The Big 12 annual spring meetings wrapped up last week, and two of the biggest questions facing the league were resolved. But in those solutions they’ve put off a bigger, much more long-term problem.
First, the conference decided to reinstitute its championship game, in spite of the fact that there are now only ten teams in the league that all face-off in the regular season. This is America. We don’t like double jeopardy, so this system is nobody’s idea of perfection. But there also isn’t a tidy solution in dividing the Big 12 into two five-team divisions whose champions would meet at season’s end. The league also agreed to put the idea of a Big 12 cable network to rest. For now, the nine schools not named Texas are content with better-than-expected revenues of $30.4 million per school, even if the Longhorns are getting half that again from ESPN via the Longhorn Network.
Both of those decisions, however, factor into a dilemma the conference has temporarily shelved: expansion. Will the Big 12 stay put with ten teams, as is the repeatedly stated wish of University of Texas athletic director Mike Perrin? Or will it expand to twelve or even fourteen teams, as likely most of the other schools would prefer? Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has accelerated the timeline for this decision, commenting that he hopes that consultants hired by the conference will be able to provide enough information by August for the matter to be settled.
Meanwhile, the pecking order of the nine schools rumored to be or openly vying for Big 12 berths has shifted since last week. With the Big 12 network tabled, no longer is a school’s TV market of paramount importance. According to Big 12 Board Chair and University of Oklahoma President David Boren, now it’s mostly about quality football. When asked if there were a few particular schools the Big 12 was targeting for expansion, Boren said:
Yes, we want to make sure that if we decided to expand – underline if – … how do they fit in athletically? What is their fan base? What media markets are they in? Where do they stand at academically? What’s their level as a research institution? We want to make sure that they’re not dilutive to what is a strong conference.
Perhaps Boren emphasized the iffiness of expansion because there’s a good chance a bloc of Texas schools—led by UT—could shoot it down. A vote to expand would require a supermajority of eight schools for approval, and as the Cincinnati Enquirer notes, Texas’s history with Tech and TCU could mean they’ll vote together.
But let’s just say either the Frogs or Red Raiders break ranks, or Boren somehow persuades UT that expansion is in its best interest. Which schools are the likeliest candidates to join the conference? Notice the order of Boren’s criteria: quality of football and level of fan interest first, followed next by TV ratings and money, with academics bringing up the rear.
That would seem to eliminate Memphis, a basketball school with less-than-ideal academics, and South Florida, which hasn’t fielded a strong team since 2007. Central Florida would bring the Orlando TV market and has enjoyed a little more success on the field than USF, but they are coming off a winless season and certainly aren’t a big-name program. Lovable underdogs Boise State and basketball powerhouse UConn are both crazy far away. Colorado State has the virtue of sharing a state with a charter Big 12 member, but the scrappy Rams lack the splashy name-brand pizzazz that Boren is looking for. As do the Cincinnati Bearcats, despite their two BCS bowl bids. But even as a distinct second fiddle to Ohio State and a basketball school to boot, the ‘Cats would make a nice insta-rival for relatively nearby West Virginia. So Cincinnati and Central Florida would be strong candidates for a fourteen-team Big 12.
But if the conference chooses to expand by only two, Brigham Young and the University of Houston would be the best bets.
Although both of those schools have produced Heisman Trophy winners, BYU is the only one of these contenders with a national championship to its name. Since 1990, BYU has finished the season in the top twenty-five ten times, and has averaged nine wins a year over the last ten. Their fans are fanatical. Yes, their addition would mean the Big 12 would be home to an unprecedented three religion-based universities, but what of it? It’s not like the Mormons, Baptists and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would have some religious supermajority.
Which brings us to UH, the most logical candidate of them all. They have tradition: the Coogs were a fearsome power under Bill Yeoman in the 1970s and again in the razzle-dazzle Run n’ Shoot era of Jack Pardee and John Jenkins. They are coming off of their best season in 36 years, one capped off by a convincing two-touchdown victory over the mighty Florida State Seminoles. Tom Herman could be the hottest young coach in the game pacing the sidelines (or a brand-new expandable stadium, at that). Fan interest, always a problem for this one-time commuter school, is growing as UH evolves toward a more traditional campus. The school’s reputation for lackluster academics is becoming more and more outdated as the school has attained Tier One research status. And of all of the schools rumored to be in contention for a conference bid, UH is the only one located in a state currently encompassed by the Big 12.
To some, that’s a problem. Five Texas schools in one conference would be too much like the Southwest Conference reborn. But if California can support four schools in the Pac 12, football-crazy Texas can easily support five.
Irrepressible billionaire restaurateur, reality TV star, casino mogul and UH Regents Chair Tilman Fertitta has laid down the gauntlet for the Coogs. Fertitta believes that the city of Houston is teetering on the brink of a psychological defection to SEC country, and he has a point: the Bayou City is home to more Aggies than any other metro, and likely more LSU fans than anywhere outside of Louisiana. Not to mention growing numbers of Ole Miss, Bama, and Florida fans.
What I don’t like—and I’m concerned about—as a Houstonian is that the SEC is starting to own Houston. … There’s more talk about the SEC than there is the Big 12.
I just don’t understand the Big 12 not wanting to own Houston, Texas, which is soon to be the third-largest populace in the United States. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’m just kind of disappointed and shocked it’s not an automatic.
Idle talk? Hardly. TV ratings don’t lie, and the story they tell is a grim one for the Big 12. Eight of the top thirteen most-watched games in the Houston market last year featured SEC teams, with only Texas-OU and Baylor-TCU ranking as high for the Big 12. For its part, Houston cracked the top ten twice, even though their foes in those games were Temple and Navy.
Secondly, Fertitta went on to call out the UT athletic department for being “scared” of the resurgent Cougars. He might have a point there, but if you look it at through burnt orange glasses, what good is another powerful in-state rival? Since A&M defected to the SEC, more of the state’s top recruits than ever are taking their talents east of the Sabine, and not just to nearby schools like LSU and Arkansas, but ones like Ole Miss and Bama. Meanwhile, newly-resurgent TCU and Baylor are (or were, in Baylor’s case) scooping up more and more of the blue-chip Texans who want to stay in-state.
Coming off one of the worst extended runs in its history, does Texas need a powerful new nemesis 170 miles down the road, one whose rise would be accelerated and sustained by its power-up to the P5?
Probably not. But with Baylor all but certainly on the edge of a precipitous decline, they can’t afford not to bring in UH. Through their histories, the Kansas schools, Iowa State, and Baylor have usually been laughingstocks, and once the Purple Wizard hangs up his headset for good and the aftershocks of the Baylor rape horror finish playing out, it seems likely that dark times will again descend on the gridirons of Manhattan and Waco. TCU is on a high now, but it has stumbled lost for over a decade. Oklahoma State, Tech, and West Virginia are usually respectable, but rarely elite.
That leaves Texas and OU as the sole conference blue-bloods, and with the Horns in a funk until further notice, the conference lags far behind the SEC, Big 10, and maybe even the ACC in national perception. Maybe a Cougars addition could restore the Big 12’s former glory.