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One Year Later: BYU’s Big 12 Invitation Represents Endless Potential

Sep 8, 2022, 4:08 PM | Updated: 4:22 pm
BYU, Big 12 Conference, Kevin Worthen, Tom Holmoe...
BYU president Kevin Worthen and athletic director Tom Holmoe on September 10, 2021, the day BYU was invited to the Big 12 Conference. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – On September 10, 2021, at 7 a.m., in room C301 at the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building (more commonly referred to as the ‘X-shaped’ building) on campus, BYU officials gathered for a historic meeting.

The reason? BYU was waiting on official word from Big 12 Presidents that their application for membership into the Big 12 Conference would be accepted.

“It was actually a kind of surreal moment,” said BYU Advancement VP Keith Vorkink to KSL Sports, who was in C301 that morning on September 10. “…We were sort of quiet and knew what was at stake. It wasn’t like there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. We anticipated it would go our way, but the call came from (former) Commissioner Bowlsby to President (Worthen) around 7:20 in the morning.”

Just like that, BYU had achieved a goal they had pursued for decades. A seat at the table with one of the top college conferences in the nation as a full member of the Big 12.

Along with BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston, also had their applications rubber-stamped by Big 12 Presidents.

“Good morning. On behalf of my colleagues and the Board of Directors of the Big 12 Conference, I’m delighted to welcome Brigham Young University into the Big 12,” said Big 12 Board of Directors chairman and Texas Tech University President Lawrence Schovanec.

It’s been a year now since that late summer morning. But even a year later, the achievement remains historic for BYU.

When LaVell Edwards was hired as BYU’s head football coach, the idea of BYU being in a league with schools like Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech was a pipedream. Now it’s a reality. That reality also includes Texas and Oklahoma as league mates for two years. Or at least until some buyout is negotiated.

“I like to say that we would not be in the Big 12 right now if it wasn’t for Coach Edwards,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said to KSL Sports. “LaVell and his wife Patti, the spirit of love and compassion and competitiveness of collaboration, camaraderie, and respect of all those factors brought to BYU athletics. It started with football and expanded out. Everybody there understands that. A lot of our coaches and student-athletes in their sports caught fire. So for the last 40 years, we’ve been building up to this point. And now we’re here. So I think everybody’s excited for it.”

Big 12 preview at LES

BYU is getting a sneak peek at what the future holds in their new conference home this weekend. A top 25 football matchup against No. 9 Baylor. The highest ranked opponent to roll into Provo since Wisconsin in 2017.

It highlights the potential of the new Big 12. A league that will cover every television window a typical Saturday in college football has to offer. The Big 12 has hungry fan bases and markets prioritizing college athletics above professional leagues. While also boasting athletic departments looking to prove they have more than to offer than what they’ve shown while Texas and Oklahoma were the bell cows over the league.

Honestly, it fits the BYU DNA quite well. Still fighting for respect, but now BYU will do it with more resources than ever before.

“On the day of the announcement of our joining the Big 12. I got a text from someone I’ve come to know while in this position. It’s Steve Young,” Vorkink said. “In that text, he said, ‘This is the most important day in the history of BYU sports.’ And he was responsible for a number of really important days.”

While September 10, 2021, goes down as the most important day in BYU sports history. The days leading up to that moment weren’t always easy.

The road to Big 12 membership wasn’t easy

BYU AD Tom Holmoe has a motto, “Hard is good.”

Based on that motto, there were a lot of good times for Holmoe during BYU’s run with football Independence.

Independence was never the end game for BYU. It was always viewed as a path to potentially springboarding BYU into a bigger league, like the Big 12 Conference.

But navigating the challenging waters of major college football was hard.

There was probably no time that was harder than in 2016. The Big 12 Conference was exploring expansion. It appeared BYU’s time had finally arrived.

BYU made a strong presentation at the Four Seasons in suburban Dallas to the Big 12’s Board of Directors and Bob Bowlsby.

The interview, which was one of a dozen universities making their pitches to the Big 12, didn’t ultimately materialize into membership.

It was a hard time for BYU. As they returned to the drawing board to do everything they could to be in a better position, the next realignment wave struck.

But that interview left an impression on Bowlsby. And when Texas and Oklahoma applied for membership to the SEC, BYU was the first school on Bowlsby’s mind.

“I would say that the 2016 process really helped us as we went into what was a shorter timeframe and didn’t permit quite as long and deliberative of a process as we went through the last time around,” said Bowlsby to KSL Sports. “And in the end, we didn’t have anybody that had enough votes to join the league. But this time around was a targeted approach. BYU was the first call I made.”

How did that first call sound?

“Well, we did a little research beforehand and we had some consultants involved that made some contact. But in the end, it was a phone call,” Bowlsby said. “And I heard what I wanted to hear and they heard what they wanted to hear. So we went forward to begin to make the arrangements.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Bowlsby’s first call was to BYU. The longtime college administrator, who is now enjoying retirement after decades in the business, said during his final Big 12 spring meetings, “I think BYU is a –perhaps with the exception of Notre Dame– they have the biggest worldwide reach of any university in the country. And have been a traditional power, played perennially in the Top 25 in football.”

Changes since BYU received an invite to the Big 12 Conference

Since BYU was invited into the Big 12 Conference last year, a lot has changed in the Big 12 and college athletics nationally.

USC and UCLA are headed to the Big Ten Conference. Bowlsby is now retired. Replacing him is former ROC Nation COO Brett Yormark. Yormark has been tasked with landing a media rights package that continues to allow the Big 12 to operate at a high level, so everyone in the league can keep paying the bills.

Yormark is bringing an aggressive mindset to the Big 12, potentially targeting more expansion in the future out west.

Oh, there’s also a 12-team College Football Playoff on the horizon as well.

While the national landscape changes, BYU continues celebrating the Big 12 Conference move. It’s far and away the best league BYU has ever been affiliated with.

Leveling Up

But BYU doesn’t appear to be sitting on their hands feeling they’ve made it. There’s a lot more work to be done between now and July 1, 2023, when BYU is in the league battles on a nightly basis in the Big 12. A theme of “leveling up” has been something Holmoe wants to see out of his athletic department.

“It’s going to take a ton of energy,” Holmoe said. “As I talk to fans, boosters, sponsors, athletes, students, alums, and Cougar Nation as a whole, the key thing is energy. Everybody has to bring it. And I’ve talked about everyone leveling up; me, our managers, our faculty, alums from the past, new students coming in as freshmen, everybody’s got to bring the energy because this level of play will be way more intense. It’ll be way more passionate — not to take away from what we’ve done in the past — but it will be a week in and week out at a standard that will be different than most people in Provo are used to.”

The leveling up has been a significant focus in Kalani Sitake’s football program since the Big 12 invite came calling last September.

“I think when we got the invite, looking at the teams in the conference, what can we do with our resources and make sure that we can match up? That’s probably the place I would go to first,” said Sitake.

Throughout the offseason, leading up to the 2022 football season, BYU announced hires to the football support staff that included nutritionists, sports performance specialists, recruiting, and in other areas.

“We had a bunch of guys on the support staff that were kind of spread thin, and we’re doing a lot of different things,” Sitake said. “Now guys are just mastering their craft. And whether it’s recruiting or player personnel, whatever it is, you’re seeing it work a lot cohesively.”

BYU now hopes the cohesion will lead to success on all the playing fields in the Big 12. It’s going to be challenging. The challenges have already been evident with a 10-win BYU football team suffering a two-touchdown loss to Baylor last year in Waco. They’ll try to get revenge on Saturday night in front of a near-sellout crowd with Commissioner Yormark and his Big 12 staff on hand to witness it at all in person.

But the most challenging piece to all of this might have been earning a seat at the Big 12 table. They’ve got it now, and in BYU’s future, it appears to only be up from here.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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