If, or depending on which reports you believe, when conference tectonics begin this month, and pieces of the Big 12 attach themselves to larger landmasses in the West (the Pac-16) and the North (the Big "Ten"), Kansas and Kansas State will be adrift on their own, helpless against forces that care not that the former school has one of the most storied basketball programs of all time, and the latter will be a top 10 team for a second straight season. The Jayhawks and Wildcats make Kansas one of the strongest basketball states in the Union, yet they have no clout in the football-centric cash grab that's driving realignment. Will anyone in power acknowledge the S.O.S. signals coaches Bill Self and Frank Martin are sending up from Allen Fieldhouse and Bramlage Coliseum, or will their programs take the biggest hits from this conference shift?
I called both coaches on Tuesday to talk expansion, and the scenario they're praying for, understandably, is for the Big 12 to stay intact. It's their only evident option for short- and long-term hoops stability. Self said, "What I want is for the Big 12 to come out of this stronger than it's ever been"; and Martin said, "I'd like it to remain the status quo, because we've got a hell of a league right now."
That they do, from a competitive standpoint. But the Big Ten, which is chasing Nebraska and possibly Missouri, has a hell of a lot more money to offer in TV revenue, as would the hypothetical Pac-16, which is chasing the Texas schools. That's why the Big 12 could crumble, and that's why Self admits he's being driven mad by the prospect of Kansas -- the school of James Naismith, Phog Allen, Wilt Chamberlain, Danny and the Miracles, and Mario's Miracle -- being pushed to the wayside.
"I'm not in panic mode yet, but I'm very concerned," Self said. "I believe that Kansas will be OK no matter what, but for us to continue to compete at the level where we've been competing, and recruit at that level, I really believe that we need to be aligned with a BCS conference. It would be very disappointing to me if a team that's won three national championships, and is one of the three winningest programs in college basketball, wouldn't be a part of a BCS conference.
"I think there are a lot of Kansas alums out there right now that are very concerned, that the face of our athletic department and our university could be changing, in the next 72 hours, for the next 30 years."
If that sounds grave, well, it's because the situation is grave. When I posited to Self that the prospect of the Jayhawks getting stuck in the Mountain West Conference -- potentially their best available option after the Pac-10 and Big Ten are done poaching schools -- would be catastrophic, he wasn't willing to go that far. It's entirely possible that KU could thrive as a Memphis-in-Conference USA-like power in a lesser league, but Self is well aware of the consequences of such a move.
"It would certainly affect the athletic department, in terms of what you're recruiting and what you're selling, but the impact on the university as a whole would be dramatic, too," he said. "I think we would weather it, but it would take some time to get everyone excited about it again. I really do."
Kansas would seem like a good fit for the Big Ten, given its strong athletic program (KU won the hoops national title and Orange Bowl in '08 alone) and decent academic reputation, but the Jayhawks face a mobility issue. They aren't legally bound to stick with Kansas State -- a Kansas board of regents member said as much this week -- but they're "unofficially" bound with the Wildcats due to political pressure. (Martin said that it would be "a crying shame" to separate the two schools, because he feels they co-represent the state.)
Nebraska and Missouri, as the lone major public schools in their respective states, have no such restrictions, are thus better-positioned in expansion talks and could make landscape-altering moves as early as Friday. I had long wondered if Kansas, due to its stature as one of college basketball's bluebloods, might have something secretive in the works with the Big Ten that would trump Missouri's bid. But I don't get the sense, from talking with KU sources, that there's been any promising maneuvering in their camp. The depressing reality, for those of us who love college hoops, is that the Phog is powerless in this high-stakes game.
One lobbying force that might help the Kansas schools -- the NCAA -- has been conspicuously silent on the whole issue, and Martin wonders why. "The NCAA makes 95 percent of its money from men's basketball, and our tournament, so you'd like to think that they would get involved and try to smooth the waters," he said, "but obviously, that's not happening."
The NCAA has no control over the deals being made between conferences and school presidents, but why wouldn't it try to protect, at the very least, Kansas, which is one of its most valuable basketball brands? CBS and Turner just signed a 14-year, $11 billion deal for television rights to March Madness, but it can't be in the NCAA's best interests to allow the Big 12, the country's strongest league from 2009-10, to get dismantled. It dilutes the overall product of college basketball.
Even though Mark Emmert, the NCAA's incoming president, is coming from a Pac-10 school (Washington), he should be able to recognize how important KU is to the fabric of the game, and pressure schools to balance economic concerns with a sense of history and tradition. It's difficult not to sympathize with Self when he says, "It blows my mind that we could be left high and dry, and that people could be penalized because they live in the Midwest and not in more populated areas" (with bigger TV markets, as Kansas City's ranks only 32nd nationally).
In the end, the Kansas schools will probably have to count on a university from a far more populated area to save them. Texas, the flagship school in the U.S.' second-largest state, and the school other than Notre Dame with the most power in the expansion game, can bring in TV audiences from Dallas-Fort Worth (the No. 5 market), Houston (No. 10) and San Antonio (No. 37) -- a viewing bloc that equals the size of Los Angeles (No. 2). While Kansas chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little begged Nebraska and Missouri to stay in the Big 12 this week, the league could survive without them, as long as the 'Horns stick around. When it comes to rescuing the Big 12, as Self said, "Texas could get it done."
So this is where we're at in the summer of 2010: A gridiron-first school whose most famous basketball player is a one-and-doner (Kevin Durant) is the only available savior for the basketball program that was founded by the sport's inventor in 1898. Without Texas' help, Kansas will be stranded on an ice floe during the tectonic shift, moving uncomfortably toward the Rockies, and unwillingly out of the big leagues, as helpless hoopsters in a football world.