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Provo • In a move that will alter the college athletics landscape in the western United States and its own destiny in intercollegiate sports, Brigham Young University announced Tuesday afternoon that it is going independent in football and placing most of its other teams in the West Coast Conference.
BYU and WCC officials said the move would be effective for the 2011-12 academic year, meaning the upcoming school year will be the last one for the Cougars in the Mountain West Conference.
The school said in a news release that it would have no further comment until a noon news conference today at LaVell Edwards Stadium. However, BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall said after practice on Tuesday that the move is a "positive one" for the football program.
"I support our administration's decision," Mendenhall said. "I think there will be a chance for tremendous exposure for our [football] program. … As far as I am concerned, I am supportive of it and anxious to coach the team in a new situation."
The announcement came just a day before the MWC's deadline for BYU to announce its intentions for the 2011-12 school year. It ended two weeks of frenzied behind-the-scenes negotiation between the school and the Western Athletic Conference which made a play for BYU's non-football sports as well as a series of nonleague football games with the Cougars and, of course, the WCC. The West Coast Conference is an eight-team collection of parochial schools stretching from Southern California to Washington.
The Cougars were forced to renegotiate with the WAC two weeks ago after their plans to join that conference were scuttled when the Mountain West jumped in and lured away Fresno State and Nevada to weaken the league that also includes Utah State.
USU's athletics future is further clouded by BYU's decision Tuesday; the Aggies had hoped for BYU to join the WAC, or to get an invitation to the MWC if BYU chose to remain.
Dozens of other questions remain for BYU as well. Chiefly, which teams will constitute BYU's future 12-game football schedules, which postseason bowl or bowls will the Cougars play in if they become eligible for the postseason, and what happens to the football program's dream of making it to a big Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game?
"The BYU brand, and the BYU team, and the BYU production is a marketable thing," Mendenhall said, expressing his belief that all the "worrisome" details will be worked out.
Several schools that remain in the Mountain West and were longtime BYU rivals reacted angrily to Tuesday's announcement. Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman told the Casper Star-Tribune that he doubts the Cowboys will be interested in playing the Cougars again in any sports.
However, WCC members such as Loyola Marymount cheered the addition of the Cougars.
"We are excited to compete against any athletic program the quality of BYU," said William Husak, LMU athletic director. "They will offer a great challenge, but our teams have always looked forward to playing the very best competition possible."
Triggered when longtime rival Utah announced in June that it was bolting the Mountain West for the Pac-10, BYU officials finally had the impetus to re-examine thoughts of going independent in football they say had been festering for more than three years.
Better television exposure was the driving force.
It is not known what kind of television arrangement BYU has negotiated for 2011-12. Officials at television sports giant ESPN said last week that they had been engaged in discussions with BYU to televise several home football games. The school also plans to televise at least some games on BYU-TV, which reaches 60 million homes nationally.
The simultaneous departure of BYU and Utah, its two flagship athletic programs, leaves the Mountain West's own television contract in jeopardy, sources told The Tribune.
Commissioner Craig Thompson issued a statement after the news broke Tuesday.
"Our board of directors' diligent exploration of options to advance the membership's objectives is ongoing. This includes conversations with our television partners to address issues of mutual importance, as well as determining the optimal configuration for the conference and investigating the possibility of various collaborative alliances," he said.
Officials at Utah State, which helped broker the initial agreement that would have sent BYU to the WAC, declined comment until today.
BYU has 12 sports that are offered by the WCC. It is unclear what will happen to its softball, swimming/diving and track and field teams because the WCC does not sponsor those sports.
However, it appeared late Tuesday that some kind of arrangement with the WAC perhaps to take those three sports and maintain a scaled-back version of the football partnership might still be in the offing. BYU press conference televised
BYU's press conference scheduled for noon Wednesday at LaVell Edwards Stadium will be broadcast live on BYUtv (Dish Ch. 9304, DirectTV Ch. 374, Comcast Ch. 21))