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Tom Holmoe’s thoughts on BYU’s first Big 12 schedule

At least one person in Utah has seen BYU’s first Big 12 football schedule, and he likes what he sees.

“I like it! But how would you not?” said Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe with a smile as wide as a kid on Christmas morning. “Every game on the schedule is a Big 12 team and some are at home and some are away. What else can you ask for? I think down the road you might be a little picky about the times of the games, where you play them and when, but right now we are just eager to get in there and get playing.”

BYU will officially join the Big 12 on July 1 and the Cougars will either host or play at a new Power Five conference opponent as early as Sept. 23.

“I’ve already seen most of it (the 2023 schedule),” Holmoe said. “We don’t know the dates, but we pretty much have worked out who we might be playing. It’s changeable. It’s not certain, but these are things that if they are going to be done on Dec. 1, you’ve got to have it ready.”

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, who succeeded Bob Bowlsby in August and visited BYU on Sept. 10, confirmed last month that the schedule would be released in December.

Might over money

Earlier this month, the Big 12 announced a contract extension with ESPN and Fox that figures to pay each school roughly $50 million annually. That’s more money than the BYU athletic department has ever dreamed of.

“A lot of challenges come with that,” Holmoe said. “Certainly with the capital, the finances that we have to raise to be able to run a successful program, this helps. But I think the core of what BYU is all about is not the money.”

Holmoe believes building a program is not directly linked to building a bank account, although ticket prices will continue to increase as a member of the Big 12.

“I think there are a lot of programs out there that get a lot of money and make a lot of money but they are not very good — and that scares me,” he said. “We just have to keep getting better. We have to improve. We have to grow in every way, in every sport — coaches, players and administrators. We are on a road that now starts to tilt up a little bit. Sometimes it’s been flat. Sometimes it feels like we are flying downhill. But right now, it’s an uphill road.”

Identity crisis

BYU’s 31-28 win at Boise State two weeks ago put the Cougars one win away from securing a bowl game for the 17th time in 18 years. BYU can do that Saturday against Utah Tech (1:30 p.m., BYUtv) or next week at Stanford.

The Cougars’ 5-5 season isn’t sitting well with anybody. A winless October and growing list of injured players, transformed BYU’s promising 4-1 start, including a 26-20 double overtime win against No. 9 Baylor, and turned it into a fall of frustration.

“Everybody has to believe in our identity and who we are and what we are about. I’ve been on teams myself, some at BYU and some at other places, where it’s lost for a little bit,” Holmoe said. “BYU fans know what good BYU football looks like. All of them know when it’s not quite up to par. This is a year where we are average. We are 5-5 right now. We need to make changes that will help us be strong and help us get back that identity that BYU fans love.”

End of independence

Saturday is the final home game for BYU as an independent. The Cougars complete the regular season Nov. 26 at Stanford — 12 years after a decision that changed BYU sports forever.

“I believed this day would come, but I just didn’t know how long it would take,” Holmoe said. “It might not have been on my watch. That was something I had to come to grips with, even though it’s something I had been involved with for a long time, I might not see it come to fruition.”

BYU President Cecil Samuelson gave Holmoe the green light to pursue breaking off from the Mountain West Conference for football independence in 2010 and he mentored his athletic director through the process.

“The key thing he said was ‘this can’t be just about money,’” Holmoe said. “If you are just looking at it like you are getting a bigger paycheck for BYU and you can spend more money, that’s not the right reason.”

After contemplating the options, BYU teamed up with ESPN and BYUtv as television partners and set out to walk the tightrope of independence, with no safety net of a conference to catch the Cougars if they fell.

“We tried to build the program on the core principles that LaVell (Edwards) taught us, the mission of the school and to try to do it right,” Holmoe said. “We failed sometimes in those respects, but in the end we did well enough to get the invite.”

The call

As BYU prepared to kick off its 11th season as an independent, with a challenging 2021 September slate that included games against Arizona (Las Vegas), No. 18 Utah and No. 19 Arizona State, Holmoe answered his phone.

Bowlsby, then the Big 12 commissioner, was on the other end of the call.

The conference was just hit with the news that Texas and Oklahoma were bolting the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. Suddenly and unexpectedly, there was a vacancy in the promised land.

This is how Holmoe remembers the short and direct conversation, thinking at first that “I might be on candid camera,” he said. “It just happened so fast.”

“Tom, we want to add you to the league,” said Bowlsby.

“What about Sunday play?” asked Holmoe.

“No, we are good with that,” said Bowlsby.

“What about the other issues that have popped up over the years?” asked Holmoe.

“We are taking you because we believe in what BYU stands for and we feel you will be a great member of the league,” said Bowlsby.

“Is that it?” asked Holmoe.

“Pretty much,” said Bowlsby.

The five-minute phone call justified 11 years of self-preservation and exorcised the hauntings of relentless self-doubt among Cougar Nation that going independent was the right thing to do.

“I don’t think I would have done it differently,” Holmoe said. “We felt at the time that we needed to make a change. The positive thing is we made it on the pillars of having access and being available to our fans. Our fans were not seeing us play. What is a college football team without any fans? Being able to go independent gave our fans the ability to see us play.”

A short time after Bowlsby’s call, on Sept. 10, 2021, BYU was formally invited to join the Big 12 along with Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida. The Cougars’ acceptance was immediate — and the wait to see BYU’s first Big 12 football schedule is nearly over.

Vistas and vision

“There’s been a lot of times over the last 12 years where people have come up to me and said, ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ ‘We shouldn’t have gone independent’ or ‘When are we going to get out?’ or ‘You’ve got to change this or we are never going to do it by doing it this way.’” Holmoe said. “The road that we traveled was winding. It was a tough road at times, but there were some great vistas along the way — great vistas.”

Among Holmoe’s favorites include the sights and sounds of Kyle Van Noy’s strip-sack and fumble recovery in the end zone to stun Ole Miss 14-13 on Sept. 3, 2011, to usher in BYU’s independence era. Along the way, he watched Taysom Hill as he leaped over Texas (twice); Tanner Mangum threw a hail Mary pass to Mitch Mathews to shock Nebraska; Zach Wilson connected on a last-second bomb to Micah Simon to rally past Tennessee; Samson Nacua scored an emotional touchdown against his former team as BYU beat Utah; and Jaren Hall threw a touchdown pass and caught a touchdown pass to surprise defending Big 12 champion Baylor.

It has been quite a ride.

When it comes to independence, Holmoe will forever be remembered as a visionary, a believer and a risk taker — the same traits he possessed as a defensive back in the Cougars’ secondary decades ago.

As he watches BYU play to become bowl eligible on Saturday he will do so with his eyes on the action, but forgive him if in his mind, he is already looking to the future. After all, he’s the only one who has had a glimpse of the 2023 schedule — BYU’s inaugural season in the Big 12 — and he likes what he sees.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at 

The Big 12 Conference logo is seen on the field before a game between Iowa State and West Virginia, Nov. 5, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.

The Big 12 Conference logo is seen on the field before a game between Iowa State and West Virginia, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. Next year one of these logos will grace the field of LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

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