Thursday, September 2, 2010

Go West, Young Man, Go West

It's official. It finally happened.

BYU has entered the realm of the Football Bowl Subdivision independents, joining Notre Dame, Army and Navy as the only independents in major college football in the country. With it, the Cougars have been guaranteed an eight-year deal with ESPN for broadcasting, and a six-game series with the Fightin' Irish that will commence sometime after 2012.

The Cougars also placed their other sports under the umbrella of the West Coast Conference, a collection of faith-based (namely Catholic) institutions that reside entirely in California, Oregon and Washington (or, as BYU basketball coach Dave Rose might refer to the expanse of Pacific coast towns "recruiting country"). BYU will begin play in the 2011-12 academic year, and will play all of its sports in the WCC, save the aforementioned football; swimming and diving, track and field, gymnastics and softball — for which the WCC has no programs; and men's soccer, where the Cougars field a mildly competitive Premier Development League semiprofessional franchise.

Scheduling should be less of an issue than many independents, especially with Notre Dame apparently lending its full support to BYU. Remember, the Cougars don't have to fill out a schedule entirely comprised of Top 25 teams — 3-5 each year should suffice, even. So BYU will play four WAC teams, a token Pac-10 school, whichever MWC teams decide to invite them to a home-and-home (Boise State is certainly a possibility), and then could fill out a schedule with fellow indies Army and Navy, as well as Big East schools that are always clamoring for extra games due to their smaller round-robin schedule. More importantly, BYU will no longer operate under the Mtn. television network, and the chance to appear on ESPN should entice more than a few Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC schools to try their hand against the Cougars each year.

Access to the BCS would be tricky, as BYU is likely guaranteed nothing more than an Army-Navy treatment by Bill Hancock and Co.: a guaranteed spot only by finishing in the Top 2 of the BCS poll each year. Still, if BYU goes undefeated, it will be hard to leave them out of the bowl system entirely, which is similar access they currently experience in the Mountain West Conference. It's a lateral move, but does not damage the Cougars' standing, which is positive.

More importantly, what does this do to BYU's other sports? That's the main purpose of this blog post, as most of the other details have been reported and worked out. But there are a few tidbits regarding the WCC and BYU's "left out sports" that may be of interest to the handful of readers who check this blog.

BYU will no longer play teams like UNLV, San Diego State or New Mexico, but they can swap them out with current contenders Gonzaga and St. Mary's, as well as rising program Portland.

Historically, the WCC has also been home to some of the country's toughest programs. Steve Nash led Santa Clara to one of the great "one shining moments" in NCAA tournament history, and the conference has also produced hall of famers Bill Russell, John Stockton and others.

Here, BYU swaps out a mid-major on the rise with another mid-major on the rise. Both conferences also play their conference tournaments in Las Vegas, but the WCC doesn't pretend to play "neutral site games" on the home court of a conference opponent (UNLV). And the WCC has already set to work to re-schedule the end-of-season tourney so as to accomodate BYU's no-Sunday-play policy (the previous tourney's semifinals were played Sunday).

With the concessions the West Coast Conference is willing to make, there seems little difference in exchanging UNLV for Gonzaga and New Mexico for St. Mary's. Plus, BYU will continue to play big-money games against in-state rivals Utah and Utah State, so ticket sales in "glorified high school gyms" like those at San Diego and San Francisco should have little affect on the Cougars' overall athletic revenue.

Tourney bids should also be a wash, as we saw this year that Gonzaga was still able to get into the field despite losing in the WCC tourney final to St. Mary's. The NCAA has been increasingly aware of the small conference, and has given it proper respect over the past decade.

As a soccer fan, I naturally drifted to the ways this move affects the BYU women's soccer team. And after countless minutes of research, namely looking at the most recent NSCAA poll, I find that the WCC is a much better conference than the MWC.

League schools have won nine national championships through the years, or roughly the same number of years the MWC has been in existence. Currently, the WCC also has three ranked teams (No. 4 Portland, No. 8 Santa Clara and No. 14 San Diego); the MWC, on the other hand, has one — No. 13 BYU. Jen Rockwood must be smiling at this new level of competition her Cougars will face every year.

BYU was recently on the women's professional league map with Katie Larkin performing well with the Los Angeles Sol and Atlanta Beat of the WPS. Similarly, WCC schools have produced some of the USWNT's finest stars , including Brandi Chastain (Santa Clara), Tiffeny Millbrett (Portland) and Aly Wagner (Portland).

Although BYU men's soccer team plays in the semiprofessional Premier Development League, the fourth tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid, the Cougars would be hard-pressed to find a better collegiate environment should they return to the ranks of the NCAA than the WCC. West Coast Conference schools have produced soccer talent such as Connor Casey (Colorado Rapids via Portland), Steve Cherundolo (USMNT via Portland), Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo via Gonzaga) and world renowned goalkeeper Kasey Keller (Seattle Sounders et al. via Portland). San Francisco was also a soccer powerhouse during the 60's and 70's, and has been thought to make a resurgence in recent years.

BYU's baseball team has rarely driven the bus for the school, but the WCC also offers a unique blend of college-driven teams as well as future MLB talent. San Diego, Portland and Santa Clara have consistently represented themselves well at this level of play, and Vance Law's crew should be fine in making the adjustment.

Conference affiliation matters little to cross country teams, and BYU's race back into the national spotlight will depend more on garnering athletes who can spruce up their times at regional qualifying meets than against whom the race on a given Saturday.

The tennis teams should be greatly upgraded, now playing against programs that have produced five individual national champions and regularly compete at the highest level of the NCAA.

I bring this up only because it is AN issue, but not a major issue in BYU's move to the West Coast. This move was based primarily on the Cougars' independence in football, and establishing a good home in men's basketball; I've shown that those moves were solid. But since the WCC has no league setup for track and field, swimming and diving, and softball, a solution must be found.

Track and field, as well as swimming and diving, are judged primarily off of "qualifying marks" for postseason participation. Thus, rather than compete in head-to-head duals for ultimate supremacy, track athletes and swimmers more often attend large meets in which they test themselves to post the fastest time, longest throw or highest jump to garner future postseason success. BYU may still do that, and WCC programs like Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine regularly field quality athletes who compete in the NCAA in this way. In fact, the schools in the WCC that fund men's track and field teams are the Zags, the Lions, the Waves, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara; almost the entire conference. So BYU would not be alone if they went this route.

Fewer schools field a full women's softball team, however. But with BYU's recent success, such as entrance to its first NCAA Super Regional in 2009-10, Gordon Eakin's club has been receiving notice from high-profile conferences. While Paige Affleck isn't quite Arizona's Kenzie Fowler or Washington's Danielle Lawrie, the Cougars have done enough to merit consideration as a Pac-10 affiliate. And athletic director Tom Holmoe told reporters at Tuesday's announcement that BYU has received offers from "multiple conferences" to house its softball program.

If that doesn't pan out, however, BYU can find solace in the unofficial home of the West Coast Conference softball teams: the Pacific Coast Softball Conference, which includes fellow members Loyola Marymount, San Diego, St. Mary's and Santa Clara. The Cougars also regularly play other teams in the conference, mostly for geographic purposes and regional rivalries; Utah Valley, Weber State and Idaho State also belong to the PCSC.

BYU has plenty of options in choosing this new opportunity to establish its network, BYUtv, as a viable sports broadcaster and claim its own footing as a football independent. But the other possibilities available through the West Coast Conference and its partner institutions should not be trivialized. In some ways, the WCC is a lateral move to the MWC. In others, however, it represents new possibilities and new growth in fields BYU fans haven't yet pondered. Far from being "Plan B," the WCC-plan should prove to be a much better alternative than BYU's original WAC-focus.

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