The buildup to last year’s Advocare Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium was as much about collegiate politics and fiscal largesse as it was sport. It was the blue blood Oklahoma Sooners perceptually punching down at the upstart University of Houston. The game wasn’t just about 60 minutes of football. It was about Houston’s campaign for admittance behind college football’s Power Five velvet rope, for that golden ticket to Oklahoma’s conference, the Big XII.
That afternoon, David thumped Goliath. The Cougars took the Big XII’s defending champions behind the woodshed, thrashing them by a deceptively close score of 33-23. The image of Houston head coach Tom Herman on the field after the game flashing the school’s hand sign and telling America with an icy stare that the Cougars trained to win and expected to win is indelible. Herman had delivered a rock-hard body blow to the Big XII’s power school that ultimately kept the conference out of the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.
A lot can change in ten months, though, and in college football, bitter enemies can become best friends with the stroke of a pen. Ten months ago, Tom Herman was at Houston trying to help that school infiltrate the Big XII. Now, in 2017, Tom Herman is the head coach at the University of Texas, and ironically, his arrival might prevent the end of the Big XII.
In collegiate sports, it’s easy to mask long-term foundational issues with short-term statistics, so when Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby laid out the state of the union for the conference at Big XII football media days, things sounded pretty promising. “We distributed — and it varies a little bit from institution to institution based upon how they did in some of our championships — but we distributed a little over $34 million last year. That is about a 15 percent increase from the previous year. I think we finished in the top four in the country in 18 sports,” said Bowlsby.
At the moment, those accomplishments feel good, but there is no question that the Big XII continues to operate with a shaky framework built on marginal trust among its member schools and a damaged perception of the sport that matters most, or “the coin of the realm” as Bowlsby calls it — college football.
Since its inception in 1996, the Big XII has always been the Power Five conference most at risk in college football’s ever shifting landscape, where chasing cable television money seemingly supersedes chasing national championships. Hell, the conference was born into existence for that exact reason, to create a television behemoth, an arranged marriage of the Big Eight and the blue blood schools in Texas, a marriage that killed the Southwest Conference.
The conference was essentially born out of greed, so it’s been the primary go-to for cherrypicking by the other Power Five conferences during each realignment phase — Colorado to the PAC-12 in 2010, Nebraska to the Big Ten in 2010, Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC in 2012.
As Bowlsby points out, the ten Big XII schools that remain have reaped the financial rewards of the conference’s television money, but that golden goose is heading into some uncertain times. Cord cutting in the cable industry has crippled ESPN, the largest television rights check writer by far, and when the conference’s TV deals come up early next decade, the Big XII will find, at the very least, shrewder negotiators staring at them across the table.
This biggest issue for the conference will always be whatever affects its television money, and right now the Big XII’s problem is the sagging perception of its quality of football. The ultimate measuring stick is participation in the four-team College Football Playoff, and the Big XII is the only Power Five school (a) to miss out on the tournament two of the three years it has existed, and (b) to have never won a playoff game.
The label “Power Five Conference” is entirely a label of perception. There are no statistics for it, no empirical qualifications. “Power Five” is based on reputation, and that reputation fuels the asking price for broadcast rights. The danger for the Big XII is this: If the conference’s television paydays aren’t going to be big enough in the next TV contracts, the two true programs of royalty, Texas and Oklahoma, might hightail it to the Big Ten or SEC or PAC-12, leaving the other eight schools in sports purgatory. This just in: ESPN does not cut big checks for games held in purgatory.
The good news for Bowlsby and others who desire a future with a strong Big XII is that the conference has a new wave of young superstar head football coaches, led by Herman. “I don’t think there’s a league in the country that has three better new young head coaches than Tom Herman and [Baylor head coach] Matt Rhule and [Oklahoma head coach] Lincoln Riley. They are superstars, each one in their own right,” extolled Bowlsby.
While both Rhule’s rebuild of Baylor in the wake of the sexual assault scandals that occurred under Art Briles and Riley’s maintaining of Oklahoma’s gold standard established under Bob Stoops are key to the Big XII’s future, they pale in comparison to the criticality of Herman’s success at Texas for the conference.
They say that a rising tide lifts all boats, and in the Big XII, that tide is the University of Texas. It’s not a coincidence that the Big XII’s struggle for overall respect the last several years has overlapped with a spate of completely lackluster Longhorn football seasons. Texas, even when mediocre, is the most profitable program in college sports, and a brand strong enough to have its own television network.
“Since the class of 2018, these 16-year-old kids that we’re recruiting — since they were two years old, they’ve seen two Texas football seasons [end in title games], ; and they’ve seen four losing Texas football seasons,” said Herman. “So the Texas that they know is a lot different than the Texas that people in my generation know.”
Kids come to the Big XII to do one of two things: play for the University of Texas or play against a Longhorn team that matters. To Herman’s point, on the field, Texas has not mattered since 2009. The recent dip in performance by the Longhorns has led to a tangible negative effect on recruiting and overall talent in the Big XII.
In February, the conference signed just one of the top ten players in the state of Texas. By comparison, in 2011, the conference signed 17 of the top 20 Texas recruits. In 2017, the conference had fewer players drafted by the NFL (14) than the American Athletic Conference (ironically, home to the University of Houston).
“When Texas is down, other schools smell blood in the water a little bit,” Herman explained. “When we get Texas back, I can’t imagine a scenario where you’d ever see not one team from the state of Texas in the top 25.”
The importance of restoring Texas football to prominence is not just an Austin, Texas, issue. It matters to the other nine Big XII schools as well, even if they won’t admit it publicly. When asked about saving the Big XII, Herman is understandably more concerned with saving Longhorn football.
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“Is it my job to take care of the Big XII? No. It’s none of our jobs to take care of the Big XII. You know what our job is, is to win games, graduate players, represent the University of Texas really, really well, at a very, very high, elite level, and in turn that takes care of the Big XII,” said Herman. “So I don’t know that we ever really think about, hey, let’s be an ambassador for the conference. You know, I’m an ambassador for the University of Texas, and if I do that job well, then by default, we’ve become, as a program, a good ambassador for the Big XII.”
The day of reckoning for the Big XII conference will come when the next television deals need to be negotiated, and it will be Bowlsby’s job to make sure the payouts don’t go backwards. There is nothing Bowlsby can do to control market forces like cord-cutting and the rise in web streaming. All he can do is position the Big XII to have its best chance of getting a school to the College Football Playoff, but even most of that is also out of his hands.
It’s now in the hands of the conference’s new breed of young head coaches, as deft on Twitter as they are at calling plays. Tom Herman needs to be the standard bearer. If Texas isn’t going to make the College Football Playoff, at the very least defeating Texas needs to mean something again. Last season even Kansas beat the Longhorns.
The next chapter for Herman begins on September 2, almost a year to the day after he bloodied the nose of the Big XII at NRG Stadium. On September 16, he will take the Longhorns to USC to battle the fourth-ranked Trojans. His team will be an underdog, his foe will be heavily favored college football royalty and the game will have bigger ramifications than just the final score. Tom Herman’s been here before.