schools in the conference may see Cougar fans’ presence as more of a challenge to play harder and be louder than the opponent.
“I think it’s a better challenge for Saint Mary’s,” said Mel Steindl, a Saint Mary’s fan and father of Gael senior forward Clint Steindl. “Playing at BYU, in front of 22,000, is tough, but if we can get an upset, then they have to come play at a much smaller arena. We want it to be just as hard for them to play there.”
Whatever the outlook toward BYU may be, and the potential rivalries that could develop among other schools, the overall reception has been positive both from the fans at BYU and from other universities.
“BYU is certainly an international brand,” WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said. “There’s a great fan following. When you add a school like that to any conference, you’re going to get a great upkick in the level of exposure for the league, so I think it’s been really positive for us.”