If college football conference realignment, specifically Big XII expansion, were a beauty contest, then for the University of Houston, September 3 was the final pageant. Through the countless months of fundraising, the sweat of building and paying for a new football stadium, the years of rebuilding and enhancing its brand, the road to the Cougars’ acceptance by a Power Five conference all led to NRG Stadium that morning.
It was there, in the stadium press box, just minutes before the start of the Advocare Texas Kickoff game between the Cougars and the defending Big XII champion Oklahoma Sooners, that University of Houston athletics director Hunter Yurachek once again was asked by the assembled media to reiterate the Big XII sales pitch that he (and anyone in a position of authority at the school, quite frankly) could now make in his sleep.
“It’s an impressive story, what’s happening on our campus,” said a beaming Yurachek. “It started when [UH president] Renu Khator got on our campus in 2009. [Former athletics director] Mack [Rhoades] took that first ball and ran with it, got the football stadium up, and that’s been impressive.
“Look at our campus,” Yurachek continued. “Eight hundred million dollars of renovations since 2010, another $700 million planned over the next four or five years, $275 million of those in athletics facilities…so [Big XII] commissioner [Bob] Bowlsby is correct — it is an impressive story, what’s going on right now at the University of Houston.”
Around four or five hours after Yurachek’s verbal marketing glossy, the UH football team, led by the sport’s current hottest property, head coach Tom Herman, would put the finishing touches on the school’s biggest regular season win since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference two decades ago, a 33-23 thrashing of the Big XII’s preseason favorite, those Oklahoma Sooners. Aside from the shaky first few minutes of the game, all afternoon long it was the Cougars who looked like the Power Five conference outfit, not the nationally third-ranked Sooners.
A day later, the television ratings numbers (a relevant metric considering TV money is the fuel in the engine of any conference expansion discussion) came in, and they were impressive — the Cougars’ win had pulled ESPN’s highest number in the Bayou City on college football’s opening weekend, drawing a remarkable 12.8 overnight rating. Two days later, the University of Houston football program would vault to its highest ranking in 25 years, jumping to sixth in the AP poll.
So in a game where we think the Big XII’s selection criteria are some version of “eyeballs, academics and where your football program is going,” as UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta puts it, Houston could not have positioned itself any better, and with the decision on Big XII expansion expected to be announced following the conference presidents’ next meeting, on October 17, there is cautious optimism that the Cougars should be one of two or possibly four schools crowned.
We know, though, that nothing in conference expansion is ever simple. Convoluted and confounding is the norm, so let’s start with the easy part — the University of Houston is a virtual lock to gain Big XII entry, if the conference presidents vote to expand. The Big XII powers that be recently interviewed about a dozen or so schools and reportedly whittled that list down to a half-dozen finalists, and the University of Houston is clearly best positioned to check the most boxes on any expansion criteria list, especially with former expansion favorite BYU facing relentless political heat over its intolerant stand on LGBT rights, a game changer in today’s sports world, where social issues bleed into these types of decisions. For what it’s worth, it’s widely believed that Cincinnati, along with UH, would be the other expansion “pageant winner.”
However, there is a secondary and very real possibility the University of Houston faces, and that’s the chance the Big XII may choose to stay with just ten schools and do nothing, which at this stage, given the years of tireless labor invested by Houston and the other candidates, would be like assembling the six finalists onstage at the Miss America pageant, opening the envelope and saying the words “Sorry, none of you win.”
This harrowing fear that ultimately the inertia of remaining at ten schools will rule the day was sparked by a comment from University of Oklahoma president David Boren at a recent OU Board of Regents meeting, at which Boren said, when asked about conference expansion, “I’m not saying there won’t be expansion, [but] I’m not saying it can be automatically assumed that there will be expansion.”
If it were any other conference president, those words might get treated as a throwaway comment, but keep in mind that, of all the Big XII school presidents, it’s Boren who’s been trumpeting the merits of conference expansion more loudly than any of the others, going so far as to publicly call the conference “psychologically disadvantaged” at just ten schools following the 2014 season, in which Big XII co-champions Baylor and TCU were both snubbed by the four-team College Football Playoff. Now Boren appears to be publicly wavering, which is a perfect microcosm of the dysfunction that pervades college football’s most rickety Power Five conference.
Boren, though, is not alone in pumping the brakes on Big XII expansion, with other luminaries weighing in and citing fear of the University of Houston specifically. Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel, a former washout as a head coach at UH in the early 2000s, recently told the Wichita Eagle, “If [Houston gets] into the Big XII, they will be tough to beat in recruiting because of the proximity [to recruits in the state of Texas]…I can’t believe anybody would want Houston.”
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, a far more prominent face than Dimel on the conference landscape, echoed those sentiments in a conversation with the Tulsa World: “The concern is…if your northern schools put a southern school, and another school in Texas, in the same league, that essentially is going to pull recruits from all of us. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone that’s not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league.”
Indeed, there is likely a legitimate fear within the football offices around the conference that admitting the University of Houston to the Big XII would make everybody’s job a little more difficult, in recruiting and, as long as Herman is the UH coach, on the field as well, where Houston’s program is ranked a full dozen or so spots ahead of the nearest Big XII school.
“I think you see coaches in the Big XII saying they don’t want any part of the University of Houston,” Yurachek acknowledged. “To me, that checks that box of someone being competitive, if you’ve got coaches concerned about Houston coming into the conference.”
Ultimately, the expansion decisions boil down to money ahead of all else, and while the television money that comes with Big XII membership would enrich the University of Houston roughly tenfold over the TV money it gets in the American Athletic Conference, there’s a good chance that admitting Houston (and one or three other schools) wouldn’t enrich the ten current members enough to make dealing with the headache of adding a potential loss to the schedule and adding future losses in recruiting worth it.
Put more simply, I’m guessing there were nine other Big XII head coaches who were glad they weren’t Sooners head coach Bob Stoops back on September 3, and who have no desire to find out what it felt like to get their teeth kicked in by Herman as Stoops did.
If conference expansion is about creating a more compelling on-field, on-television product, then Houston should be a runaway winner, with made-for-TV match-ups created all over the state of Texas. “Do you think UT fans want to go watch Texas play Central Florida or Connecticut, or do you think they want to be right here in Houston, where there’s 50,000 Longhorns, and they can fill the stadium themselves?” Fertitta asked, rhetorically. “If the Big XII says that they can’t get eyeballs in Houston, it’s B.S.”
Indeed, the available matchups between Houston and the Texas and Oklahoma schools are clashes that fans and alums everywhere would kill to see, and clashes the existing Big XII coaches would privately love to avoid. Gundy isn’t the only one who feels that way; he just happens to be the only one speaking publicly about it. Coaches are paid to win, and winning gets harder with Houston in the conference.
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On top of all that, the margin for error in attaining membership in the Big XII is so slim, with only three “NO” votes required among the ten current members to keep Houston and the other candidates from gaining admittance. In other words, are there three schools who have a reason — political, financial, competitive — to feel that staying at ten schools is just fine? There is a distinct possibility that there are.
In a game where the University of Houston set out to make its football program as strong as it could possibly be — building a new stadium, hiring the hottest coach in America, putting itself in position to do the unthinkable and compete for a College Football Playoff spot — come October 17, there’s a decent chance the school may have to deal with an unfair reality.
It may have done its job too well.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.