Cougars, cameras and conversations: The oral history of BYU Sports Nation

Cougars, cameras and conversations: The oral history of BYU Sports Nation

This article is part of a series of oral histories by the Universe Sports team.

On April 23, 2021, BYU Sports Nation celebrated its 2,000th episode. To recognize this feat and understand how the show got here, The Universe went back to the summer of 2013, talking with those involved with the inception of the now-iconic daily sports talk show in order to produce an oral history of its beginnings.

This, is BYU Sports Nation…

BYUtv put together a highlight video of “Sports Nation’s” best moments through 2,000 episodes.

Starting with an idea

Jarom Jordan (Co-host of BYU Sports Nation): I think it was like 2012 and the original idea came from Sirius XM saying, “Hey, we want you guys to do a daily show. We think that a sports daily show would be good.”

Mikel Minor (BYUtv Senior Coordinating Producer and Creator of BYU Sports Nation): I had recently come from ESPN back to BYUtv and I think I was there for about a year. Sirius XM liked the programming on BYU Radio, but they wanted it to be a little bit more eclectic and they specifically wanted to have more sports content on it. So the director of BYU Broadcasting at the time, Derek Marquis, came to me and said, “Can we develop sports-related programming for radio?” And my immediate reaction was, “Yeah, let’s do something similar to what I’d seen at ESPN with ‘Mike and Mike in the Morning’. I’d like to launch it on radio, but have your understanding from the get-go that it would eventually migrate to a simulcast on TV and radio like ‘Mike and Mike.'”

Duff Tittle (BYU Athletic Communications Senior Manager): It might have been over lunch, and Mikel approached me and said, “I’ve got this idea I’ve been kicking around, I want to get your take on it.” I remember thinking, “That’s a cool idea,” and then going and watching the “Mike and Mike” show to kind of get a better feel for how the video part of it would work, because I listened to the radio show quite a bit. I remember we had lots of dialogue about how athletics could support the interview process that would need to take place and how that might work, and that evolved over time through our discussions. We were talking about how it would work on both sides.

Minor: (Marquis) told us to put together a pilot, so that he could take it to the administration at BYU and just show proof of concept. So that’s what we did. We put together an idea to do this in collaboration with radio, but even radio said, “Well, you know, we don’t really understand how to put something like this together. We’ll give you the facilities, but you’ll need to put together the staff and the hosts and the concept.”

Minor: President Worthen at the time was vice-president and oversaw BYU Broadcasting. So he was the one that eventually greenlit the idea. I remember we played it for him and he loved it from the get-go. His only warning was, “This might upset the applecart a little bit with the athletic department.” That was astute, but it was also intentional for us to push that envelope a little bit. You know, we wanted access. So he astutely said, “This is going to ruffle some feathers in the athletic department.” And he was correct, it did, but our thought process at the time was once they get used to it, once the parents get used to it, they’ll assimilate to it. They did. And they eventually embraced it.

Tittle: That was my biggest concern, just the volume that it would have to take from our staff to be able to make sure that we had interviews literally every day. So I actually remember going back to our staff and having a conversation where we just said, “Hey, this has been brought forward. What do you think?”

Minor: There was some concern within the administration and BYU Broadcasting of, “Is this sustainable as a daily show? We’re concentrating on one university and one university’s athletic program. Is it sustainable all year long? What are we going to do in the dog days of the summer?” Well, lo and behold, it wasn’t an issue because you’ve got the benchmark things that are happening in recruiting and drafting. And the Olympic sports, those are going on all year. So the Olympic sports bought into BYU Sports Nation from the get-go, all these sports that had been in the shadows of the revenue sports for so long.

Tittle: I know from a standpoint of our Olympic sports, we were very excited about it, because the way that was positioned was, this would not just be a football and basketball thing. This would be an all BYU athletic sports thing. And we would try to recognize student-athletes who had done great things.

Minor: One of the things that I talked to Duff about was the realization that this provided such great exposure to the program. No other university in the country has a network that has access to a global audience. And then secondly, no one else is doing a daily one-hour show on their athletic department, that reaches a global audience.

Tittle: About that time, it was becoming more and more important for us to train our athletes to have an understanding of what the media was trying to do in the interview. One of the greatest things about that show is the student-athletes can be themselves because there’s somewhat of a safe haven there.

Minor: So Duff, being not only a great friend to me, but a really smart guy, recognized the value of this from the beginning and then helped us to make inroads with a pretty private athletic department at the time.

Tittle: In the early stages, we were looking at our staff going, “How are we going to do this? How could we make sure that we can get student athletes up there, and they’re going to show up on time?” We started looking at all the NCAA rules to learn that you had to avoid someone that could not appear on the show while they were supposed to be in class. So little things like that. We were early on defining, “Okay, what could this look like?”

Minor: In addition to (“Mike and Mike”), I’d seen another show at ESPN called “Sports Nation” that was very pop culture-centric. And I felt like that was really the future of shoulder programming: personality-driven shows. Especially daily shows, because you had to keep them fresh.

Show creator Mikel Minor based “BYU Sports Nation” on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”

Assembling the team

Minor: We basically put out an open call for radio producers, with the job description that they’d have to eventually migrate to television. We got it down to a short list. I think there were like four or five people that HR sent to us and Ben Bagley was part of that mix. And I don’t think Ben was still working in radio at the time.

Ben Bagley (Producer of BYU Sports Nation): The show didn’t have a name or anything. They were just talking about it. So we chatted and kind of brainstormed. And then a couple months later we started and I met with them a little more often. Then Mikel and I started putting thoughts down and stuff like that. I was never hired at this point.

Minor: The first thing that fell into place was trying to come up with the (on-air) talent.

Jordan: The conversation initially was Dave McCann, Blaine Fowler and Steve Cleveland doing something. Steve Cleveland goes on his mission and that kind of just dies down. They didn’t have a name, but I remember being in meetings where we’re looking at graphics and I’m thinking like, “Oh, that’s going to be cool for whoever does it.”

Minor: We had a couple of people in mind that are fairly well known in the BYU community. But the more we started to drill down on that and look at them, those two people specifically, we realized that their contractual obligations at that time were too problematic. So then I started looking around at who we had on staff, and Spencer automatically came to mind: great personality, super approachable. So he naturally became the lead host in my mind.

Spencer Linton (Host of BYU Sports Nation): This is probably June of 2013 when it first got brought up to me. I got a phone call. I was working as a sportscaster in Palm Springs, California. I was in the process of pursuing a job at BYUtv, thanks to a connection with Jarom Jordan. I did Media Day for BYU Football in 2013 and did three or four different shows on TV and flew back to California to finish up my contract in Palm Springs. I got a phone call from Mikel Minor, and he said, “Hey, how do you feel about doing a radio show?” And I was like, “Good. Yeah, you bet. I’ve technically never done a daily radio show. But I mean, I do a daily sportscast and I’m comfortable doing just about anything as well. Yeah, let’s explore it.”

Minor: Then it became, “Who’s going to be his counterpoint?” And as you’ve probably already heard, the answer was right under my nose.

Jordan: In 2011 I was hired as a full-time studio sports producer. I’m doing “True Blue” once a week. I’m doing “Countdown to Kickoff” in the fall. So I’m a producer who does men’s volleyball play-by-play in the winter. So I’m not really (on-air) talent.

Linton: They struggled for the better part of a couple of months to find a co-host for me and I wasn’t even the initial number one choice to be the main, primary host. I think he wanted to find somebody that either played professional sports or at least a college sport that BYU fans would know, that was kind of a high-profile guy. I was not a high-level BYU athlete. I mean, obviously I have a heavy sports background and played a ton. In fact, I was going to play junior college basketball before I made the decision to even go to BYU.

Minor: We really had to have strong personalities associated with the show, that could really play off each other, have an antagonist and a protagonist. It would balance each other out.

Jordan: Spencer and I go back. We were in class (in BYU’s journalism program) together. We actually did a high school sports show together called “Sports Valley” on iProvo. We called games and did a show. It was awesome. It was super fun.

Jarom Jordan and Spencer Linton produced a high school sports show called “Sports Valley” before “BYU Sports Nation.”

Jordan: We get Spencer in and then it becomes, “Alright, so who’s the other host?” They go down the line. Nope. Nope. It comes to the fourth or fifth. And in the hallways, Mikel said he would hear us talk and he thought, “Wait, they have great chemistry.” Because we’ve been friends for a long time. I always got along with him. So Mikel sees our interactions and he thinks, “I can put that on there. We can make that work.”

Linton: We’re a couple of weeks out from supposedly trying to launch the show and I still don’t have a co-host. Mikel, one day in the office in August of 2013 hears me going back and forth to Jarom about some debate within BYU sports. And I’m like, you know, questioning Jarom, like, “Why? Why would you go that way? Why do you think that player is the best on this list?” So he’s just listening to us interact in his office down the hall, without us knowing. We’re in our area, and we’re talking back and forth. And then he just had a light bulb moment.

Jordan: At first I was like, “You don’t want a former athlete?” That had sort of been the model: the layman who didn’t play in college or professionally with the dude that did. But it was like, “No, we’re going to play off the chemistry that you two have to talk about sports.” So I was like, “I’m in.”

Minor: The only real obstacle that I remember facing was the impression that they were too young, which, which I thought was funny because they’re the same age as a lot of the anchors that I worked with at ESPN at that time, in their late twenties and early thirties. The hesitation was, “They seem like students, and it looks like you’re doing a student program.” I would always push back and say, “Don’t look at them, listen to them. They don’t act like students. They don’t conduct themselves like students, they don’t carry themselves like students. They have a much more seasoned delivery.”

Tittle: I was always way impressed with Jarom. His understanding of the history of BYU Athletics is at an extremely high level, especially for somebody his age, to understand way back, back in the day. I was always blown away by that really. I didn’t know Spencer at all, really, until he arrived, but I knew that because of Jarom’s background and just his knowledge of sports, particularly us athletically, that it was a perfect fit really.

Linton: We’re just by nature very different people in how we view BYU sports. Jarom kind of takes a rap sometimes for being the realist. And I’m the “blue goggle guy”, optimist, positive spin guy. And that dynamic works, right? The realist and the optimist together, by nature, will present debate and back and forth and good rapport. Mikel says, “I caught lightning in a bottle when I saw Jarom and Spencer interacting.” He presented the idea and we were off and running.

Minor: I just watched their interaction around the shop and it just became clear to me that these were the guys. Once I locked that in, it just seemed like the natural answer. Then it was, “We’ve got to get a producer for this.”

Jordan: He tells me on a Thursday and then I want to say a week and a half later we do the show because I remember Spencer and I getting in a room and being like, “We don’t even have a producer yet, but let’s talk about what we want this to be. What is this? What do we do? What are the segments like? What’s the vibe? What’s the end goal?” Then we eventually meet Ben on a Friday. And then we do the show Monday. It was so late. We were pretty unprepared initially, but it turned out great.

Bagley: (Mikel) called me the Friday before the first show and said, “Hey, can you come down today? We just got the green light to hire you. Come down today to fill out your paperwork so you’re good to work on Monday because that’s Labor Day and the show starts before HR starts.” So I came down to Provo from Salt Lake on Friday, went to campus HR, filled out all the stuff and dropped by the broadcast building and let them know that we’re good to go. And then I came down Monday for the first day at work for a show. In fact, the craziest part of the story is that Monday morning, that Labor Day morning, I think was the very first time that Spencer, Jarom and myself were in the same room. And it was the morning of the show.

Minor: From the get-go, (Ben) just seemed like the natural choice. I watched somebody, quite frankly, that would have not only the acumen with radio and the aptitude for television but the personality that could be part of what I envisioned, which was the fourth wall: somebody that could interact with the guys from the control room. His admitted reservation from the beginning was, “I don’t know anything about television and that’s going to be a huge learning curve for me.” But I assured him that we teach them the ropes along the way, and we started out with the six-month incubation period just on radio.

Linton: We had like a week, maybe a weekend to kind of finalize things, throw together a harsh plan, and launch in September 2013. Of course, after BYU loses to Virginia. We’re launching the show on a holiday, on Labor Day, after BYU football had a terrible game. And it worked out. We had good guests: Tom Holmoe, Robert Anae, Jamaal Williams, they were our first three guests on the first show. We kind of just did it. We began by beginning.

“BYU Sports Nation” debuted on the radio on September 2, 2013.

Early days on the radio

Linton: The understanding was we were going to go radio only at first like a beta test, see if we get good ratings, and see how the fans respond to it. And then if it’s good enough, then he’s going to put into play a format where we’re on TV as well as radio at the same time and have a true national simulcast on Sirius XM and BYUtv nationwide.

Jordan: So initially it was like, “What time do we meet? How many hours before do we do this? What are the segments? What’s the beginning?” Initially, we would alternate what day Spencer would host, and then we decided he’s the host and I’m the co-host. Later it was like, “Let’s have a hashtag #BYUSN. How many guests do we have? What are the names of the segments?” Radio only was really fun.

Bagley: There were growing pains, but the nice thing about it is both of them were ready to learn. Both of them embraced it. I’ve gone back a couple of times to listen to the first couple of shows and I just laugh at it. And frankly, it’s not just the way I grew as a producer but they did as well. They were ready to learn. They were ready to blossom into talent. They listened and then they went out and did it, and it was amazing to watch them do that.

Linton: There’s something different about doing live radio. It was a challenge for sure. I don’t recall being very nervous that much in my professional career, but I was a little bit nervous about the first show because you just haven’t done it. I’m not really sure how I’m going to interact with Jarom on air and all these things and how guests are going to respond. In our first two shows, I was a little bit nervous for the very first time in a long time. I think I had to adjust to being okay with a few seconds of silence. When you have an hour-long radio show, you don’t have to talk for every second of the hour, you can listen to a guest finish their thought, hang on a second, and then respond. 

Jordan: During that time in the show, we would have this little basketball hoop and we’d just shoot around on it and dunk on it. We just dorked around. Neither of us had any radio experience. We had never done anything radio. 

Bagley: My job was, “Let’s train these guys up in how to be sports talk radio hosts. Let’s put out an entertaining product.” The nice thing about BYU is the fan base was hungry for content. That’s what I love about BYU fans, they can never get enough of BYU Cougar “fill in the blank.” Football? Yes. Basketball? Yes. Soccer? Absolutely. Feed us, give us more. So we had a built-in audience, which made us lucky. It was our job to make that audience like us. That was my goal coming in was okay, “Let’s put together a program. Let’s build these two hosts as something for BYU Sports Nation, Cougar Nation to embrace and enjoy on a daily basis.”

Linton: You gotta learn how to engage your audience, and then you bring in social media. We opted not to take phone calls, and I think that’s one of the greatest decisions we ever made. Initially, it was Twitter. If you want to respond to our question of the day, to what we’re talking about or this debate, use the hashtag #BYUSN and we’re going to filter all that out on social media. And then we pulled in Instagram and Facebook as well. And that’s what became our phone call scenario, just having people engaged with their social media while they listened.

Jordan: It was exciting to realize, “Okay, we can be an everyday staple for Cougar fans.” And initially, we were like, “No one knows who we are. They don’t know this exists.” It probably took two or three years before people knew about the show and that it’s every day. And social media certainly helped with that. If we had come out without social media in the ’80s and ’90s or whatever, it’s different.

A behind the scenes video shows “BYU Sports Nation’s” early days on the radio.

Bagley: We’re in a post-show meeting, one of those early meetings, and I said, “Guys, we can’t take ourselves so seriously. Let’s make this more entertaining and let’s go out there a little bit, put yourself out there, argue something that you might not necessarily believe, just because it’s going to be fun and entertaining and thought-provoking as well.” That’s the key. You want your audience to be entertained. And someone in the room said, “If I wanted to get into acting, I would have gotten into theater.”

Jordan: I’m the weirdo who wants to challenge the status quo or whatever. It’s been fun to sort of evolve that way as a show. I’m not challenging what’s going on per sé. I just like to ask questions to incite a pursuit of the answer. I don’t want to just look at one side. I want to ask healthy questions. The religion here was founded on the basis of a healthy question, and I think that’s important.

Minor: Another design component for the show from the very beginning was I wanted it to be a show that was largely run by students. It was kind of a conundrum that we had at the time: how do we take the student component that we have at BYU Broadcasting, and raise the bar with that? So that’s how we developed the student development program, which allowed them to matriculate according to their skills. And that was initially specifically for “BYU Sports Nation”.

Jordan: It was those early days we look back on fondly. There were just a couple of us, like two students, and now we have, you know, 10 to 15 that work on the show every day, from running the cameras to editing the video and making the graphics and whatever. So it’s certainly grown quite a bit.

Minor: We wanted the voice of the show to cater to the younger demographic. And so with that in mind, it absolutely made sense for us to have the students very much involved in the voice of the show.

Minor: I think the thing I’m most fond of is just kind of the pirate, outlaw mindset we kind of had. Because again, in the beginning, it was just kind of, “Are you sure you can do this? Are you sure this is something? We give it maybe six months, but we don’t know if it’s going to really work.” I give credit to this band of outlaws, and initially probably misfits, who proved, not only can we do this, but we’re going to make it something that people will gravitate to and really enjoy.

Linton: Jarom said a few months in, “It would be awesome if this thing could go for at least a few years. How long do you think this will go? Maybe it’ll go like five years. That’d be awesome.”

Moving to TV…and beyond

Minor: We launched it at the WCC Tournament on television (in March 2014) and never looked back.

Bagley: The way that we launched the show on TV had no business succeeding. Putting a radio guy, who’s never produced a show in the chair on remote at a live event, in a TV truck, not in a controlled environment, and saying, “Go.” Think of all the different ways that that could go wrong. And it didn’t, it went right.

Jordan: Our joke, in the beginning, was that it’s a simple radio show. It wasn’t, we had complex graphics, motion graphics, and so on. But it was fun to be like, “Alright, we’re on BYUtv now. Radio was sweet, but we’re taking it up a notch by being seen.” And as advancements in phones became better, we realized, “Oh, we’re going to be seen a lot more on social media. So we’ve got to bring it.” For a while, I refused to wear makeup. I was like, “I don’t need that.” Then later I was like, “No, I need to actually do it.”

Bagley: The set originally was the old “True Blue” set. We got a new desk in there and there was very little on there and we just slowly started putting little trinkets on there. We’d have athletes come in and bring something to represent their sport. We had Olympians bring in little trinkets from the Olympics and stuff like that. Kate Hansen comes back with a “babushka” doll from Russia and leaves it out. It just kind of grew and got its own personality. But stay tuned, new and exciting things about the set coming soon.

“BYU Sports Nation” moved to a TV and radio simulcast in the spring of 2014.

Jordan: (TV) certainly made it a little more complex, but it made it better. But the purity of the show has always been just Spencer and I sharing an opinion on something or interviewing someone. As much as I love being a producer, what I really love is being on camera, talking about sports.

Linton: We are dialed in, we are plugged into BYU Athletics in a way that nobody else is, because we are doing an hour-long, daily show. Who else is doing that in a visual format? We have access we enjoy because we are directly affiliated with the university and directly associated with BYU Athletics. We can grant you greater access to those players and those coaches.

Minor: The show will continue to march on. It hasn’t changed. Those guys are there. They’ve continued to be there. And I see a bright future for the show because of that, because you have a rock-solid foundation that can be supported by a rotating cast of producing personnel, not the least of which are the students. I had a lot of peers and colleagues that saw this show at ESPN and said, “Not only did you create something that’s on the same level as ‘Mike and Mike’, but it’s as good in a lot of ways.” To just start with “the little show that could” back in the day and then have that type of validation is really cool. So I see nothing but a bright future for the show. I hope it continues to stay similar to what it is.

Bagley: We’ve been able to put any differences that come up aside and succeed, and that’s what’s been fun. You’ve got a guy who grew up a Utah State Aggie and graduated from the (University of Utah). He was coming down to BYU and learning to love the culture, learning to love the people and becoming a fan of what BYU is and stands for.

Jordan: There have been times on the show where I’ve cried, where I’m angry, where I’m super happy. It’s fun to be able to sort of cathartically be Cougar Nation. The name of the show sort of is to tell you, “Yes, we are with you as ‘BYU Sports Nation.’”

Linton: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had tell me over the years, and we’re talking hundreds of people, maybe more, say, “I love hearing from the Olympic sports athletes. The athletes that are left unknown, that are not football or basketball. They have incredible stories. They’re incredible athletes, they win national championships, and I never would have ever paid attention to them at all, if it weren’t for ‘BYU Sports Nation.’”

Jordan: The easy thing is that BYU sports are really good. The Cougars are awesome. The Cougars are really good at winning and competing and have great stories. So it’s easy for us to ride that wave. As long as people let us tell a story, we’ll be here to tell it, and we don’t take that lightly. We appreciate that responsibility to be keepers of the stories.

Bagley: Our job is to tell the story of BYU through the stories of their athletes. You’re not going to get that anywhere else. Every other show like this in the nation is trying to serve many, many masters. We’re serving BYU fans, what they want to hear, which is beautiful stories about BYU. That makes us unique.

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