The great negotiation: Will the Big 12 choose Houston and long-term stability or stick with short-sighted thinking?
Imagine Warren Buffett not buying a stock for his portfolio because it may make too much money. Imagine a Major League Baseball general manager not promoting a player because he could outperform an established one. Imagine a college admissions office not taking a candidate because they might outsmart the other students.
Those scenarios are being bandied around in the Big 12 right now, as the league discusses admitting the University of Houston as an expansion candidate. Only a conference as shortsighted as the Big 12 would consider Houston's vast football potential as an argument against bringing it into the league. Even for a conference long defined by schools ignoring the conference's greater good, the discussion around Houston is stunningly myopic.
Until recent weeks, the Cougars were considered an outsider in the Big 12 expansion derby. They have inserted themselves into the conversion, but not based on their rising football program, elite recruiting territory or the fact that they are in the nation's fourth-largest city. No, Houston has become a bigger factor in Big 12 expansion because the University of Texas and Texas governor Greg Abbott began public lobbying for it.
There's still opposition, as schools like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have mined Houston in recruiting for years and don't want added competition there. Others like Baylor and TCU are concerned about enabling another school that could someday leap them in the Big 12's pecking order. And because of that, the conference continues to be defined by the short-term thinking that has undermined its long-term stability since its creation in 1994. Iowa State president Steven Leath has called the league "Texas heavy."
"If they get into the Big 12 they will be tough to beat in recruiting because of the proximity," Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel told Kansas.com.
TCU coach Gary Patterson hinted at Houston when saying recently, "it's not the conference's job to make the university better." No, the conference's job is to look out for the greater good of the conference. And Patterson well knows what an affiliation with the Big 12 can do for a school. He's lived it.
The general buzz around the schools not named Texas is that Houston would be like TCU, which has emerged as one of the league's premiere teams since joining the Big 12 in 2012. TCU has used the increased visibility, money and cache of the Big 12 to become the league's most successful football program the last two years, both overall (23–3) and in league play (15–3).
Could Houston do the same? Well, it's not that easy. Houston and TCU are very different schools, as TCU is private and had more sustained success and infrastructure before jumping up to the Big 12. But in terms of recruiting base, market and the potential to grow into a national power, Houston is the closest reasonable facsimile among the Big 12 candidates to follow that path.
Any conversation about the future of the Big 12 has to be viewed through the prism that there's a significant chance Texas and Oklahoma go elsewhere when the league's current television contract expires in 2025. If the Big 12 loses its only two marquee programs, wouldn't it covet a direct line into Houston's market, recruiting ground and potential? This needs to be a 20-year decision—again, not the Big 12's specialty—and there's an excellent chance Houston can grow into a top-tier Big 12 program in the next two decades.
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A notion being perpetuated to knock the Cougars is that the Big 12 already has the Houston market locked down. However, in both recruiting and television ratings, Houston is an SEC town.
In recruiting, not only do Texas A&M and LSU have dominant presences there, but Alabama has sensed an opportunity and recently assigned three assistant coaches to recruit the city regularly.
"They are recruiting it as if it were Atlanta," said Houston coach Tom Herman, who declined to talk directly about expansion. "They are putting that much emphasis on it."
The SEC's heft in the city since Texas A&M debuted in the league in 2012 is undeniable. The SEC lured 47% of the four-star and five-star recruits from the greater Houston area in the past five years. Big 12 schools lured just 37%. (These are based on Rivals.com rankings and cross-referenced with 247 Sports rankings).
More than just in Houston, the paradigm change from Texas A&M's move to the SEC can be felt throughout the state. In 2010 and 2011, the final two Signing Days before the Aggies moved to the SEC, the Big 12 led the SEC 40–3 in landing the top 25 recruits from the state of Texas in each class, according to 247 Sports. Things have changed drastically since then. The SEC led the Big 12 11–10 among the top 25 recruits in the state last year. Only three of those players went to Texas A&M, highlighting how the Aggies' inclusion has opened the door for other schools in the league. From 2013 through 2015, Big 12 led the SEC just 31–28 for top 25 players in Texas.
Adding Houston certainly isn't going to scare off the SEC in the city or the state. But it does is give the Big 12 a significant presence in Houston, allowing the rest of the conference to play frequent road games there and providing a stay-at-home option in the Power 5 for Houston kids who want to remain in the city.
Herman has shown Houston can compete with the Big 12 in recruiting, as Houston signed the No. 30 class nationally, according to ESPN, the highest ever for a non Power 5 or non-BCS school. "We're doing it on relationships, winning and facilities and staying home," Herman said. "Certainly not on conference affiliation."
The elevation of the Cougars to the Power 5 could also help the Big 12 capitalize on the Houston TV market. Consider that six of the top 10 and 14 of the top 20 games in the Houston market last year were SEC contests. While adding the Cougars won't be a silver bullet, it's a hedge. "The city of Houston," Herman said, "has become an SEC market."
Choosing the Cougars would be a move for the Big 12 to protect its footprint rather than try to expand it, a move for preservation with the Big 12's future looking uncertain. It would be a decision made with foresight, reversing the error of a conference that failed to take Louisville when the Cardinals desperately wanted to be admitted in 2011.
So can Texas's sway in the Big 12 and Houston's juice in the Texas state legislature get the Cougars the eight necessary votes they need? That's hard to say at this juncture, and much will come down to whether Texas's support is merely cursory or significant enough that it would throw its leverage around in negotiation. (FOX and ESPN will likely want a grant of rights extension as part of the negotiation of this addition. Would Texas extend that until 2030—when the Longhorn Network contract expires—to get Houston in? It will be interesting to see if the Longhorns' support for Houston goes beyond Twitter plaudits.)
There are no easy solutions for the Big 12. Folks around the league aren't optimistic expansion will be done by the time the football season kicks off early next month. Ultimately, the teams included will come down to multiple negotiations with exit fees, cable money and how much schools will be willing to give up.
That's an appropriate way to view the future of the Big 12—under negotiation. Everything with the conference—including common sense and long-term vision—has always been negotiable.