SALT LAKE CITY — As everyone in BYU circles can tell you, the Cougars are in athletic limbo. They have been pushed aside during several iterations of the Power 5 conferences, and it has nothing to do with athletic performance and everything to do with politics.
Maybe some brave conference will take a stand and invite BYU into its ranks based on performance on the field and at the gate, as should be the case. The problem is that, while waiting for something to happen and operating as one of the few schools without conference affiliation, the Cougars are trending down. If BYU were a publicly traded stock, now would not be the time to buy, because there’s nothing to suggest that this is going to change soon.
The Cougars’ progress can be tracked in the annual Learfield Directors’ Cup rankings, which were released recently. The rankings quantify the overall success of a school’s athletic department by awarding points based on its finish in each of the NCAA-sanctioned sports (in NCAA championship events, or, in the case of football, the polls).
BYU has traditionally excelled in the Cup rankings because the school has supported a broad-based athletic program. Rather than focus on football and basketball programs at the expense of all other sports (see Utah), it has fielded strong teams in track, cross-country, volleyball, baseball, softball, golf, and, formerly, wrestling and men’s gymnastics.
But the school has seen a steady decline in almost all of its sports. In this year’s final Cup rankings, the Cougars were ranked 45th, their second-lowest ranking since the rankings were created 25 years ago. The lowest was a No. 48 ranking just three years ago, which ought to tell you where we’re headed here.
During the first 14 years of the rankings (1994-2007), the Cougars’ average ranking was 24.6 (and it would have been even better if the Cup rankings had been tallied years earlier); in the 11 years since then, their average ranking is 40.3.
The Cougars were once a perennial top-30 school, and that put them in elite company (there are 65 Power 5 schools, so do the math). The Cougars hit their stride during a five-year stretch from 1997 to 2001, when their average ranking was 16.2. They haven’t finished in the top 25 since 2002.
For the sake of comparison, the Cougars have placed well-ahead of Utah every year, and it hasn’t even been close. Utah has an average ranking of 65th the last dozen years. The Utes ranked 61st overall this year — and 11th among Pac-12 schools, ahead of only Washington State, while Pac-12 schools took three of the top four spots.
BYU’s ranking has been hurt by the decline of the two revenue sports. The football team, 4-9 last season, hasn’t finished in the top 25 since 2009. The basketball team hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament for three straight years and has been mostly irrelevant for years before that.
The so-called minor sports have fared better, though many are not achieving their previous high standards. The men’s and women’s cross-country teams placed third and 11th, respectively, in the 2017-18 NCAA championships, but the school made a poor showing at the track championships. The baseball team, which advanced to the NCAA postseason regularly from the late ‘60s through the early ‘90s (including two College World Series appearances), has qualified for one NCAA tournament in the last 16 years.
The men’s golf team, once a powerhouse program, qualified for the 2018 NCAA championship for the first time in 12 years and finished 24th. The men’s volleyball team has been to the NCAA Final Four five of the last six years.
Women’s teams are excelling. The soccer team has won five of the last six conference championships and the NCAA Tournament berth that goes with it. The volleyball team has finished no lower than 13th in the final polls the last six years. The softball team has advanced to the NCAA regional tournament 14 consecutive years.
There might be some doubt about BYU’s ability to compete at an elite level in football and basketball, especially when the school is ostracized, but the Cougars have proven they can compete in the other sports. Maybe they should follow the lead of Virginia and Stanford, schools that don’t win national championships in basketball and football but field strong overall athletic programs.
BYU is still competitive in the Olympic sports even without utilizing some of its best athletic talent. To comply with Title IX requirements, BYU cut strong men’s programs — wrestling and gymnastics — nearly 20 years ago. It fielded a rising men’s soccer program before cutting it in the late ‘80s. That sport has thrived at the club level, winning the 2017 national collegiate club championship (the Cougars also won it in 2001). The lacrosse team won national club championships in 1997, 2000, 2007 and 2011. (BYU also has won four national collegiate club championships in rugby, but it’s not an NCAA sport.) The Cougars would excel in skiing if they fielded a team.
BYU certainly still has the potential to make its mark in collegiate sports.