BYU Cougars

Five Thoughts On The BYU Cougars Joining the Big 12

On July 1 the BYU Cougars will be official members of the Big 12 Conference after accepting the invitation nearly two years ago.

It’s been a long road back to this point for the Cougars, who have been independent in football for more than a decade.  

Here are five things to know about the Cougars as their tenure in the Big 12 begins.


The History

Founded in 1875, BYU began playing football in 1922 as part of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, which is now in Division II. BYU also played in the Skyline Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, and the Mountain West Conference. After the 2010 season, the Cougars opted to go independent in football. The rest of its sports joined the West Coast Conference.

The Cougars are most recognized for their football program, which won a national championship in 1984 and became known for producing highly-productive quarterbacks under legendary coach LaVell Edwards. Those quarterbacks included 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, along with Super Bowl champions Jim McMahon and Steve Young. Other quarterbacks from the Edwards era included Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, and Robbie Bosco.

But men’s basketball has been to the NCAA Tournament more than 20 times, won a pair of postseason NITs, and was a Top 25 program as recently as 2021-22. The men’s golf team is also formidable and should fit in well in the Big 12, which includes some of the best golf programs in the country.


The Sports

The Cougars participate in nine men’s sports and 10 women’s sports going into the 2023-24 season. The football program last won a conference title in 2007. Edwards turned BYU into a destination job and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Along with men’s basketball and golf, the Cougars also field teams in baseball, cross country, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. The men’s volleyball team has won national championships.

On the women’s side, there is basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, and volleyball. Cross country won a national title in 2021 and the volleyball team reached the national title match in 2014.

Outside of its reputation as a quarterback factory, the Cougars have produced famous athletes in other sports. They include Danny Ainge (baseball and basketball), Jack Morris (baseball), Shawn Bradley (basketball), Frankie Fredericks (track and field), Werner Hoeger (Olympic luge), and Johnny Miller (golf).


The Rivalries

BYU’s biggest rivals are in-state. When BYU plays Utah, it’s the “Holy War,” a series in which the Utes have a significant advantage in football. Utah State, located in Logan, Utah, has played BYU more than 90 times in football and the Cougars have a healthy lead in that rivalry.

The Coaches

Kalani Sitake is the football program’s connection to Edwards. He played for BYU and for Edwards as a three-year starter at fullback. He became the first collegiate head football coach of Tongan descent when the Cougars selected him to replace Bronco Mendenhall before the 2016 season. Sitake is 56-32 with a 4-2 bowl game record and led the Cougars to an 11-1 record in 2020 and a 10-2 record in 2021.

Mark Pope leads the men’s basketball program. He was a national champion as a player at Kentucky and played eight years in the NBA. He parlayed success at Utah Valley into the BYU job in 2019 and led BYU to an NCAA Tournament berth in 2021 and an NIT quarterfinals berth in 2022.

Amber Whiting took over as the women’s basketball coach in 2022 for Jeff Judkins and she went 16-17 in her first season.

Trent Pratt took over as BYU’s interim baseball coach in 2022 and coached his first full season in 2023. The Cougars went 24-28.

Softball is led by Gordon Eakin, who has won more than 700 games at BYU in the past 20 seasons. BYU is a regular NCAA regionals participant.

The Future

The Cougars wanted in the Big 12 several years ago and were left at the altar when the league opted not to expand. But athletic director Tom Holmoe — who played football for Edwards — stayed ready and kept working at building the athletic department.

The Oklahoman recently wrote that BYU’s facilities are already mostly “Big 12 ready.” The school recently renovated its football offices, one of a number of projects the school is undergoing to fine-tune itself for the Big 12. The Cougars have also had a collective for NIL purposes for more than a year. Renovations were made to LaVell Edwards Stadium just a few years ago.

The Cougars had their own TV contract for football with ESPN and have been part of the WCC’s TV contracts for other sports. So they will see a boost in media revenue with the current and future Big 12 media deals. When it comes to football and basketball, the Cougars are likely to be competitive in a season or two. The Cougars should make an immediate impact in softball.

Matthew Postins can be found on Twitter @PostinsPostcard

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