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Gonzaga reportedly will make their conference decision soon. It may impact BYU’s independence

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The Cougars have been independent in football since 2011, with mixed results.

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Houston v BYU Photo by Jay Drowns/Getty Images

It wouldn’t be the football offseason without conference realignment chatter, but a move that’s focused on basketball threatens to have significant football repercussions.

In early March, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson admitted the league has had talks about adding Gonzaga, as well as some other schools. A new report from the San Diego Tribune indicates those conversations might be farther along than Thompson is letting on. Per the Tribune:

One source said they are so far along that Mountain West presidents hoped to vote on Gonzaga’s inclusion as early as this week when they meet at the conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas. It has since been pushed back until early April, after the Final Four.

On March 24, CBS reported that Gonzaga will make a decision about jumping to the MWC, “in a perfect world”, in the next two weeks.

“We’re going to be closing on a window that is going to be making it difficult,” Roth said. “I think we’re into that crunch period for sure if we’re going to try to get it done for the fall of 2018. At the same time, we’re not going to rush the decision because of timing. “

”In a perfect world, we’re going to be making a decision in the next couple of weeks here,” Roth added during the West Regional that concluded here Saturday. “But there is no such thing as perfect worlds in the crazy world of college athletics.”

On paper, this makes a lot of sense. Gonzaga’s basketball budget, facilities, and success far outstrip most of its WCC peers, and moving to the MWC would improve its conference schedule and perhaps NCAA seeds. The MWC would then have 12 basketball programs, a shot at more NCAA Tournament revenue, and the prestige that comes from having a top-10-caliber program.

Gonzaga doesn’t play football, but there is a big college football angle to this. Because you know who does?

Gonzaga leaving the WCC would throw everything into chaos for BYU.

The Cougars have parked most of their non-football sports in the WCC, but if Gonzaga leaves, the league takes a massive hit, not just in men’s basketball, but in women’s basketball, baseball, and other sports. No offense to possible Gonzaga replacements like Seattle or Grand Canyon, but the WCC might suddenly be a one-bid basketball league.

One option would be for BYU to simply bring its non-football sports with Gonzaga to the MWC, right? The Cougars have a history with MWC schools, and BYU’s athletic facilities, enrollment, and budget have much more in common with MWC programs than most of the WCC. With both programs, the MWC becomes a legitimately strong basketball league, one that could get four or more tournament bids in a good season. But according to the Tribune, it’s not that simple, as the paper reports the two would not be a “package deal.”

The Mountain West is exclusively talking with Gonzaga and trying to finalize that deal. Only then might it approach BYU, or vice versa.

It’s a smart strategy. By landing Gonzaga, the Mountain West instantly paints BYU into a corner with a football program deflating as an independent and a basketball program languishing in a one-bid league where the next biggest venue would seat 13,000 less than the Marriott Center.

If Gonzaga is willing to come without BYU, as appears to be the case, it gives the Mountain West the upper hand in any negotiations with Provo: Come on our terms, or good luck in the WCC.

In the March 24 update, Gonzaga AD Mike Roth “shot down rumors stating Gonzaga and BYU were headed to the Mountain West as part of a package deal”,

Gonzaga might force BYU’s hand on football independence.

BYU’s logic for going independent appeared sound. They’ve assembled interesting, national schedules. They make substantially more money with ESPN than they would as a member of the Mountain West. And the hope was that with some successful seasons on a national stage, perhaps they could jump into a power conference, like their rival, Utah. Utah is in a power conference, in case you forgot.

That last goal hasn’t happened. The Big 12 rebuffed BYU multiple times, and after holding steady as a top-40ish program for the last decade or so, BYU football cratered in 2017, posting its worst record since the 1960s. The program has competitive schedules far into the future, but with its ESPN contract ending after 2019, and with the MWC’s ending after the 2019-2020 season, the program will have some decisions to make.

Gonzaga leaving the WCC might hasten that timeline.

If Gonzaga leaves without the Cougars, BYU’s other sports would be marooned in a league with far smaller schools, kneecaping their exposure and ability to reach the postseason.

But if the MWC were to only accept BYU if the Cougars brought their football program, BYU might have to take a substantial paycut to join a league with an even more uncertain TV future. Plus, they’d be replacing schedules with power conference programs with ones that offer substantially less flexibility. An annual series with say, Utah, would be much more up in air.

Or BYU might be able to strike some sort of deal that moves its basketball and other programs to the MWC, while maintaining football independence. That’d be the best-case scenario. BYU left the MWC on bad terms before, but there’s also been a lot of administrative turnover in the league since then.

BYU’s options appear limited.

BYU could decide to maintain the status quo in hopes that Big 12 chaos after the next round of TV deals could open up an opportunity, but the same political issues that hurt BYU the last few runs of expansion fever aren’t exactly going away, and the Cougars run the risk of their athletic programs losing further shine. They could attempt to join the AAC, which would solve many issues for non-revenue sports, but the AAC might not even be interested, given how far Provo is from basically everybody else in the league.

One way or another, some clarity on the future of Gonzaga, the MWC, and BYU should happen in the next few weeks. Perhaps basketball isn’t what we would have expected to be a driving force here, but hey, this is March.