BYU still pushing for football independence
Sports • Money is the driving force behind proposed football deal.
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With a Wednesday deadline looming, indications abound that Brigham Young University is still doggedly pursuing a plan to go independent in football and has been in simultaneous membership negotiations with both the Western Athletic Conference and the West Coast Conference for the rest of its nonfootball sports teams.

What is at stake as the two conferences wrangle for the Cougars became clearer Sunday. More e-mails and internal documents surfaced showing WAC Commissioner Karl Benson had preliminary discussions with ESPN in June in which the television sports giant indicated a WAC-BYU agreement might result in a 300 percent increase in television revenue over the roughly $500,000 per school currently being received by WAC institutions such as Utah State.

The Star-Advertiser newspaper of Honolulu, which obtained similar correspondence as The Salt Lake Tribune obtained from USU last week via an open records request, reported the financial details of a would-be deal that had BYU going independent in football and putting its 18 other sports teams in the WAC.

Owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU must inform the MWC by Wednesday that it is leaving if it wants to play elsewhere in the 2011-12 school year and beyond.

Some kind of resolution as the saga moves into its third week — an announcement from BYU if it is leaving; an announcement from the MWC if BYU is staying — is expected as soon as today.

BYU President Cecil Samuelson presented several scenarios to the school's board of trustees, comprised of the LDS Church's First Presidency, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and other high-ranking church officials, Thursday and received approval to proceed with whichever route he sees as "most beneficial" to the mission of the church and the school, a source told The Tribune.

The WAC's Benson confirmed Friday evening that one of those options for BYU is still the WAC, saying that his conference is "still working on a deal" with BYU that would be "beneficial" to both parties.

He declined to comment further on the matter Sunday after reports surfaced that the WAC might also be talking to Conference USA members Houston, UTEP and Southern Methodist.

WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich has not spoken publicly for more than a week after acknowledging Aug. 18 that he had "reached out" to BYU to gauge the school's interest in joining his conference comprised entirely of faith-based institutions. That silence is saying something is afoot, according to several longtime observers of the league familiar with the commissioner's style.

Another BYU source who is not directly involved in the negotiations said talk floating around the athletic department is that prospects for the school remaining in the MWC are slim.

"Looks like the WAC or the one out West [WCC]," the source said.

Why the rival WAC aggressively pursued BYU is now clearly known, thanks to the uncovered e-mails and documents. The WAC wanted to not only boost its own profile nationally, but potentially cripple the MWC, to which BYU currently belongs. The MWC grabbed the WAC's most high-profile football school, Boise State, in June, a move that angered WAC brass.

Hostilities aside, however, money was clearly the driving force. The beginning to this ordeal was just as fascinating, according to the Star-Advertiser story by longtime Hawaii journalist Ferd Lewis.

Among new revelations:

• Having received authorization from the WAC's board of directors (presidents) to proceed with the plan, Benson was originally turned away by BYU officials when it was suggested they might want to join the league they left in 1999 to form the MWC along with the University of Utah and others.

• Nevada President Milt Glick was the first on record to use the code name "The Project" for the proposal to snare BYU. Ironically, Glick played a major role in scuttling the deal when both his institution and Fresno State accepted the MWC's invitation.

• Benson and USU President Stan Albrecht approached BYU a second time, about two weeks after the June 16 announcement that Utah was joining the Pac-10, and learned that BYU "was already exploring the possibility of going independent in football and looking for somewhere else to park its other 18 teams."

• The WAC not only discussed getting BYU, it also talked about luring San Diego State, UNLV and UTEP to form a 12-team league in football. An e-mail obtained by The Tribune from Nevada athletic director Cary Groth to USU athletic director Scott Barnes indicates UNLV, at least, was never seriously interested.

• There was at least some discussion about approaching college basketball power Gonzaga and possibly one other nonfootball playing school to form a 14-team WAC basketball league.

WAC insiders believe officials at Conference USA tipped off MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson that The Project was unfolding, tips which sent Thompson scurrying to Philadelphia to meet with Comcast television executives and that eventually led to the commissioner hastily inviting Nevada and Fresno State to the MWC to scuttle the plan.

drew@sltrib.com

On Twitter: @drewjay —

Looking back 'The Project'

R The WAC commissioner, along with the presidents of USU, BYU and Fresno State, devised a plan for weeks that would have moved BYU's non-football sports to the WAC and brought football games against BYU to the WAC's top teams.