Brad Rock: BYU should draw a line on arms race

By Brad Rock, Deseret News

Published: Sat, Aug. 9, 2014, 7:00 p.m. MDT

 BYU can pay for cost-of-living stipends and all the between-meal snacks its players can eat, but what then? If this goes the way some predict, college football will soon be nearly indistinguishable from its professional counterpart.

BYU can pay for cost-of-living stipends and all the between-meal snacks its players can eat, but what then? If this goes the way some predict, college football will soon be nearly indistinguishable from its professional counterpart.

(Matt Gade, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Although the face of college football is changing faster than Keith Jackson can say, “Whoa, Nellie!” BYU hasn’t blinked. It says it’s staying in the game. Need cash for extra meals and general living expenses? Done, as long as it’s legal and necessary. Expanded health insurance, guaranteed scholarships and all the other things a big-time college football program should have? Let’s talk.

The Cougars say they’ll do what’s “appropriate” to be considered among the highest-level programs. It’s not total dream talk, either. BYU has the following and the resources. The place makes money, something only a handful of universities accomplish.

So when the Y. says it intends to remain viable in the face of the NCAA’s new reforms, it’s a convincing argument. Because of its ESPN contract, private television network and debt-free facilities, BYU can afford things many programs — including most of the mid-majors — can’t. The only question here is the same that’s been asked in half the action movies ever made: How far do you wanna take this?

BYU can pay for cost-of-living stipends and all the between-meal snacks its players can eat, but what then? If this goes the way some predict, college football will soon be nearly indistinguishable from its professional counterpart.

That’s a party BYU might not want to attend.

It’s nice for the Provo school to say it will do whatever is necessary to be at the highest level, but what if the arms race continues? Utah opened a $32 million football center last year, just one of many similar buildings in the Pac-12. Now Utah and others are building starship-like basketball centers, too.

BYU has a student athlete building and an indoor practice facility that are still modern and impressive. But even those don’t have the characteristics of the newer ones.

Does BYU intend to build more?

Former Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) athletics director Garth Hall once said that when he was an assistant coach at BYU, in the 1980s, players would request several pairs of football shoes in a season. By contrast, Ricks players sometimes brought their own.

Hall went on to say he liked the amateurism of small colleges. He had tired of the bigness of major college football.

The Rexburg, Idaho, school went on to drop intercollegiate athletics.

Some mid-major conferences, including the Mountain West and American Athletic, have said they will do all they can to change along with the industry. But those conferences don’t have the television contracts to make wholesale changes. BYU is wealthier and better known than most or all of the MWC schools. It also has a widespread fan base that could donate toward upgrades.

Sports are seen as a missionary tool at BYU. Yet if remaining at the highest level involves getting in an arms race, or throwing money at players, it’s debatable. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week, “I think we'll chase what's appropriate ….”

Just what that means remains to be seen. BYU wants to play with the best, but if that requires “professional” treatment, combined with obscene costs, the Cougars would have to consider scaling back or getting out.

The last thing the LDS Church needs to be operating is a quasi-professional football team.

“BYU would have to answer that same question — is it really a good move? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes,” Salt Lake Community College athletics director Norma Carr said last month.

Increased food money, insurance and even a living stipend would seem “appropriate” measures for BYU. Beyond that, the school should have a firm line where it will stop.

The Cougars have always danced to their own music. In the WAC days, they led the band. Nowadays, some conferences consider BYU a big-league operation, others don’t. That seems strange, considering the Cougars are more prominent and profitable than some “Power 5” schools.

Either way, BYU will stay in athletics as long as it’s feasible and conscionable; beyond that, probably not. As Rick College proved, at some point, having a fine school alone might need to be good enough.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

1. ManInTheMiddle
Aug. 9, 2014

I'll put my dollars behind BYU if they continue to make a commitment to compete with the big boys....

2. stonewall
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
Aug. 9, 2014

I don't know what Rock thinks is happening in major athletics. College football becoming indistinguishable from the NFL? How dense can you be? Adding some meals, slightly larger stipends, and more health insurance benefits now equates to 6 and 7-figure salaries and pension plans and year-round camps and negotiated contracts? Yeah, that's moving toward being nearly identical. This movement toward expanded benefits is much more about separating the haves from the have-nots than the P5 from everybody else. Yes, the two are largely the same, but not entirely. And BYU proves that there is some non-overlap between the two disparate distinctions.

The reality is BYU is financially viable in a way few athletic departments are. Twenty-two FBS athletic departments actually made money last year. That's less than half of all P5 schools. BYU was one of them. They're just fine and fully capable at this point in time of financing anything the rest of the P5 schools are. If that changes, maybe they should close up shop. But then again, maybe so should the other 40 P5 schools that can't operate in the black.

Nice perspective, Rock. I feel very enlightened

3. SoonerUte
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 9, 2014

Disappointing to see another article speak of "the arms race" as only affecting BYU football. BYU athletics are not independent. BYU's membership in the WCC conference affects football.

BYU would not be allowed to pay a stipend only to the football team. They'd have to provide benefits to all their athletes. Each conference decides what stipends will be paid. If the WCC decides they want stipend-free basketball, BYU will either have to leave the conference or agree not to pay stipends. No stipends for basketball? No stipend for football.

4. SLC BYU Fan
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 9, 2014

As I've said before Brad, should BYU move forward and at the very least drop its football program, there could be some far reaching unintended consequences. These could range from UVU starting a program that in less than a decade could dwarf Utah State's (Boise State doing this to Idaho is a classic example). Still further NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it known he wishes to increase the amount of non-Sunday media inventory in any future media deals with the networks, and given Salt Lake City's population and media market size now it is on the leagues expansion and relocation list in the group just after Los Angeles and Toronto (Portland, Salt Lake City, Sacramento & Orlando are now the biggest in North America without the NFL). But this could also hurt the BYU donor base hard, cheapen the student experience and even dilute the value of a BYU undergraduate degree without raising the value or enhancing the value for Utah State which is the motive if any of the powers that be for dropping the program.

5. BioPowertrain
Detroit, MI,
Aug. 9, 2014

I think there's a lot of room for creativity here. Perhaps BYU can customize their football & basketball player scholarship guarantees. I think these athletes are still forced to choose between playing & getting a truly worthwhile education. You just don't see athletes getting STEM degrees and I'm telling you, that's the reason why: mens football & basketball players who study too much are considered "uncommitted" to their program. Yes, you have the occasional freak like Jeff Hornacek or Kevin Lockett, but two out of thousands and thousands and thousands doesn't cut it.

Perhaps the school could reduce player coursework requirements to 9-12 hours per semester, cover the full cost of attendance through the years of eligibility, then cover tuition, books & fees for 2 or 3 years after their eligibility expires. That would allow them to both play and develop proficiency in a skill set they can build a career on. Maybe that's not the exact formula, but something like that, would be more appealing to many students (parents!) than getting their bling on for 4 years, then working as an assistant junior high school football coach for the rest of their lives.