Big 12 expansion is still muddled, but Oklahoma's trend to status quo could render process an exercise in futility
In June of 2015, Oklahoma president David Boren kicked off an 18-month run of uncertainty for the Big 12 by issuing one of his most infamous statements in a career filled with them. "I believe that we are psychologically disadvantaged," Boren said, "because we are a smaller conference."
That comment has been referenced endlessly since, as it was essentially an admission of weakness by one of the most powerful presidents in a Power Five conference. It also served as a declaration of Boren's bullish stance on Big 12 expansion, as he emerged as one of the strongest supporters of the Big 12 returning to 12 teams.
It appears now that Boren has come full circle on his expansion beliefs, adding another layer of uncertainty to the already muddled Big 12 expansion exploration process. Interviews with multiple sources around the Big 12 in the past week revealed a belief around the league that Boren has reversed course on his view of expansion. Boren had always been thought to favor BYU, but adding the Cougars still appears untenable because of the potential furor over their "honor code", which deems "homosexual behavior" as a violation.
Boren's public comments on Sept. 14 that expansion is "not a sure thing" are perceived around the league as the manifestation of his reversal on the issue. They also reinforced the notion that Boren's inability to resist commenting publicly is further damaging the league. Boren has now gone full flip-flop from his "psychologically disadvantaged" comments 18 months ago, and it has drummed up a distinct wave of anger around the league. As one Big 12 source said this weekend: "Let's talk about the strength of the league instead of talking about being at a psychological disadvantage. We're psychologically insecure. That's what we are. And for no reason."
Boren emerged as a divisive figure during the last round of realignment back in 2011. He has an obvious affinity for microphones and headlines, epitomized by the night in 2011 when he held a dueling press conference with Missouri's chancellor. (And in the process, Boren distributed incorrect information to the media.)
Around the Big 12 these days, Boren reversing course and issuing damaging public comments feels like déjà vu all over again. "It was almost like he was trying to get his name in the paper," said a source close to Big 12 realignment. "It was like he was trying to run for election. We all shook our heads—What the hell is he doing?"
That's a seamless transition to attempting to answer the questions hanging over the Big 12 with at least three weeks remaining in the realignment exploration process. With less than a month until the presidents meet on Oct. 17 to provide some direction on all this, we'll ask again: What the heck is the Big 12 doing?
Why did Boren speak publicly and reinforce the stereotypes of the Big 12's vulnerability and dysfunction?
Fittingly, it appears Boren's damaging comments to the Big 12 came in part because he has trouble in his own backyard. Oklahoma's Board of Regents is not in favor of Big 12 expansion, and it appears to be putting an increasing amount of pressure on Boren to convey that message. This could seriously gum up the league's expansion plans.
With eight of 10 votes needed to add schools, there's an increasing expectation that Oklahoma won't be voting in favor of expansion. Mathematically, that could make matters tricky going forward. "David is David," said another source. "He was a governor and a senator and has a political side to him. I'm certain he's feeling a lot of pressure from his board."
The politics of the Big 12 are such that without support from Oklahoma, this whole expansion exploration may end up proving an exercise in futility.
What's Oklahoma's commitment level to the Big 12?
The next time Boren speaks, a lot of his colleagues around the Big 12 would enjoy hearing exactly what the Sooners' long-term intentions are. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Oklahoma and Texas—both in 2010 and 2011—were close to joining the Pac-10. Since Boren's latest comments on expansion, there have been rumblings throughout the league as to whether Boren is the right public face considering he could be in the position of shopping Oklahoma around to other leagues in the near future.
There's an increasing concern that Boren could end up as a so-called double-agent, speaking for the league but working for a school that ultimately desires to speak with other leagues. There's also an increasing level of distrust around the league, especially since Oklahoma and Texas have no intention of extending their grant of right past 2025 anytime soon.
So what's the Big 12 going to do?
There's still little real clarity on this. Pessimism has risen about potential expansion, but remember what everyone was saying and reporting before the league decided to explore expansion in July.
The Big 12 is in a state of flux, as there are two interim presidents, one new one and another who has announced a departure date. Boren is 75, another factor his critics bring up. He'll be making decisions for Oklahoma and the Big 12 that he likely won't be around to actually live with.
There's still momentum on the presidential level to explore expansion. The main drivers of getting the process this far—money and helping the league's College Football Playoff chances—haven't changed.
Who would be added if the Big 12 went ahead?
There's little momentum to add four schools. So for now, Houston and Cincinnati are still the perceived leaders behind the scenes. Both of them have what insiders are terming "neighborhood problems." Houston is in the odd position where many schools in the Big 12 don't really want to add it but are increasingly realizing they probably need to.
The issue with Houston is that smaller schools around the league are worried about enabling the Cougars, essentially propping them up at the expense of their own programs. (Why would a recruit from the Houston area go all the way to Texas Tech if he could play in the Big 12 in his home city?) This is a problem that appears more prominent on the coach and athletic director level than the presidential level. On a smaller scale, West Virginia isn't enamored with adding Cincinnati for this reason. (This could be why South Florida has gained some buzz the past few weeks.)
For now, Houston and Cincinnati are still the favorites. But as we know, this can all change in a blink.
How much does the league's miserable on-field performance in 2016 factor into all this?
The Big 12 has no teams in the AP Poll top 10 and just one team in the top 20. That's No. 13 Baylor, fresh off a searing scandal involving mishandling sexual assault cases that cost the football coach, athletic director and president their jobs. If there's a fitting flag-bearer for the dysfunctional Big 12, it's the Bears.
Expansion is a decision that should resonate for decades, yet it's going to be difficult for the league to ignore its precarious present. The Big 12 is the most likely power conference to get left out of the College Football Playoff at the moment. The data it touted back in June showed that the league improves its chances by growing and adding a championship game. It has already added the title game, but can it ignore getting bigger in a year of diminishing returns on the field?
Also, it's increasingly difficult to ignore Houston's on-field performance in 2016, as the Cougars are No. 6 in the country and would rank as the Big 12's best team.
How would the press conference go if the Big 12 decided not to expand?
It would be a comic tragedy fitting of the self-induced problems the league has invited the past 18 months. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby can only do what his presidents want. But with the Big 12's reputation in such tatters, going through a fruitless three-month process would only invite more ridicule for the league and perpetuate the perception that it's weak and vulnerable.
Would Texas and Oklahoma really consider leaving the Big 12 in the next decade?
Around the industry, the next wave of conference realignment is expected to be tied to the expiration of the Big Ten's television contract in 2023. A cursory study of major realignment moves reveals that most are triggered in concert with major conference TV deals expiring. That's when leagues attempt to make themselves more attractive when they go to market.
The Big 12 schools are bound to each other through a Grant of Rights through 2025. While that's a long way away, the Big Ten could make a run at Texas for its next deal.
Texas has all the cards here and would be courted by any league. Institutionally, the school has shown little desire to go to the SEC. (Why join Texas A&M?) The Big Ten could be a fit, as would the ACC and Pac-12. The ACC would likely offer the smoothest transition for the Longhorn Network, as ESPN owns all of the ACC's content and the easiest solution for everyone would be to fold LHN, a partnership between ESPN and Texas, into the ACC Network.
Oklahoma has fewer options. The Big Ten would frown on its academics. The SEC would likely be intrigued by Oklahoma, but not if it has to take Oklahoma State. The Pac-12 showed a willingness to take both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State back in 2011, so that's a potential answer. (Especially if Texas politics force Texas to take Texas Tech, too.) But with the Pac-12 Network considered a financial failure so far, is that option still as alluring?
Would Texas and Oklahoma be O.K. without being the big fish in their league?
There'll be plenty of speculation about where the Sooners and Longhorns could end up the next few years. But there's an uncomfortable institutional question that Texas and Oklahoma have to answer: Would they be O.K. not being the big dogs in their league? (Think SEC administrators or the presidents at Florida or Alabama would put up with Boren's nonsense?) The only place Texas could pull off having the Longhorn Network is the Big 12. Oklahoma can feign schoolyard bully and Boren can embarrass himself with little consequence in the Big 12. These things wouldn't happen in a more established league. Are Texas and Oklahoma ready to give up power to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya"? At the very least, that would require a marked swallowing of institutional ego. That's nothing either place has shown much of a willingness to do the past decade.
What are the Little 8 thinking right now?
The schools not named Texas and Oklahoma are in a unique spot here. If the landscape does trend toward four 16-team leagues, there are essentially 10 spots available on the dance floor. The Pac-12 (4), Big Ten (2), ACC (2) and SEC (2) have 10 total spots. But there's zero chance those would simply go to the 10 schools in the Big 12, as geography, markets and common sense wouldn't allow it. After Oklahoma and Texas, there's no other no-brainer addition that provides value to a league.
Adding two more schools next month would likely add to the long-term stability of the Big 12. Everyone in the Little 8 can agree on more stability, even if they can't agree on the teams. (To clarify, the Little 8 are Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia.) Without clear-cut destinations, would those eight schools consider forming a voting block? How much can they trust Texas and Oklahoma since they could bolt after 2025? The voting block is highly unlikely, especially with Oklahoma State and Texas Tech so politically tied to the flagship schools in their state. As one Big 12 source put it: "All politics are local. It wouldn't be in Northwestern's active interest to agitate Michigan. N.C. State can't create an anti-UNC block in the ACC. Texas Tech may not trust Texas, but they aren't going to vote against them."
So how worried are the Little 8 schools?
It depends on whom you speak with. But their mentality may be best summed up by one Big 12 source: "No issue is more important to the eight schools than this issue." There are myriad variables here, but let's look at the future of those eight schools in terms of landing in a Power Five league if Texas and Oklahoma bolted.
Iowa State: It is in trouble, as it'd garner little major conference interest.
Kansas State: The Wildcats' football success and sparkling football facilities probably couldn't overcome their market.
Kansas: It'd have a chance, especially because it's an AAU school. But its football program is the worst among Power Five schools. Athletic director Sheahon Zenger's hires of Charlie Weis and David Beaty have been disastrous.
Oklahoma State: Is Oklahoma still politically obligated to let the Cowboys tag along? That's their best chance, especially because they don't have a coveted market.
TCU: It has arguably positioned itself as the third-most attractive program in the Big 12 in a short period of time.
Baylor: The Bears may be in the biggest trouble. They have no market, little history and a rancid past year of off-field issues.
Texas Tech: Its best bet is being politically tethered to Texas. But can you imagine Tech in, say, the ACC if Texas went that direction?
West Virginia: There aren't a whole lot of places for the Mountaineers to go. The ACC had little interest in them last time around.
Considering that general outlook, it's understandable why the leaders at those schools need to attempt to keep Oklahoma and Texas happy and aim for long-term stability in the Big 12.