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Why football-only Big 12 membership could work for BYU, but probably not others

The Big 12's two most distant expansion candidates raise an interesting option.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As the Big 12 plods through another round of expansion talks, one of the conference’s options is to get bigger in a half-baked way.

It isn't likely, per se, but Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby signaled in the summer that his league is open to adding schools only in football. That would give new members a one-sport ticket to the Big 12, with other sports staying in their current leagues.

There are a few reasons the Big 12 might do something like this. All of them create problems for someone, even as they could make mild sense for the league.

This was originally published in August. We've since added the following tweeted report:

Two of the Big 12’s top candidates, based on the league’s own criteria, have figured to be BYU and Connecticut. BYU brings a national fan base and a credible, independent football team with lots of support. UConn sort of, kind of, delivers the New York market and has a big athletic department that brings in lots of money.

Still, there are reasons the league might want part but not all of either.

Why the Big 12 could decide to add BYU in only football

As a flagship institution for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU keeps with Mormon custom and does not play sports on Sundays. This isn’t a problem for a college football team, because that sport plays its games between Thursday and Saturday.

But fitting other sports onto a Big 12 schedule around a no-Sunday policy requires a little finagling. BYU’s current league for most sports, the West Coast Conference, has made this work just fine, and sliding BYU into the Big 12 really wouldn’t be that hard. But it’s quite possible the conference itself wouldn’t want the hassle.

Also a factor: BYU is a football independent and thus not attached to the same conference exit fees as other schools. But other BYU sports don't have the same freedom.

(This is all in addition to the school's honor code, which is partially at odds with the Big 12's current written standards.)

Why it could consider the same about UConn

Connecticut is far away from the rest of the Big 12. West Virginia is the farthest school from the conference’s geographic midpoint right now, and UConn’s a solid eight-hour drive in the wrong direction from there.

On some level, this is good. We know the ACC’s new television network with ESPN got the Big 12 thinking anew about expansion. Few things make television properties more valuable than access to new markets, and UConn sits in a market in which the Big 12 presently has no geographic presence. That’s a benefit.

But the Huskies’ Olympic sports are not going to make the Big 12 much money. Even though UConn’s women’s basketball program is the best that’s ever existed and the men’s team has won national titles, too, they’re not going to drastically move the TV needle. Football is what does that.

So the Big 12 could pretty easily decide it wants UConn on the gridiron but nowhere else. The Huskies are only now starting to improve, but they’d help deliver the households the Big 12 covets. Beyond that, the travel burden of sending other Big 12 teams to Storrs may not be worthwhile.

How this might affect BYU

I asked Samuel Hiatt, an editor of BYU blog Vanquish the Foe, for a Cougar’s take on the idea of football-only Big 12 membership.

There are some pros, Hiatt points out. Travel to far-off schools like West Virginia would be a once-every-other-year proposition. Football recruiting would invariably get at least a little bit better, and there’d be pressure on BYU to pay its coaching staff Power 5 money. (Head coach Kalani Sitake is reportedly earning up to $1.5 million per year, a paltry sum by major programs’ standards.) This would improve the football team.

But the rest of BYU’s sports – while probably benefiting a bit from the football team making Big 12 money – would largely miss out on any kind of Big 12 bounce.

"BYU has good, not great facilities for non-football sports," Hiatt said. And without fuller expansion, "the money just won’t be there" to make those better.

Plus, there’s the matter of basketball. BYU’s men’s and women’s teams have done well in the WCC and Mountain West in recent years. In years when the BYU men don’t beat Gonzaga in the WCC, they’re already in a bad RPI spot for the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee. Getting into the Big 12 would make reaching the postseason much easier for BYU’s successful Olympic sports, too, but that might not be in the cards.

How this might affect UConn

UConn’s got other potential issues. For starters, it could become impractical for the rest of UConn’s teams to stay in The American, where they’ve been since the demise of the old Big East.

Imagine UConn’s very good basketball teams playing in an AAC from which the Big 12 had poached Cincinnati, Memphis or Houston. It’s ugly, and it could land UConn’s men’s team in its own strength-of-schedule predicament.

"I guess the assumption in this scenario is that UConn would join the Big East for all other sports, which would allow the men's basketball team to reunite with some old rivals, but I'm not sure if the Big East would even want to go down that path," said Aman Kidwai, the managing editor of The UConn Blog.

Kidwai said a fragmented conference situation is "far from ideal," but at this stage, UConn fans are going to be happy to just not be completely stuck in a Big 12-raided American.

If Cincinnati, Memphis or Houston leaves the American, UConn not getting out would be a serious problem. Getting out in one sport wouldn’t be great, but it might be better than nothing.

Football-only would be a step forward for BYU. It’d be dangerous for UConn.

Even if BYU’s other teams are left behind and the football team heads to the Big 12, it’s hard to argue those teams are definitively worse off. Any extra money the football team earns can only help the rest of the university, and joining the Big 12 would give the Cougars bowl tie-ins and a strong schedule every year.

UConn has bigger risks, though. The Huskies’ non-football teams could be stuck in no-man’s land if other American competition leaves for the Big 12 in more sports than one, and anything that harms the school’s basketball programs would be a bad thing. The American isn’t ideal, but it’s a home.