There’s a fairly well-known story about how Bobby Knight, who had coached Michael Jordan on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, called up his friend and then-Portland Trailblazer GM Stu Inman prior to the NBA Draft that year to sell him on taking MJ with the second pick. (It was assumed and unquestioned by everyone at that time that the Houston Rockets would take Hakeem Olajuwon at #1.) Inman kept saying, “We need a center.” Knight responded, “Then draft Jordan and play him at center!
Inman didn’t heed Coach Knight’s advice and ended up taking Sam Bowie, leaving the Chicago Bulls to pick Jordan at #3. We all know what has happened since then: a Bulls dynasty, millions of Nikes sold, the Shrug and even coming full circle years later with Greg Oden spending more time taking cell phone pictures than actually playing, the Bulls getting Derrick Rose with a 1.7% lottery chance and the Taj Majal teabagging Dwyane Wade last Sunday night. The lesson is that in the draft for any sport, you should take the best player on the board regardless of perceived need or fit.
In the world of non-AQ schools, the best school on the board to move up to the AQ level is BYU (and I don’t believe there’s a close second). The school has an athletic department whose revenue and size is right in line with other AQ schools, sells out a 63,725-seat football stadium consistently, travels extremely well for bowls, has a nationwide following among members of the LDS, and even boasts a top-level basketball program. However, the two most geographically accessible AQ conferences for BYU don’t really want them (the Pac-12 on religious grounds and the Big 12 for the lack of financial need for Texas and friends).
Enter the Big East, where BYU pretty much delivers everything that the conference could possibly want in an expansion candidate… except that it’s a juuuuuuust a bit outside of the Northeast. I’d compare it to one of those draft decisions where there’s a player on the board with all of the talent in the world but has a little reefer problem – it’s a 99% dream pick with a 1% glaring issue.
Still, it didn’t really surprise me that much that the Big East apparently had a cup of coffee (or maybe a can of caffeine-free Diet Coke) with BYU to see if the Cougars would entertain a football-only invite. Who knows whether this will really lead to anything, but count me in as someone that likes this line of thinking for the Big East. I’ve proposed the Big Country Conference in the past (a coast-to-coast football-only conference with the Big East football members as the pillars) along with expounding the value of BYU. My position is that if the Big East really wants to expand for football, then it needs a ready-made school to plug-in as opposed to searching for potential or focusing on geography. (I was pushing TCU for the Big East many months before they were publicly on the radar for the conference.) The usual suspects such as Central Florida, East Carolina and Houston are a bit more geographically-friendly for the Big East compared to BYU, but nowhere near the same level in terms of history, fan base size and financial resources.
Now, is this a good idea for BYU? As a newly minted independent, it’s guaranteed at least three games per year on ESPN worth $800,000 to $1.2 million per game. That means $2.4 million in TV money annually from ESPN at a minimum and with attractive games on the future schedule with Notre Dame and Texas, BYU is probably looking at closer to the $4 million to $5 million range just for football TV rights, which is more than what the Big East football members are currently making from ESPN for both football and basketball (around $3 million per year). Coupled with BYU TV and from a pure television contract perspective, BYU may very well be better off as an independent than joining the Big East at this time.
At the same time, the travel burden of being a western outpost in an Eastern-based conference is really on BYU as opposed to the rest of the Big East. Is it all worth it in order to join an AQ conference?
I would unequivocally say yes. That status in and of itself is invaluable in terms of recruiting, national perception and certain in terms of competing with in-state rival Utah (who just hit the lottery with the Pac-12’s new TV deal). The Big East TV contract is due for at least a market-based increase in a couple of years. So, even if BYU’s ESPN money looks good right now, it may not look so hot compared to a new Big East deal. Also, a 10-2 BYU in the Big East is probably going to a BCS bowl, whereas a 10-2 BYU as an independent is going to be scrambling around to find a second-tier bowl bid. Finally, if BYU thinks that it would be a good idea to wait around to see if the Big 12 would expand down the road, that certainly isn’t a guarantee and even if the Big 12 really did want BYU, the school would actually be even more attractive as having had AQ status. Offers for spots in AQ conferences are few and far between and it wouldn’t be wise for anyone from the non-AQ level to pass those up.
Now, I could understand if BYU won’t consider anything less than a full invite to the Big East… and if I’m running the Big East, I’d give it to them. BYU is really the only realistic “big” move that the Big East could possibly make where they would provide a material increase in the value of the conference’s deals on both the football and basketball sides. Therefore, despite the fact that a Big East-BYU marriage would stretch the conference far west, that geographic issue is far outweighed by everything else that the Cougars bring to the table. It may not be a perfect fit, but the Big East and BYU are ultimately the best players on the board for each other.
(Image from byucougars.com)