Kicking off a New Era

Say hello to the future of BYU sports—football independence, a new conference, and more chances to cheer on the Cougars.


By Lena M. Harper and Lisa K. Nielson in the Summer 2011 Issue

Last September BYU announced that the 2010–11 academic year would be its last as a member of the Mountain West Conference. Bolstered by a new relationship with ESPN and the university’s own broadcasting capabilities, football would go independent and most of the other sports would find a home in the West Coast Conference (WCC). In the months since, BYU’s athletic department has been busy finding homes for the remaining teams, finalizing schedules, and fleshing out broadcasting plans. Here’s your guide to the new-look Cougars—their competition, media exposure, and prospects for 2011–12 and beyond.

New Territory for the Cougars

Of BYU’s 19 NCAA sports teams, 11 will join the WCC this fall. For a conference that hadn’t changed its composition of relatively small schools in some 30 years, adding BYU and its huge following was a monumental change. But WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich calls BYU a natural fit. “[The current WCC] schools are significantly smaller,” he acknowledges. “However, they are philosophically pretty similar.” He cites the private schools’ religious foundatio ns and their primary focus on undergraduate education, as well as having “student athletes that we can be proud of athletically and academically.”

And while BYU’s enrollment more than triples that of the next-largest WCC school, Zaninovich says BYU can expect tough matchups from the WCC competition, including regular top-25 contenders in women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and baseball.

Cougar Fans, Rejoice!

Thanks to conference changes and a new broadcasting building, BYU sports fans around the world have something more than winning games to celebrate. In partnership with ESPN, BYUtv has become the home of Cougar sports, giving fans more opportunities than ever before to cheer on their favorite teams in HD (depending on your provider).

Starting this fall, every home football and men’s basketball game will be broadcast live on either the ESPN family of channels or BYUtv. And BYUtv has secured same-day rebroadcast rights for any game first aired on an ESPN channel. “We have had a great relationship with BYU over the years,” said Dave Brown, then ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, at BYU’s press conference last September. “We are really anxious to rekindle that partnership and be able to come back to Provo.”

The expanded offerings extend well beyond football and men’s hoops. BYUtv will broadcast the home games of more than 120 other sporting events throughout the year. In addition, BYU’s seasonal sports show, True Blue, will become a year-round, weekly program and will be joined by additional sports programs.

BYU’s new coverage will include a bevy of online tools. Each game broadcast on BYUtv will also be streamed live in HD on byutv.org, and a new website called BYUtvsports.com will also host BYU relatedvideo. And viewing applications for tablet computers, smartphones, Roku, and other devices will be launched before football season.

“Our mission at BYU Broadcasting is to reveal the treasures of campus to audiences all over the world, athletics being one of those treasures,” says Derek A. Marquis (BA ’88), managing director of BYU Broadcasting. “BYU fans won’t be the only ones watching our broadcasts, and we hope to pick up other fans and introduce them to the many other great programs available on BYUtv.”

—Lena M. Harper (BA ’07)

Indie Band of Brothers

Football independence will bring some big changes: no more frigid trips to Laramie, Wyo., for one. There will also be expanded viewing options for fans and contests all over the map—as long as BYU can schedule them.

When BYU’s plans were announced in September, some doubted the Cougars could round up 12 opponents in one year without a conference providing eight teams to play. “It was difficult for 2011 to get a schedule together because we didn’t have much time,” says Coach Bronco Mendenhall. “But the season is looking good.” Athletic director Tom A. Holmoe (BS ’83) notes, “ESPN has a lot of great relationships with other schools across the country, so they’ve helped us as far as scheduling is concerned.” Now many teams are excited to play the independent Cougars, says Mendenhall, “not just a home and home [agreement], but on the biggest stages possible,” like October’s neutral-site game against TCU in Cowboys Stadium. “Our issue now is to be smart about how many of those [top teams] we play.”

And although there will be great variety in who BYU plays and where, “there are some programs like Notre Dame . . . that we’ll play on a pretty regular basis,” says athletics communications director C. Brett Pyne (BA ’92). “With them being independent as well, [there] could be some new rivalries.”

But what of old rivalries? BYU will continue to play Utah, though without a conference championship on the line and, at this point, much earlier in the season. Still, “I think it will always be a strong rivalry,” Pyne predicts. “It just remains to be seen how that rivalry will progress.”

Even without conference awards and achievements to pursue, Mendenhall says the Cougars’ chance to play well on the national stage “will revolutionize . . . this program and its capabilities.” While they have secured bowl affiliations with the Armed Forces, Poinsettia, and Fight Hunger Bowls for the next three years, the Cougars have their sights on loftier goals. Does BYU have a chance at playing in a BCS bowl? “I think so,” says Mendenhall. “And I’m anxious to. I hope that I can coach to that level.”

—Lisa K. Nielson (BA ’11)

Taking the Show on the Road

Weighing about 36 tons, BYU’s new control room on wheels was custom built to produce HD sporting events—though it will do just fine for a broadcast of a concert, conference, devotional, or event for the Church. The truck is 70 feet long (with the tractor) and expands to 15 feet wide, has 12 phone lines and 64 intercom channels, and regularly houses eight cameras and 5 miles of audio and video cables. It takes at least 30 people to run the truck for an event, half of whom are students, and the crew shows up anywhere from four hours to one day before an event to set up.

This state-of-the-art truck is one of the best in the country. “We can now do broadcasts that rival network-level broadcasts,” says Michael M. Hunter (BA ’97), production manager at BYU Broadcasting. “We certainly have the technical ability to do it, and we’re training our staff to perform at that kind of level.”

As an extension of the studios in the Broadcasting Building, the truck will allow BYUtv to broadcast more home games live and even multiple broadcasts at the same time. The truck will also travel to some away games and tournaments. Last season BYUtv used it to produce two men’s basketball games at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City; later, the truck traveled to Las Vegas to build relationships with the WCC by broadcasting eight of the conference’s tournament games on BYUtv.

The truck has become a sort of classroom on wheels. It was specially built for mentoring students, with enough space for at least two people to work on each specific task. “We work with our students and give them their first opportunity to do something that they’ll probably end up doing for their career, and we give them experience working with top-level equipment,” says Hunter. “They’re starting their career off in a really good way.”

—Lena M. Harper (BA ’07)

What About the Other Sports?

After announcing BYU’s plans to join the WCC, BYU began exploring options for track and field, swimming and diving, and softball—sports the WCC doesn’t sponsor.

For indoor track and field as well as swimming and diving, BYU looked to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). The longtime home for BYU men’s volleyball, the MPSF brings together teams from more than 30 institutions (including some MWC, PAC-12, WAC, and WCC schools) to compete in various Olympic sports. Perennial MWC favorites, BYU’s indoor track and field teams will face tougher competition in the likes of Arizona, Stanford, and UCLA. The MPSF’s swimming and diving program began just last year, and it features teams from various West Coast schools.

Women’s softball is joining the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), BYU’s old stomping grounds. But with various conference realignments, the WAC will have a different feel, featuring such institutions as Denver, Texas State–San Marcos, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Louisiana Tech, and San Jose State. Top conference contenders include Fresno State, Hawaii, and New Mexico State.

For the outdoor track and field season, BYU will join football and women’s gymnastics as an independent. The main difference for track and field is that, in place of a conference championship meet, the Cougars will compete in the Georgia Tech Invitational in preparation for regional and national meets. “This is a very exciting time for our program,” says women’s track head coach Patrick E. Shane (BS ’71). “This is definitely a positive move and one that has improved our chances for success at a national level.”

Here is a primer on the eight other WCC institutions and their athletic strengths.

1. Gonzaga University

Location: Spokane, Wash.

Enrollment: (7,837 total; 4,805 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit)

Academic specialties: Ranked programs in business, engineering, law, leadership, and nursing

Athletics: The Gonzaga Bulldogs (also called the “Zags”) are best known for basketball; their men’s team has been a March Madness staple for a decade. Beginning a new rivalry, Gonzaga lost to BYU in last year’s tournament, 67–89. The women’s team is equally formidable. In 2011 the lady Zags claimed their seventh consecutive WCC championship and reached the NCAA Elite Eight.

2. University of Portland

Location: Portland, Ore.

Enrollment: (3,810 total; 3,259 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Congregation of the Holy Cross)

Academic specialties: Arts and sciences, with strength in business, education, engineering, and nursing

Athletics: The University of Portland Pilots (named after Columbia River boat pilots) are famous for women’s soccer. Shooting their way to national championships in 2002 and 2005, the Pilots have consistently ranked in the nation’s top 10. BYU will also face tough competition from the Pilot’s men’s cross country team, which has won the WCC Championship every year since 1979 with 11 NCAA appearances.

3. University of San Francisco

Location: San Francisco

Enrollment: (8,772 total; 5,248 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit)

Academic specialties: Pacific Rim studies, law, education, business, nursing, and environmental management

Athletics: A major contender in men’s basketball from the 1940s to the 1970s, the San Francisco Dons (or nobles) have more recently fielded strong teams in women’s cross country, baseball, and men’s golf, which won the 2011 conference tournament and played in the NCAA West Regional.

4. Saint Mary’s College of California

Location: Moraga, Calif.

Enrollment: (3,917 total; 2,621 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (De La Salle Christian Brothers)

Academic specialties: Liberal arts, business, nursing, and education

Athletics: In recent years, the men’s basketball team from Saint Mary’s has given the Zags more and more trouble. A National Invitation Tournament team in 2011, the Gaels return a young, talented squad for the upcoming season. The Gaels have also had recent success in women’s volleyball. What’s a gael, anyway? The tall, knight-like mascot represents an ancient inhabitant of Ireland or Scotland.

5. Santa Clara University

Location: Santa Clara, Calif.

Enrollment: (8,831 total; 5,107 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit)

Academic specialties: Business, engineering, and law

Athletics: For the Santa Clara Broncos, the name of the game is soccer. Their women’s team took the NCAA championship title in 2001 and has consistently ranked in the top 20. Santa Clara also has a strong men’s basketball program, which produced NBA great Steve Nash in the early 1990s.

6. Brigham Young University

Location: Provo

Enrollment: (32,955 total; 29,857 undergraduate)

Affiliation: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Academic specialties: Broad undergraduate focus; ranked programs in business and law

7. Loyola Marymount University

Location: Los Angeles

Enrollment: (9,070 total; 5,797 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit and Marymount)

Academic specialties: Liberal arts, with strong programs in business administration; film and television; science and engineering; and communications and arts

Athletics: In 1990, after the death of basketball star Hank Gathers during the WCC Tournament, the Loyola Lions rallied for a memorable run to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. That year’s team holds the record for highest scoring average, 122.4 points per game. More recently, the Lions have featured impressive runners, including last year’s women’s cross country champ, All-American Tara Erdmann (right).

8. Pepperdine University

Location: Malibu, Calif. (main campus)

Enrollment: (Approximately 8,000 total; 3,000 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Churches of Christ

Academic specialties: Liberal arts, with graduate programs in law, business and management, education and psychology, and public policy

Athletics: The Pepperdine Waves are best known for their perennial top-10 men’s volleyball team, which plays with BYU in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Pepperdine is the only non-BCS school to win NCAA championships in five different sports. The school is strong in baseball, men’s and women’s golf, and women’s volleyball.

9. University of San Diego

Location: San Diego

Enrollment: (8,201 total; 5,388 undergraduate)

Affiliation: Roman Catholic

Academic specialties: Engineering, nursing, and law

Athletics: For the University of San Diego Toreros (or bullfighters), the strongest sport is women’s volleyball, which made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and finished in the top 25. The Toreros also play great women’s soccer and baseball.

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