Sean Pendergast

A Seismic Shift: What is the Future of the Big 12?

On a chilly December night, in the wake of a 38-27 win at home over ninth-ranked Kansas State to close out the 2014 college football regular season, Baylor head coach Art Briles stood amid his jubilant bunch of Baylor Bears on a makeshift stage in the middle of McLane Stadium. Microphone in hand, with the crowd hanging on his every word, Briles delivered a rousing acceptance speech for the Bears’ second straight Big 12 title. To Briles’s left, captains Bryce Petty and Bryce Hager clutched the substantial Big 12 Conference trophy.

As his finishing salvo, Briles screamed, “As the Big 12 Conference states, there’s ‘One True Champion,’ and it’s the Baylor Bears! It’s the Baylor Bears! It’s the Baylor Bears!”

In invoking the Big 12 Conference’s 2014 marketing slogan, “One True Champion,” Briles had a clear agenda. His chant was part self-congratulatory praise, part sales pitch. You see, the committee for the newly formed College Football Playoff was watching, and would be announcing its four selected playoff participants the next day. Fifth-ranked Baylor and its Big 12 brethren, third-ranked Texas Christian University, were among six teams in the hunt for the four playoff spots. Briles’s invoking the “One True Champion” mantra was a not-so-subtle reminder to the selection committee that his 11-1 Bears defeated the 11-1 Horned Frogs head to head, 61-58, back in October. In other words, “If you’re going to take a Big 12 team, playoff selection committee, take us,” Briles was implying.

There was only one problem with Briles’s whole “‘One True Champion’ reminder” strategy — earlier on that same December day, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was in Fort Worth presenting a carbon copy of Baylor’s Big 12 trophy to TCU after the Horned Frogs closed out their season with a 55-3 romp over Iowa State. Somehow, “One True Champion” had become “Two Disgruntled Co-Champions.”

To be fair to Briles, the “One True Champion” catchphrase wasn’t his invention. It was marketing fluff spewed from the Big 12 corporate office before the 2014 season to tout its round-robin schedule with no conference title game as the best and fairest way to determine a legitimate conference champion. The conference’s 11th-hour, backtracking declaration of co-champions was instead the Big 12’s lame way of trying to make both Baylor’s and TCU’s résumés look stronger to the playoff selection committee. See, committee, TCU and Baylor are both champions!

Needless to say, the Big 12’s hocus-pocus tactic didn’t work. The next day, the committee jumped Big Ten champ Ohio State over Baylor in its rankings, TCU dropped to sixth and the first-ever College Football Playoff was a four-team party with representation from the SEC (Alabama), ACC (Florida State), Pac-12 (Oregon) and Big Ten (Ohio State). Baylor, TCU and the Big 12 were left with their noses pressed against the glass window, on the outside looking in.

It’s no small coincidence that the four conferences with playoff representatives all staged conference title games that same weekend in December, one last chance to impress the committee on a big stage with a real conference title at stake, while the Big 12 was left flaccidly labeling two teams as co-champions just months after touting its way as the best way to crown “One True Champion.” It’s almost as if, by rejecting Baylor and TCU, the playoff committee were tacitly punishing the Big 12 for its lack of semantic logic as much as the committee was punishing Baylor and TCU for their win-loss résumés.

TCU head coach Gary Patterson was diplomatic about the snub, saying his team would put that behind it and go try to win its bowl game against Ole Miss. Briles was not nearly as accepting of his team’s fate, railing on the lack of Southern representation on the 13-person selection committee and complaining that the designation of Big 12 co-champions “muddied the waters” for the committee. “I think it hurt the cause for both of us [Baylor and TCU], quite frankly,” Briles says. Ya think, Art?

So the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff went off without a hitch and without the Big 12. The two semifinal pairings set college football records for cable ratings, and the championship game drew an astounding 18.5 overnight rating.

The committee’s rejection of the Big 12 was an unintentional but appropriate metaphor, if not an outright indicator of where the conference stands in college football’s landscape. In a college football ecosystem ruled by five power conferences that have morphed into their current forms through realignment driven in part by geography but more by TV money, the Big 12 is easily the most rickety of those Power Five, seemingly always one more seismic shift away from realignment destruction.

It is, however, worth mentioning that the Big 12’s instability could present opportunities to schools looking to make a move into the Power Five. If the expansion of the conference from ten teams to 12 were to come about, as some Big 12 university leaders have recommended, this would be great news to the University of Houston, which has quickly positioned itself in the past 12 months as a viable candidate for, at the very least, Big 12 evaluation.

It’s more noticeable at some times than at others, but the Big 12 is always teetering. Its exclusion from the College Football Playoff wasn’t so much a result of the Big 12’s dysfunction as it was a reminder of it, of a conference steeped in a tradition of persistent, often traumatic change, change that always seemed to be driven by disproportionate greed. This is the frightening tectonic plate on which the Big 12 constantly sits.

Understanding what the future possibilities are for the Big 12 starts with a lesson in the conference’s roots. With a lineage and a family tree that are probably better reserved for a soap opera than a college football encyclopedia, the Big 12 traces its roots in part back to the old Southwest Conference.

At one time a pinnacle of college football lore, by the 1980s, the Southwest Conference, which was made up of a slew of Texas schools and Arkansas, had become a metaphorical wild, wild west, with greedy boosters from the various schools so willing to lavish illegal money and gifts on recruits that seven of the nine schools in the conference found themselves on some sort of NCAA probation, including SMU, which received the NCAA’s first and only “death penalty.”

By the early 1990s, Arkansas had left for the SEC, and as conferences around the country began to cut their own television deals, TV network interest in the regional, Texas-only footprint of the Southwest Conference was tepid at best. There simply weren’t enough television sets in the state of Texas to justify a national-level TV deal. After some flirting by the University of Texas with the Pac-10 and Texas A&M with the SEC, those two schools, along with Texas Tech and Baylor, merged with the Big 8 to form the Big 12. A conference with college football blue bloods like Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas A&M was able to command top television dollars. Everyone in the new Big 12 seemed relatively happy. (Houston, Rice, TCU and a resurrected shell of SMU’s program were all left behind, relegated to second-tier status.)

Then came the summer of 2010, which began a shift within all of college football that would drastically alter the Big 12, along with several other conferences. To show you how the trigger can come from any direction, the realignment in 2010 actually began in the Midwest.

“It started with Jim Delany and the Big Ten looking at expansion, trying to go after Notre Dame,” recalls Chip Brown of Brown was the point reporter for every bit of breaking news in the Big 12’s 2010 realignment. “Notre Dame didn’t go, but at that point, Jay Nixon, the governor of Missouri, said, ‘Hey Big Ten, take Mizzou!’ At that point, Texas and [then-UT athletics director] DeLoss Dodds started to think, ‘We need to protect ourselves, and if the Big 12 unravels, we need a place to land.’”

At the time, Dodds reminded everyone that “[Texas] didn’t start this, but if we need to finish it, we’ll finish it.” For the Big 12, the bravado of Texas’s AD was a daunting harbinger of what was to come.

In June 2010, there were serious conversations between the Pac-10 and six of the Big 12’s schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado — about forming the first 16-team super-conference. The conversations were so serious that Texas scheduled a press conference to announce its move to the Pac-10, but Dodds backed out at the last minute, in part because A&M was flirting with the SEC. In the end, only Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-10. (Nebraska would also leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten that same summer.)

Texas’s cold feet proved fortuitous for a number of schools on different levels. Had those six schools left for the Pac-10, the six schools left behind (which included Baylor) would’ve been in conference no-man’s-land, functionally homeless. Additionally, Texas’s staying in the Big 12 opened the door for ESPN to offer the school an unprecedented $300 million over the next 20 years to launch the Longhorn Network, a 24/7 channel devoted entirely to UT sports.

Predictably, for one school to have its own network to print money for itself proved to be as problematic for the rest of the conference as it was lucrative for the Longhorns. “Once it came into being in 2011, the Longhorn Network became a huge problem for the Big 12,” says Brown. “ESPN’s owning the network was a treacherous tightrope, and communication was bad — bad between the Big 12 office and Texas to other conference members.”

It was on Brown’s radio show in Austin at that time that Dave Brown, an executive with ESPN, announced the LHN would carry Texas high school games, a development that never came to be but caused enough angst that it finally drove A&M to leave the Big 12 and move to the SEC, a historic shift since Texas and A&M would be ending their rivalry. Missouri, which had screamed bloody murder about the disloyalty of all the six schools that appeared headed to the Pac-10 in 2010, happily hightailed it with A&M for the SEC. All’s fair in love and realignment, I suppose.

“Oklahoma became irate when A&M left,” Brown recalls. “[OU President David] Boren tried to revive talks with the Pac-12 [the Pac-10’s then-new name], but they weren’t taking OU and Oklahoma State without Texas.” Eventually, and perhaps reluctantly, Oklahoma would stay in the Big 12, and the conference replaced A&M and Missouri with West Virginia and TCU in 2012.

The period of 2010 through 2013 was a time of massive conference realignment upheaval in collegiate sports around the country, not just in the Big 12’s footprint. In the end, six power conferences were reduced to five. Three of those five — the SEC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — are still built on fairly solid geographical logic and have launched wildly lucrative conference networks that would pay their members well more than $20 million per year. A fourth, the ACC, has been aggressive in its expansion and welcomed Notre Dame as a conference member for all sports except football, although the conference does have a five-game partnership each year with the Fighting Irish in football as well.

And then there’s the Big 12. Ostensibly, its ten schools have a lucrative enough television contract. Each school received $23 million in 2014, which is all well and good. However, unlike the four other power conferences, whose core programs have all been married at least a few decades, the Big 12 has been more of a marriage of monetary convenience, a ten-way “friends with benefits,” if you will. If the league were on Facebook, its relationship status would perpetually be set at “It’s complicated.” There’s very little, aside from the hobby of chasing TV money, that the Big 12 schools have in common.

On top of that, there is a serious two-school oligarchy in place in which one marquee university, Texas, has a proprietary television network that prevents the Big 12 from starting its own conference network (which has been a license to print money in conferences like the SEC and Big Ten), and another marquee school, Oklahoma, may cause the next big realignment shift, if it gets impatient enough.

That day may be coming sooner than we think.

It was at an OU Board of Regents meeting in late June this past summer that David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, floated the idea of expanding the Big 12. Even though Oklahoma wasn’t one of the two Big 12 schools getting lapped for a playoff spot in early December, conference pride kicked in for Boren. He saw the ten-team “One True Champion” round-robin structure of the conference as a detriment, not a selling point.

In a statement to The Oklahoma Daily, the school’s student newspaper, Boren went so far as to say the ten-team Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged” competing against bigger conferences and that Big 12 conference expansion should be considered. “There could be some slight loss of revenue from bowl games and other sources, but if the conference carefully selects additional members, based upon their media markets and fan base support, the amount should increase rather than decrease,” Boren said.

Trust is a rare commodity when it concerns realignment, so naturally Boren’s comments were seen equally as a passive-aggressive positioning of Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 and as promotion of conference expansion, especially after a report that came out just a few weeks later in the Omaha World-Herald. In that report, reporter Lee Barfknecht revealed that not only was Oklahoma part of a five-school Big 12 contingent looking at moving to the Big Ten in 2010, but the Big Ten had recently “done its homework” to evaluate Oklahoma and Kansas as possible members in the near future.

“Anytime David Boren talks about realignment, you have to take him seriously,” Chip Brown says. “He’s very smart politically. When he said the conference was ‘psychologically disadvantaged’ at ten teams, he was saying that the Big 12 needs to be 12 schools or else. I think he’s quietly looking around to see what’s possible for OU in the next two years.”

Clay Travis, FOX college football expert and founder of college football website, says that Oklahoma is certainly a hot commodity. “There are three Big 12 schools that have options outside of the Big 12,” he says. “Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas can go lots of places, which is great for those schools, but it also means they can’t be relied upon if you’re one of the other seven Big 12 schools.”

That Boren’s words advocate Big 12 expansion yet public discussion veers toward Big 12 disintegration speaks to the papier-mâché foundation of the league. Although the television contracts run through 2025, the only legal encumbrance holding teams to their membership is a “grant of rights” stipulation for the schools’ TV rights to which all ten teams have agreed. According to Travis, who is also an attorney, the “grant of rights” for college football television is flimsy at best.

“I’m not sure the ‘grant of rights’ is 100 percent enforceable,” Travis says. “If Texas decided tomorrow it wanted to leave for the Pac-12, I don’t think any court in the country would say that Pac-12 football games are the property of the Big 12. Also, the fact that ESPN and FOX are the networks putting the games on for all of these conferences and paying for them makes it even harder to enforce.” In plain English, if a school like Oklahoma or Kansas wants to move badly enough, and the fiscal math works, it will move.

If there’s one element that could keep the Big 12 together, it is, believe it or not, politics. Oklahoma and Kansas, while both desirable targets for most of the other four power conferences, are also both politically attached in their states to their less academically desirable sister schools, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. In other words, Oklahoma and Kansas could require a conference to take their sister schools as part of a package deal, which could be a deal breaker for academically driven conferences like the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

“Ironically, political inertia could keep the Big 12 together. No conference wants both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State or Kansas and Kansas State,” Travis surmises.

All these complications — politics, legalities, academics — make the ultimate vision for many college football fans a difficult get, and that’s a structure with four 16-team super-conferences. It’s a plan that, while fun to ponder, is ultimately built on nothing more than tidy math — four conferences, 16 teams in each conference, 64 teams overall. It really doesn’t get any cleaner mathematically.

Is it a viable idea? Travis says it faces some tough hurdles. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but my thoughts are: Where is the Pac-12 expanding? Academics matter to them; they’d have to go get Oklahoma and Texas, but they’d have to compromise academics if OSU and Texas Tech came with them,” he says. “I could see the SEC and the Big Ten (both at 14 teams right now) getting to 16 teams easily, and I think they’ll go to 16 because their networks are so valuable. It’s harder for the Pac-12 with their focus on academics. The ACC could with some ‘flyover’ states, like maybe Kansas.”

A four-super-conference structure likely would spell the end of the Big 12 altogether, or at the very least, the end of it as a power conference.

Implosion or expansion, someday the Big 12 will likely look different from the way it does today. Let’s pretend for a moment that Boren’s thoughts on expansion are genuine and the conference at least explores that possibility. “We should, however, be very selective,” Boren said about Big 12 expansion in his statement to the Daily. “I do not favor adding two more members unless they meet very high criteria.”

Could the fickle finger of the realignment gods point to Houston?

It’s early Saturday afternoon, and the University of Houston Cougars have just finished a scrimmage in one-year-old TDECU Stadium, the $120 million Taj Mahal they opened in 2014. In the lobby of the club area, an open doorway leads down a long hallway to the players’ locker room. As assembled media wait to interview first-year head coach Tom Herman, down the hallway, you can hear short bursts of synchronized laughter emanating from the locker room from 100 or so very entertained student-athletes. You can’t hear what’s drawing the laughter, but you’re 1,000 percent certain these kids are having fun. The Herman era is under way.

Eventually, Herman makes his way to the lobby, and one question into the interview, the culture change at UH is evident in his cadence, his energy, his vision. “We have really good coaches here, and we’ve got to sell our program and sell our vision to high school juniors out there, and let them know what kind of program they’ll be a part of, what kind of education they’re gonna get and what kind of people they’ll be around,” he says. “And then on the flip side, internally, you have to sell your vision to your staff and sell your players on the vision. We are constantly in sales mode, in buy-in mode.”

Indeed, Herman is at his core a salesman. The offensive coordinator for Ohio State’s national championship team last season, Herman arrived in Houston with a plan to make Cougar football championship-caliber. “Coming off a national championship and a 38-3 record in three seasons at Ohio State, I can say, ‘Here’s our plan; see how it works,’” Herman says. “Our plan is not theory; it’s tested; it’s proven.”

Currently, Houston plays in the American Athletic Conference, a grouping that is considered the best of the non-power conferences but is a bit of a geographic mess whose roots can be traced to the old Big East. The AAC is a nicer neighborhood than Conference USA, the Coogs’ old conference home, but in the brave new world in which college football has a playoff that is virtually exclusive to the Power Five conferences, the AAC still has “property value” issues.

An invitation to join the Big 12 would be Houston’s lottery ticket. That, however, is not something Herman concerns himself with, calling it a “decision made well above [his] pay grade.” It is, on the other hand, something that Hunter Yurachek, Houston’s vice president of intercollegiate athletics, concerns himself with. Greatly.

For a process with such drastic long-term ramifications, realignment decisions are made within very concise, narrow windows. If a conference is looking at a candidate and it fails to meet the proper criteria at that very moment, the window slams shut. In 2015, “realignment preparedness” is a necessity, according to Yurachek.

“You have to be in position, and we feel the University of Houston is positioned very well if the [Big 12] opportunity came,” Yurachek says. “We have a gorgeous, $120 million football stadium; that’s step one. Hiring Coach Herman, that was the next step, with his philosophy of putting figurative walls up and keeping high school talent in Houston. That’s the third step, getting players. We have a top 25 recruiting class right now.”

Yurachek concedes that the progress the program has made behind the scenes needs to translate into wins on the field in order to bring attendance up to where it needs to be. “Attendance is a big piece. Most Power Five conference schools are selling 25,000 to 30,000 season tickets, and right now, we’re in the 15K range. We need to get that to 20 or 25K,” Yurachek estimates. “On TV, a stadium that’s half full doesn’t show well.”

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne writes a letter to the state every day in order to get funds to build a library for his prison. Even though there’s a good chance the state will never answer, he keeps writing and writing before eventually getting a response after years and years worth of attempts. When you’re a school like UH, realignment is kind of like that. (My apologies to the members of the AAC for comparing their conference to a fictional prison.) Every game you play, every recruit you land, every improvement you make to facilities is one of those letters to the state. All you can do is hope that the state, in this case the Big 12, answers.

“We’ve positioned ourselves with the coaching staff and the facilities so we can get great players,” Yurachek says with quiet confidence. “From there, it’s all a big snowball effect.

“We’ll see.”

It’s a Friday in late August, and College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock is in his office getting ready for the upcoming college football season. His excitement for the 2015 season is driven in part by how rousing a success the first ever College Football Playoff was the previous season. “I don’t see how the first year could’ve gone any better.” Hancock beams.

Located in Irving, Texas, the offices of the College Football Playoff staff are somewhat ironically right in the heart of Big 12 country, a mere 26 miles from TCU and 104 miles from Baylor, the two schools rejected when the playoff pairings were announced last December. Hancock, who also oversaw the much-maligned BCS system that preceded the College Football Playoff, admits he is in charge of a much more popular, well-oiled machine these days. That much is evident when he’s asked what he would change about the playoff.

“We evaluated it, and we concluded it worked; we don’t need to make any changes,” Hancock states. “It’s not broke.”

Must be nice! Of course, Baylor and TCU would beg to differ, having both been left out of the four-team extravaganza, but when Hancock answers specific questions about the structure and the nuance of the Playoff, it’s almost as if he’s directly refuting any arguments made by either of the two Big 12 schools.

Was the committee sending any messages with the four teams it chose last December, Bill?

“Even though the committee is not in the business of sending messages, I would say teams should know now that they need to schedule well. Some programs have different scheduling philosophies, but if you play a good schedule, win your games and you’re gonna be in the hunt for the playoff,” Hancock explains.

In related news, the three games Baylor scheduled out of conference in 2014 were against SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, whom Baylor beat by a combined score of 178-27. Briles schedules patsies like these unapologetically, reasoning that if Baylor goes undefeated, it will probably be in the playoff.

How about the selection committee, Bill. How do you decide who gets invited to be a committee member?

“We look for various backgrounds and have five classifications of members — players, coaches, administrators, ADs and media. To fill out the slots, every conference nominates ten people, and we invite the top vote-getters. We make sure we have regionalization as well,” Hancock explains.

In related news, after missing out on the playoff, Art Briles complained about the committee not being “Southern” enough after Archie Manning left because of medical issues, as if Southern football were a complicated foreign language and the playoff selection committee spoke only English. It’s worth noting that among its new members in 2015, the committee added Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt. Texas Tech is a Big 12 member. It is also located in the South.

Bill, do you feel vindicated that Ohio State, who you jumped over both Big 12 teams, Baylor and TCU, wound up winning the championship?

“Maybe a little bit, but you never know what’s going to happen,” Hancock admits. “We had no idea Ohio State was going to win, but Ohio State clearly deserved to be there.

“We definitely picked the right four teams.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Waco, Briles prepares his team to open the 2015 season against 1-11 SMU, the first of three non-conference games for the Bears against completely overmatched non-Power Five opponents. The playoff committee’s obvious message last December about the necessity of aggressive scheduling has been crumpled up and ignored like a political flyer on Baylor’s windshield.
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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast