I've decided to write a three part series to catch up on the Big 12. These will be shorter articles though---I have some time crunches...
I knew the Big 12 had a meeting on realignment, but nothing came of it (nothing was expected to come of it).
I knew the conference won the right to play a title game ....to the modest enthusiasm of some members....
"Hooray! We can play a title game! ...Wait, do we really want to play a title game...?"
I did not know that in mid-January that OU's president pronounced the Big 12 inferior.
....Leading up to that meeting. (I was painting the house that week...)
In a statement to the OU Daily OU President David Boren did not mince words on his feelings on the conference's position (and ultimately it's "big win" in securing the right to chose to have a championship game):
"The Big 12 is disadvantaged when compared to the other conferences in three ways. We do not have at least twelve members, we do not have a conference network, and we do not have a championship game. I think that all three of these disadvantages need to be addressed at the same time. Addressing only one without addressing all three will not be adequate to improve the strength of the conference," the statement read.
He went on to flesh out his statement to the Tulsa World and any other Oklahoma reporters.
He called the Big 12 the "little brother" in the Power 5 conferences.
“I think if — if — we can get the Big 12 on the right track, if this comprehensive plan could be adopted, then I would rather stay in the Big 12. I think that would be to our advantage. But it’s something that we really need to have happen. But we just need to wait and see what develops. Certainly, my first choice, if we can get the right things done in the Big 12, the right steps taken, especially these three, then I think we ought to stay in the Big 12. If it just doesn’t happen, then I try to think long-term.”
Um...That's kind of huge in realignment terms.
These are not normal, "I'm a little frustrated with the conference's direction"-type statements.
That is turning your cannons on your own conference and saying "change or we walk".
(The big threat would be that OU would announce intentions to walk at the end of the GOR. That would kill the conference way ahead of that date, freeing OU for an earlier departure.)
These statements amount to lighting the fuse on your boosters.
The gist of it strategically is that frustration at the gridlock has gotten to you so now you start letting loose your boosters. You publically pronounce your conference unsuitable and then then let your boosters simmer in the idea. When they are boiling hot, they will rally support behind any idea you put out there.
This is what Missouri did. This is what Nebraska did. This is what Texas A&M did.
This is confrontational stuff. And UT, the local King, responded.
Well... Austin reporter Kurt Bohls responded on UT's behalf with a series of UT speaking points ("Do you really want to recruit against UH coach Tom Herman in conference?" etc.).
These were essentially the Longhorn leadership playing to their boosters by putting their fingers in their ears and saying, "I can't hear anyone who works for the University of Oklahoma! Blah! Blah! Blah! I can't hear you!"
This was the lead in to the Big 12 meetings.
And what came out of the Big 12 meetings?
The Big 12 is now speaking with one voice and David Boren is sheepishly towing the company line.
We are missing something HUGE here.
It isn't like the Big 12 told Boren, "Hey Dude, shut up or we are going to kick OU out!"
That would just lead to Boren laughing as he walked out the door.
The reports say that all the schools laid their cards down and talked freely at the meeting.
I am sure a lot of school leaders expressed their displeasure with Boren.
But I also think it is very likely Boren did not mince words when his turn came around.
"Fix this shit or OU will be leaving at the completion of the GOR and we won't make a secret of our impending departure. You know what that will do to this conference. If you haven't thought about that scenario and what it will do to your school, you should."
"Further, depending on the conference we pick, we will likely be taking along a plus one..." (If it is the SEC --- likely West Virginia. If OU can talk their way into the Big Ten --- unlikely --- or the PAC, they are likely going to talk to Kansas.)
Boren may have been slightly more polite than that. Or not.
His silence coming out and constant deference to the commissioner suggests he was assured by the membership and the commissioner that the conference was going to move to honestly consider the finances and how his agenda addresses it, but they needed some time to save face if they decide to back off long-held positions against expansion.
I think there is a very good chance UT is conceptually on board with selling the LHN to the Big 12 ---- something I advocated the Big 12 pursue a few months ago --- but do not want it to appear that Boren forced them into it.
I think Boren would have no interest in embarrassing a UT leadership willing to work with him.
Boren toed the company line like a pro. Boren isn't one to normally hold back his opinions.
I think he would in exactly that scenario and few others (more on this in part two of the series).
Prior to the meeting Boren continued to talk about a 2 team expansion. I think the reasons for this are three-fold.
1) There is a really good chance better candidates will be available in a few years.
2) The big need right now is adding markets. Two schools could actually be very impactful in those terms laying the financial basis for future members, while keeping slots open.
3) Conferences like to do little expansions then catch their breath and evaluate.
So who is likely coming if they go to 12? I go back to what Boren said about new member criteria.
"We have been, as a group, looking at expansion, discussing expansion, and we have had outside consultants helping us look at what schools are the possible best fit....So there are more than two out there that could be a good fit. There may be six or seven, and we could pick from that group the right two. There may be six or seven, and we could pick from that group the right two. We have to be very careful. We don’t want to go out and get Okefenokee A&M or something just to have a name....We'll look at the fan base, we'll look at the size of their programs, we'll look at the academics of the institutions. We'll look at them comprehensively as to which is the best fit. And also we'll consider geography to a certain degree."
Which ties into something else that came out of the Oklahoma papers right around that time.
Seven months after pushing Boise State to the Big 12, (something I kind of politely challenged him on at the time) Berry Tramel has finally joined us the "academics matter" reporting group. (I'd like to note that literally overnight after writing Tramel, my blog had hundreds of additional readers ---something I can only take as being a standup guy and tossing the link out some places as I didn't post the link...So thank you...).
Tramel did so with great flair in a fantastic piece titled "Academics matters in conference realignment", in which he discusses Colorado State, Houston, and the like, in academics terms. (Strongly recommended, although I think there is a huge blind spot in not also using the US News rankings as they directly correlate with Power 5 membership.)
“The Big 12 is the only Power 5 conference with a majority of non-elite university members, which gives it [the Big 12] an academic profile more similar to the various mid-major conferences."
You can see that reflected in Boren's statements. The goals from Boren's perspective is to land a combination of markets to offset the Big 12's ridiculously small media footprint, a football ringer, and academically strong schools.
So who is in? I don't think there is any consensus.
My reading between the lines is that of the 7 candidates mentioned frequently (BYU, CSU, Memphis, Houston, Cinci, USF, UCF)... Boren personally really appreciates the value of BYU (power programs, national/international following, great undergrad academics) a lot, and can tolerate Cincinnati (slightly lesser athletically, decent academics, good research, good market), but might strongly prefer the combo of BYU and a surprise candidate getting a lot of talk these days.... UConn (near elite undergrad academics, elite basketball, NYC TV presence) ....as that would make a Big 12 Network a lot more viable/lucrative.
But I think he gets BYU doesn't have the support among the anti-expansion factions in the conference and there are some strong arguments as to why ESPN might want Cincinnati in the Big 12, so Boren would grudgingly take UConn and Cincinnati to advance the network goal. That would be adding 30+ Million to the conference's tiny footprint.
(And for the record, I think "Okefenokee A&M" is Boren talk for Houston, Memphis, and possibly even Cincinnati.)
IF you look at Boren's quotes they suggest he is thinking about another run at the ACC schools as phase two.
All of this makes sense to me in terms of the people involved and their positions.
But wouldn't there be smoke out there if such a thing were to have happened?
Yes, even if the leadership is trying to not leak anything.
So I headed to the leakiest area of the Big 12 (West Virginia) to hear what their local leaks on the tail end of the conference footprint are saying...
(As with everything please keep in mind that leaks are regional specific and reflect people at a certain school's impressions, they do not reflect the beliefs of the entire conference.)
Christopher Lambert -- the more driven to be responsible of the two ---is suddenly consumed with writing about the financial value in getting rid of the LHN. He says ESPN will want to transition the LHN into the Big 12 Network as they can make money on the Big 12 Network and cannot on the LHN. That is pretty salty logic.
He further gives 4 (5) schools that could at least double the footprint of the Big 12. (Again, for the record, a larger expansion to substantially expand the market footprint is something I have advocated for years.)
He says the Big 12 has hired a firm to evaluate a Big 12 network and expansion with that in mind and if the numbers add up the membership is likely to bless their recommendations.
And he says potential expansion is tied exclusively to having a Big 12 network. Again, quite financially sensible (ie. believable).
The often doubted MHver3 is saying a lot of things (probably way too many) but they also fit the facts pretty well and could have some truths to them.
He has pretty much said UT is on board with the LHN thing and that expansion with Cincinnati (?) and UConn (?) is coming because ESPN wants it. (Says the two candidates had reps at the meeting.)
He claims to have spoken with an ESPN executive who says 1) ESPN is fully expecting to be blown out of the water on the Big Ten bidding. (ESPN does seem to be on an austerity program under Disney lately.) 2) And that they are not inclined to deliver the kind of ACC Network the ACC members expect. As such, ESPN acknowledges that when the Big Ten is waving $50-60 Million annually at Georgia Tech, Virginia, Duke and UNC, the heart of the ACC will leave. ESPN is ok with that as the SEC will take Va Tech and NC State and the Big 12 will take FSU, Clemson, Louisville, and Miami. 3) ESPN wants the Big 12 to add Cincinnati in particular because they want a presence in Big 12 territory. 4) And that ESPN is putting the kibosh on talks between two Big 12 schools potentially heading to the SEC (likely OU with West Virginia [which brings up the question, "If OU (and West Virginia) are playing the bad cop role in Big 12 expansion, who is the good cop? Baylor???"] )
Finally he laid out his predictions of how the conferences would look....
"Big10: tOSU, Mich, MichSt, P[u]rdue, Iowa, IN, PSU, NWU, Illinois, Wisc, Minn, Neb, UMd, RU, UNC, UVA, GT, Duke, BC, ND
SEC: Bama, UA, UGA, Tenn, TAMU, Ark, LSU, Vandy, UF, SC, Mizzou, MissSt, OleMiss, UK, VT, NCST
B12: UT, Baylor, TT, OK, OKst, ISU, KU, KSU, TCU, WVU, Cincy, Uconn, FSU, Clemson, Louisville, Miami
ACC: (this is the hardest to predict but here is my guess) Wake, Cuse, Pitt, Memphis, USF, UCF, ECU, Houston, SMU, Temple, Army, Navy"
Evaluating it all
Do I think all this is on the way? No, probably not. But something similarly large in scale could be.
I do think the potential of this type of movement is what is driving current Big 12 behavior.
Now that we have discussed what we think may be going on, Please read part two to see what we can confirm is going on.