BYU football prepares for ‘final tour’ of independence at annual media day
The winds of change are blustering in Provo.
BYU football held its final media day as an independent program Wednesday, 12 years after taking a leap of faith to leave the Mountain West and wander unfamiliar, conference-less territory.
The independence era at BYU saw a number of highs — including a 91-51 record since 2011 and lucrative television exposure— along with plenty of lows, such as recruiting limitations, anticlimactic November matchups and ho-hum bowl destinations, i.e. Boise, Idaho and Shreveport, Louisiana.
“Looking back (at independence), my favorite moments now are the struggles,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said. “We had a lot of ups and downs. I think that if we didn’t have those struggles, we wouldn’t be here where we are today.. it’s a gospel principle, and we lived it.”
The payoff may have taken longer than Holmoe and company had hoped, but Big 12 membership in 2023 is an end that far outweighs the lengthy means.
“It’s something that we worked for for a long time,” Holmoe said of BYU’s Big 12 invitation. “Those dreams and those goals way back then are now just a few months away.”
Unlike years past, Wednesday’s media day festivities didn’t have too many pressing questions to answer. The Cougars are set at quarterback. BYU’s two deep on the depth chart is almost entirely solidified. There were no major, program-altering announcements to share. Even the team’s three marquee transfer portal additions — running back Chris Brooks, fullback Houston Heimuli and cornerback Gabe Jeudy — were absent from the interview breakout sessions.
Frankly, the expectations for this team are as clear as they could possibly be at this point in the offseason. The Cougars have a high ceiling and a demanding schedule that will test their depth and development while allowing Kalani Sitake’s squad to build a resume worthy of a New Years Six nod. When you return 88% of your production and have a 21-4 record over the past two years, preseason hype is a near certainty.
Less certain, however, are some of the factors surrounding the program outside of tackles and touchdowns: What life as a Power 5 program will entail, how BYU can thrive amid the shifting college football landscape of NIL and transfer portal entropy, and, most frustratingly for some fans, how many tickets BYU will be allotted for its Las Vegas showdown with Notre Dame on Oct. 8.
“Everybody’s asking me and I have no answers,” Holmoe said of the ticket situation.
Sitake ensured that the mission and focus of the program would remain the same no matter the surrounding noise, saying there would be “no foul red lines” off the field.
“The key for us is to make sure that our young men understand what they represent and who they represent,” Sitake said. “In everything that we deal with, whether it’s NCAA regulations or anything that happens, we’re going to have this mindset that we’re committed to adapting.. everything that we do, whether it’s NIL, the transfer portal or whatever it is that comes up, we want to make sure that it’s aligned with the mission of our Church and the mission of our school.”
Conversely, Holmoe expressed a bit more skepticism toward the recent trends in athlete privileges, stating he believed NIL is “getting out of hand” and possibly needs some sort of government interference, and that while the transfer portal is a positive concept in theory, foul play and bribes were causing too much trouble for everyone. “There are rules that have to be put in place because there are too many rules being broken right now.”
Sitake commented on the warm welcome his program has received from its future conference mates in the Big 12, saying BYU received a “fantastic” reception at the Big 12 spring meetings earlier this month.
“I thought it was all class in the way that the Big 12 officials presented themselves,” Sitake said. “We learned a lot about how things work in the conference and got to talk to a lot of the other coaches too. It’s just really an honor to be part of that whole process, it’s exciting.”
While life in the Big 12 will take the Cougars all across middle America, Holmoe says he will miss the spontaneity of independence scheduling that allowed coaches, athletes and officials to interact with fans in new places in their travels.
“One of my favorite things about independence was going to places that we hadn’t been before and being able to see tailgate parties, special events and to see our fans be able to just rub shoulders with the team,” Holmoe said. “I loved seeing players going up into the stands after the game and talking with Cougar nation around the country. That was super special.”
BYU’s 2022 schedule is no slouch — its road matchups with USF, Oregon, Notre Dame, Liberty, Boise State and Stanford will be especially grueling — but Sitake says the continued fan support across the country helps to justify the program’s Power 5 promotion and “gives a lot of comfort.. going into hostile environments.”
“There’s one thing that no one questions about being big time, and that’s our fan base,” Sitake said. “We know that it doesn’t matter the sport or the activity, if BYU is involved anywhere in the world Cougar nation is going to show up. It’s always fun to perform in front of them, but more important is after the game to be able to embrace them and let them know that we appreciate them.”