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Baylor's Starr tightropes between Big 12 loyalty, not being left out

Ken Starr assumed the presidency of Baylor University last Tuesday.

Starr must assume we were born last Tuesday. Otherwise, he wouldn't have called a press conference Monday to declare Baylor's undying love for the Big 12 when, in reality, he wanted to get his school's name into the media sphere to ensure Baylor isn't left in the conference if the rest of the south division members defect to the Pac-10. Starr is new at his job, so we shouldn't grill him too hard for that. It's a safe bet he never imagined when he accepted the Baylor job in February that he'd land smack in the middle of a predicament that could wind up as contentious as that mess with the blue dress and the cigar that the former federal judge investigated in the late '90s.

But here he is. On his sixth day on the job, Starr attempted to do one thing (increase public awareness of Baylor over Colorado, the other school in alleged contention for the sixth golden ticket to the Pac-16) while saying another (that Baylor remains committed to keeping the Big 12 together). Starr was in Waco, but he must have felt as if he was back in Washington.

"Baylor University emphatically supports the Big 12," Starr said the moment he picked up the phone for a teleconference Monday afternoon with national media.

No, it doesn't.

Baylor doesn't support the Big 12. Neither do Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M or Texas Tech. In fact, the only schools that actually support the Big 12 are Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State, and they offer their steadfast allegiance only because they appear to lack a more attractive option.

If Baylor truly believed in the Big 12, Starr would have stood up in last week's Big 12 meetings, clapped Commissioner Dan Beebe on the shoulder and said, "Dan, come hell or high water, we're a member of the Big 12."

Starr didn't. Texas president Bill Powers didn't. Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman didn't. Neither did the others.

It seems simple enough. Even if Missouri and Nebraska take a better, more lucrative deal in the Big Ten, it should be easy for Powers and the rest of the Pac-10 target CEOs to get together and salvage a respectable Big 12. Grab TCU and SMU, ship Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to the north division -- which they would love -- and Bob's your uncle, you've got yourself a viable BCS league. Or, if that arrangement doesn't seem competitive enough on the football field, take Utah and BYU and the decent Salt Lake City television market (No. 31 in the nation with just under a million households) and call it a day. The Big 12's revenue situation stinks relative to the SEC and the Big Ten, but that will get better with its next set of TV contracts as long as Texas and Oklahoma are in the league. Unfortunately, the Big 12's more lucrative ESPN/ABC contract runs through 2016. That's a long time to trail behind the Joneses.

So now the Big 12 stands at an impasse. It seems generally agreed upon that if Nebraska leaves, the conference will fall apart. A solid conference should be able to survive the defection of its third- or fourth-strongest member, yet somehow the Big 12 remains in peril in spite of myriad pleas of support from its CEOs. If they really believed in the conference, it wouldn't matter if Nebraska left.

I asked Starr on Monday why -- if everyone is so adamant about keeping the Big 12 together -- didn't the CEOs just kill the speculation immediately by saying they intend to stay in the Big 12? "We're hopeful that will happen soon," Starr said. "I remain cautiously optimistic."

Starr said the actions of other conferences are driving this speculation. That's true. What he failed to mention is that if they wanted, he and his fellow Big 12 south CEOs could bring said speculation to a screeching halt by pledging to stay in the Big 12. The Pac-10 can propose, but the folks on the coast aren't Neanderthals. Commissioner Larry Scott isn't going to club the presidents of the Big 12 schools over the head and drag them back to his cave. All they have to do to end this is say the word.

But they don't want to.

That's all right. This is America. It's every citizen, company or university's right to seek out the best deal. Just be honest about it. OK, don't be completely honest. Then the CEOs of six schools would have to say, "We're doing whatever Texas is doing," and that would be embarrassing.

Starr did say one thing that reflected more closely what really is going on behind the scenes. Responding to a question about whether he believed Baylor will be invited if the Pac-10 pillages the Big 12, Starr said political forces have marshaled to defend Baylor against those who would suggest that the program doesn't deserve to go along with three Texas public schools.

"What we do know is that members of our board of regents are working tirelessly to make Baylor's case known," Starr said. "There are these great traditions and rivalries among the Texas schools."

Of course, Starr had to throw in this: "But our energy is devoted entirely to keeping the Big 12 together."

Replace "Big 12" with "Texas schools which happen to be in the Big 12 at this moment," and you've got something closer to the truth. Athletically, Baylor has a case for inclusion. The Bears have won more Big 12 titles than anyone except Texas and Texas A&M. Also, Baylor's athletes have led the Big 12 in graduation rates five times and finished second three times. (With the inclusion of those stats in a column on a national site, Starr accomplished his goal Monday.) Still, the politicians in Texas working to add Baylor to the list will have to clear some hurdles out west. The Pac-10 contains eight state schools and two secular private schools. Baylor is the nation's largest Baptist university, and state- and secular-school CEOs can be hesitant to embrace a church school.

Also, Colorado is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. Baylor is not. Colorado brings the Denver television market, the nation's 16th largest. It doesn't matter how big the Waco, Texas, market is (No. 89, if you're scoring at home), because the three Texas public schools would deliver every market in the Lone Star State to the Pac-10.

So, if the Big 12 crumbles, Baylor will have to rely on the politicians to win itself a golden ticket. Otherwise, the athletic department becomes TCU with an inferior football team or SMU with an inferior location.

But what am I talking about? Baylor is committed to the Big 12, just like Texas and all those other schools in the south division. Their leaders can't stop talking about how much they love the Big 12.

Even as they plan for the day they may leave it in ruins.