SALT LAKE CITY — Some of Utah’s most influential Mormons, including Mitt Romney, Gov. Gary Herbert and the president of the Utah Jazz, lobbied to get the private, Mormon church-owned Brigham Young University an invitation to join the lucrative Big 12 athletic conference.
Jazz President Steve Starks said BYU was asked not to directly lobby other universities, so he instead worked to drum up support for the Provo school and enlisted help from the governor’s office.
Starks, a Mormon, didn’t attend BYU but said he’s always been a fan and the university’s entrance into the conference would have been good for Utah and Utah sports.
Big 12 university presidents and chancellors authorized Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to begin evaluating potential expansion candidates in July, and BYU was among several schools that made it clear they’d like to become members of the Power Five conference.
But the Big 12 Conference announced Monday that it has decided against expansion from its current 10 schools.
To make a case for BYU, Starks said there were “several of us that I think have pulled out our Rolodexes and made phone calls.” He declined to name names beyond Romney and Herbert, but said there were many others.
Romney, the most prominent Mormon in the country, called Oklahoma State billionaire booster T. Boone Pickens to make a pitch for his alma mater, Pickens told reporters in September.
Messages left with a representative for Romney were not returned, but Starks said he didn’t ask Romney to get in involved in the effort because the 2012 presidential candidate already was making calls.
Starks called the Utah governor’s office to see if Herbert, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would reach out to his counterparts in states with Big 12 power schools to urge their support for BYU.
In August, Herbert called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to urge support for BYU and days later made a similar pitch to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin while they attended a Republican Governors Association meeting in Colorado, said Herbert’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
While Utah officials said a spot for BYU in the Big 12 would have brought prestige to the school and showcased the state to football fans elsewhere, it was also personal for Herbert. He attended BYU, as did his children, and his son-in-law, former Canadian football player Ben Cahoon, is the school’s receivers coach.
Herbert, a Republican, was not the only elected official to wade into the issue — governors in Texas and Ohio issued tweets or wrote letters on behalf of schools in their states. In Texas, the lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick, issued a formal statement urging the conference to not only take Houston but also the private Southern Methodist University.
Entrance into the Big 12 would have entitled BYU to a piece of the Big 12’s shared revenue. Conference members split a record $304 million in net revenue, about $30.4 million per school for the 2015-16 school year.
BYU athletics broke away from the Mountain West Conference in 2011 as the university looked for better opportunities. The football program became an independent after not making the cut when the Pac-12 expanded from 10 to 12 teams. Most of the other sports joined the West Coast Conference.
Independence has allowed the football team to play more high-profile games without a mandatory conference schedule against mid-major teams. The opportunity to reach the College Football Playoff from a non-Power 5 conference is slim.
University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has said his school’s entrance into the Pac-12 Conference in 2011 was the most significant thing to happen to its football program. From a pure monetary standpoint, Utah has seen its athletic department revenues jump from $26.165 million in 2009-10 to $59.271 million in 2014-15. The national TV revenue grew from $1.222 million to $18.084 million.
For BYU, joining the Big 12 would have also opened recruiting doors that can be closed otherwise. The highest caliber athletes in the country typically lean toward playing in a Power 5 conference, which besides the Big 12 and Pac-12 include the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC.
The expansion talk came as federal education officials investigate how the school handles sexual assault reports. The scrutiny followed complaints from students and alumni about BYU’s practice of opening honor code investigations of students who report sexual abuse.
The strict honor code bans premarital sex and alcohol consumption, among other things. Gay rights groups also pushed back against the school’s inclusion, arguing it has discriminatory policies.
Rachel Sanders, executive director of left-leaning watchdog group Alliance for a Better Utah, said elected officials shouldn’t have tried to influence a sports issue, especially one involving a private school.
Sanders said officials that pushed for BYU were sending a message that any problems with BYU’s honor code and LGBT policies are acceptable.
Cox said the Utah governor’s conversations were brief and didn’t dive into the school’s religious practices or honor code. The governor instead highlighted the school’s strong ticket sales, academics and support from state leaders.
Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Austin and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.