It is said that the true nature of families comes out during times of crisis, and the dissolution of the dysfunctional family that was the Big 12 Conference proved the point. Following the announcements in June that the University of Nebraska and the University of Colorado would be leaving for the Big Ten and the Pac-10, respectively, it looked for several weeks as if the entire conference might come apart. As the University of Texas flirted with the Pac-10 as well and Texas A&M heard the siren song of the Southeastern Conference, all the fears and ambitions, all the envy and contempt, all the jealousies and grudges that had festered through the years came pouring out. Nothing was held back. The analogy that occurred to me over and over again during those weeks was to the doomed airliner. It was as if the remaining ten schools were passengers on a plane that had hit a nasty electrical storm and was losing altitude fast. The end was in sight, and everyone was determined to use his final moments of life to get everything off his chest.

I could imagine UT and A&M bickering as the cabin pressure drops and the luggage begins to tumble from the overhead compartments. “You’re seceding from the state!” shouts UT. “The consequences will be on your head!”

“I’m sick and tired of you telling everybody what to do!” A&M screams. “You always thought you were better than everyone else! The rednecks in the SEC will love us.”

Relations are no better in the row occupied by Missouri, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State. “I can’t believe I’m going to die sitting next to you,” Missouri cries. “This section is supposed to be for high-class universities.”

Oklahoma is sitting by itself, drinking heavily and muttering about how Nebraska, its old rival from the glory days of the Big Eight, managed to skip the flight. From the back of the plane, all you can hear is sobbing. There sit Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State. “If only Bob Bullock was alive,” Baylor says. “Now we’ve got nobody to help us.” Kansas is in shock. “We’ve got the best basketball program in the country,” it shouts. “Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Even our local newspaper is against us,” Kansas State wails. “It says we’re doomed to the athletic second tier.” Iowa State is just weeping, but no one pays attention to Iowa State.

Then, suddenly, the skies brighten, the plane regains altitude, the flight attendants begin to hug one another deliriously, and an awkward silence settles in among the universities.

The turbulence revealed the misalliances within this family, and it’s hard not to conclude that the new version of the Big 12, which I can’t help but refer to as the “Little 10,” is a league built on quicksand. The resentments will not go away, and Nebraska’s defection is a significant loss for a conference that was short on cachet to begin with. The only schools that really want to be part of the Little 10 are the weaklings who have nowhere else to go. UT and Oklahoma will stay put as long as it is to their advantage to do so and no longer.

The shake-up started when the Big Ten announced last winter that it was contemplating expansion. Rumors swirled that its targeted schools were Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, and Notre Dame. College football appeared to be headed toward a long-anticipated realignment: the emergence of four superconferences (Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-10) that would eventually participate in a playoff to determine a national champion on the field instead of with the flawed Bowl Championship Series system of computers and polls.

The Big 12 had enjoyed considerable success under the old formula—Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska all played in BCS title games, and Missouri and Kansas achieved high national rankings—but the financial and competitive gap between its top programs and the also-rans was too great. Whereas the Big Ten and the SEC divide television revenues evenly, the former Big 12 did not. UT and Oklahoma got a bigger share than Texas A&M did. Nor was there all that much TV money to begin with. The Big 12’s income never approached what the glamour conferences are able to secure. The Big Ten’s TV contract is for $242 million, and the SEC’s is for $205 million. The former Big 12 managed just $78 million.

Realignment and a new playoff system could generate as much as $900 million in revenue (according to some estimates), four times what the current BCS yields. For the Big 12, the thinking was that Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Colorado would join the Pac-10, expanding that league to sixteen teams, which would then be divided into two eight-team divisions. But UT wanted to form its own cable TV network, which would give it a revenue stream not dependent on the usual sources (student fees, ticket sales, TV contracts, licensing agreements, alumni contributions). With its own network UT could produce its own content and sell time to advertisers. The Pac-10 said no and the deal fell apart, but then league officials swooped in and picked up Colorado. The next day, Nebraska jumped at the chance to join the Big Ten. It appeared that UT might have overplayed its hand.

At that point, the best option for the remaining teams was to try to reassemble the Big 12, minus the two defectors. But another problem had arisen. While UT was sipping chardonnay with the Pac-10, A&M had been shotgunning Pabst with the SEC. A&M had three good reasons for entertaining thoughts of joining the SEC. One was culture. As a source at A&M told me, “The Pac-10 was never a good cultural fit for us. We didn’t want to send a military band to Berkeley and Stanford to be harassed.” Another was academics; A&M would be one of the top research universities in the SEC (third, after Vanderbilt and Florida), while in the Pac-10 it would have been overshadowed by the great California institutions. But perhaps what A&M found most attractive about SEC membership was that it presented a chance to finally break away from UT. In College Station, students donned T-shirts featuring the letters “SEC-ede.” Many Aggies envisioned being able to recruit in Texas by telling home-state prospects, “Come to A&M and you can play in the strongest football conference in the country while Texas is off playing Washington State.”

All of a sudden, UT was faced with a losing scenario—no Pac-10, a diminished Big 12, and A&M recruiting with the clout and money of the SEC behind it. Was there ever a formal offer for A&M to join the SEC? Here’s what I was told by my source in the A&M administration: “It was understood that, if we wanted to apply, there would be broad acceptance.” But the SEC bubble burst, and A&M and Texas—both saying that keeping the Big 12 together was really their first choice all along (sure, sure)—decided that their best option was the Little 10 after all.

Unequal division of revenue will continue to be an issue in the new conference. According to deals that have not yet been finalized, UT, A&M, and Oklahoma will receive $20 million per year starting in 2011 (a significant increase for A&M, which got $9 million in the 2009 season). The rest will receive somewhere in the range of $14 million to $17 million. But this depends on the diminished conference’s being able to command that kind of money from the networks, which remains to be seen.

In one crucial respect, the new conference is worse off than its deceased predecessor. A league must have twelve teams in order to hold a championship game, which is a lucrative source of revenue. The ten-team remnant of the Big 12 doesn’t qualify. If it’s going to realize its full revenue potential, it must add two new teams. The University of Houston is already applying political pressure to be admitted, but it will hardly enhance the academic stature of the conference. There just aren’t a lot of schools in the region that are capable of playing major college athletics at a high level. Tulane? Nice road trip but no winning tradition. New Mexico? Ditto. The best bets are TCU and Arkansas, which gets you almost right back to the old Southwest Conference. TCU is ambitious and talented, but while it’s competitive in baseball and football, its basketball program is not up to Big 12 standards. Despite repeated statements out of Fayetteville that Arkansas is happy with its SEC membership, some folks believe that the Razorbacks might be willing to look at the new version of the Big 12. But UT and A&M are not going to be eager to have the Razorbacks recruiting in their backyard again. Meanwhile, the Big 12 schools that were left out of the realignment talk have to be nervous about their future, knowing all too well that UT and OU are ready to drop them in the grease at the first sign of a better deal. “This scenario,” wrote a Kansas paper, the Manhattan Mercury, “plays into Kansans’ natural sense of self-doubt, which in the last century has become as much a part of the state as wheatfields.”

The great irony of the battle over the demise of the former Big 12 and the quest for realignment is that, for most institutions, the scramble for more revenue is inevitably a losing battle. Want to guess how many of the 119 major college programs had positive net revenue in athletics in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available? Only 19. The arms race in coaches’ salaries, weight rooms, and stadium expansions is never ending. In an era of tight budgets, how long can universities without winning traditions—such as my alma mater, Rice—continue to lose millions of dollars every year in athletics?

The plane that carried the Little 10 through the turbulence is still airworthy, but none of the problems that surfaced during the flight have gone away. The revenue disparity still exists. Missouri still wants to go to the Big Ten. A&M fans are still infatuated with the idea of going to the SEC. UT is still the powerhouse, the university that calls the shots, the school that everybody loves to hate. The word that comes to mind: Mayday.