June 28, 2016
I joined about 100 other people this week to watch Utah Valley University break ground on its new basketball practice facility, and the Wolverine faithful were understandably excited about this step up in their part of the college athletics world.
As I listened to Wolverine head men’s basketball coach Mark Pope and UVU president Matt Holland talk about how important this is, I got thinking about how the big obstacle UVU athletics faces is validation — and how that really isn’t that different than what is faced by their neighbor down University Parkway, BYU.
To some that may sound absurd, since the Wolverines are trying to make in-roads in an area that is already heavily Cougar blue-and-white and has been for decades.
But believe me … the future for both institutions depends on how they are perceived.
Both athletic programs have dominant sports — football and men’s basketball at BYU, men’s basketball at UVU.
I give a lot of credit to Cougar women’s soccer and women’s and men’s volleyball and Wolverine men’s soccer for putting lots of people in the seats but the simple reality is that the national perception of these universities hinges on what they do in those sports, period.
BYU wants to be at the biggest table as a “Power 5” program.
UVU wants to be taken seriously as a Division I program.
Facilities are important. Television ratings are important. Attendance numbers are important.
But all of those pale in comparison to the one absolutely monumentally important factor:
NUVI executive chair Keith Nellesen, who helped make the new basketball center at UVU a reality, told the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony, “Win and they will come.”
For the Wolverines, I see that as the big dream.
If UVU men’s basketball can put together a great season, win a WAC title and win a game in the NCAA tournament, it will go along way toward enhancing the status of the athletic program in both the eyes of the nation and in the eyes of its own large base of students and alumni.
For the Cougars, on the other hand, the big dreams are a little more convoluted.
Some fans and observers believe that nothing BYU football or men’s basketball does on the field/court will make any difference in their P5 quest. The religious aspects of the university and the geography, to them, are just obstacles that are too big to overcome.
I’m not in that camp at all.
I think the best thing the Cougars could do is prove they belong at the highest level by putting together great seasons against great competition — and it has to happen in football.
That’s how BYU went from being a no-name LDS school in little Provo, Utah, in the early 1970s to winning a national championship in 1984 and having a quarterback, Ty Detmer, awarded the Heisman Trophy.
I certainly think that the impressive seasons that TCU, Louisville and Utah had in the past 15 years had a tremendous impact in their current inclusion in the “Power 5” conferences.
The fact that the Utes are part of the “in-crowd” and the Cougars aren’t certainly chafes for some BYU fans. Some observers even think Utah has completely surpassed the Cougars and BYU has no hope of making up the lost ground.
One of the big drivers of college football is television, so out of curiosity I did a little research at www.sportsmediawatch.com. That gave some estimates as far as how the television ratings ended up in 2016:
You could see that as proof the Utes are a bigger draw now but you also have to consider that last year was a pretty special season for Utah. Although the Pac-12 proved to be down overall, the Utes still spent 14-of-16 weeks ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and climbed as high as No. 3 in the nation.
Now imagine if the Cougars had a similar year.
It’s hard to do, since the closest they’ve been since the turn of the century was 2001 and maybe when BYU started 2014 4-0 and was getting some buzz (they still topped out at No. 18 in the AP poll before Taysom Hill got hurt).
I believe the best way for the Cougars to be validated as an elite program is to kick down the door. I will only admit it won’t work once it happens a couple of times and BYU is still left out.
Wouldn’t it be great if both of those dreams became reality for the Cougars and the Wolverines?
Even better — since we’re letting our imaginations run wild — let’s have it happen back-to-back … and why not have it be in 2016-17?
It might not be as far-fetched as you might think.
Yes, you’ve heard how brutal the BYU football schedule is going to be. But great moments are born from great opportunity, right?
Most of the BYU opponents have some questions marks while the Cougars have experience in a lot of key areas and maybe, just maybe, the new BYU coaching staff under Kalani Sitake has some magic in them.
As for UVU, this could be a pretty good men’s basketball team in Orem and some of the top WAC programs have their own question marks to answer. Maybe this is the year the Wolverines reach the Big Dance — and upsets happen.
Call it a pipe dream or say I’ve been out in the hot June sun too long — but, man, that would make for a great sports season here in Utah County.
And then it would just be about seeing how that validation affected the two area athletic programs.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at (801) 344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.