Lew Perkins is living a fairly stress-free life these days. Since stepping down as the athletic director at Kansas University last October, Perkins has formed a small consulting business that helps universities with strategic planning for their athletic programs. But he works only as hard as he wants. When I called Perkins this week to get his take on the expansion craze that's currently devouring college athletics, he said he would have to call back because he was busy completing a round of golf. "I have not had any discussions with anybody," he told me when we spoke later that night. "I've stayed away intentionally."
Lucky him. Last year at this time, Perkins and his university were still wondering what almost hit them. The school's league, the Big 12, nearly vaporized after Nebraska exited for the Big Ten and Colorado joined the Pac 10. If Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had also joined the Pac 10 -- and they came within a whisker of doing so -- Kansas would have been homeless along with Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor and Iowa State.
What little difference a year makes. Today, the Big 12 is once again facing the specter of extinction in the wake of Texas A&M's decision to bolt to the SEC. Oklahoma has entered into serious talks with the Pac 12. If the Sooners leave, they could very well take Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech with them.
Where is Kansas in all of this? Nowhere good as far as I can tell. The school has not been seriously courted by any other conference. Nor does it appear to have initiated discussions that could lead to a proactive move. Moreover, the public silence from KU's brain trust is deafening. When I put in a request to speak to one of the higher-ups, the only thing I got was a boilerplate statement from chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little that was issued through a spokesman: "When all is said and done, Kansas is going to be fine." Jayhawk fans might want to deduce from those words that the school is much more actively engaged behind the scenes than it has let on, but that is hardly reason to sigh with relief.
If ever a case illustrated how basketball has become but a poor, bedraggled, unloved stepchild in the expansive family of college athletics, this is it. No basketball program in the country can match Kansas when it comes to excellence and tradition. The school's first coach was James Frickin Naismith, for goodness sake. Clyde Lovelette played there. So did Wilt Chamberlain. So did Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Ralph Miller and John McClendon. This is the school that gave us Phog Allen, Danny and the Miracles and Mario Chalmers' three-pointer. Seventeen people who either played for or coached at Kansas are enshrined in the Springfield Hall of Fame -- including two prominent North Carolina graduates, Larry Brown and Roy Williams. As bluebloods go in college basketball, you can't get any bluer than Kansas.
And yet, this elite, storied jewel of a program is in a precarious position for the simple reason that its university does not have a football program to match. Oh sure, the Jayhawks won the Orange Bowl four years ago, but they don't have nearly the cache of gridiron behemoths like Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Perkins told me that one reason KU did not generate more interest last summer was because its football stadium barely holds 50,000 people. "We had talks with other schools, but we were never offered the opportunity to go to another conference," he said. "I thought our basketball would drive us a little bit more, but I wasn't angry about it or even disappointed. It just reinforced the importance of football."
As if not having a grand football tradition wasn't enough of an impediment, Kansas is also hurt by the dearth of big cities in its home state. "We're not going to sell as many cable boxes as a lot of states out there," basketball coach Bill Self acknowledged. Even so, Self remains sanguine about his school's prospects. "I feel pretty good about our future possibilities if the Big 12 doesn't make it," he said. "Football is definitely driving the financial buggy, but I do think the Kansas trademark still brings an awful lot to the table."
Kansas does have its own Jayhawk Network, but its similarities to Texas' Longhorn Network end at that second word. KU's "network" consists of a small group of affiliates who air maybe a half-dozen basketball games that haven't been swooped up by ESPN, CBS or the Big 12 network. Ironically, the Longhorn Network, which the Big 12 green-lit last summer as an enticement to keep Texas in the fold, has turned out to be a classic Faustian bargain. For the Big 12, it tipped the balance in Texas' favor so much that Texas A&M had to get out. For Texas, it drastically reduced the school's leverage because other conferences -- especially the Pac 12, which recently struck a 12-year, $2.7 billion deal with ESPN and Fox -- don't want to upend the lucrative rights agreements they already have in place.
Besides the vague notion that all of this is a cannibalistic money grab, none of it makes much sense. Why, for example, would Texas A&M feel so threatened by the Longhorn Network? Texas already had a competitive advantage over them. The airing of a few low-rung basketball and football games won't change that. Meanwhile, by going to the SEC, Texas A&M has given in-state recruits more reason to leave for LSU, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. As one administrator inside the Big 12 told me, "This isn't about finances. This is about egos." Which means it's time for Kansas to get a bigger ego.
The question is whether Kansas has any viable options. The best scenario would have the Jayhawks going to the ACC. That league may lose a team or two down the road (especially if the SEC decides to go to 14 or 16 teams), but in the grand scheme the ACC is relatively stable. It also has terrific academic schools and a wealth of basketball tradition.
Then again, there may not be much incentive for the ACC to reach out to Kansas -- or it probably would have done so by now. "Every piece of expansion that has taken place over the last 20 years has been about football, period. Nothing else," said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "Even with an incredible basketball program like Kansas, that's basically an add-on." What's more, Kansas would have problems moving to another league without Kansas State. The school technically has the right to do that, but Perkins believes it would be a tough sell. "Would you want to go back to the state legislature and say we left Kansas State behind? I wouldn't," he said.
Kansas fans would like to believe the Big East is another possible destination, but that conference already has 17 teams thanks to the addition of TCU. Not only would adding three or four more schools create a nightmare for scheduling (can you imagine the postseason basketball tournament in Madison Square Garden?), it would also mean each school would get a smaller piece of the same financial pie.
As for the Pac 12, the league does have something to offer, but moving there would be a major setback to Kansas's basketball program because it would hamper the school's ability to recruit on the east coast, where its weeknight games wouldn't tip off until 11:00.
There is yet another possibility that might be more difficult to pull off but would yield a better outcome: Kansas could form a new conference with the Catholic (read: non-football) schools from the Big East. If Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor and Iowa State could find enough other football schools to join the likes of Villanova, St. Johns and Georgetown, that league could still keep its BCS status in football yet remain a powerhouse in hoops. However, since those schools don't get any of the Big East's football money, the league probably would fight to keep them.
Thus, Kansas appears to have only one real option: wait and see and hope for the best. This carries its own risks. Even if Oklahoma decides to stay put for now, it's only a matter of time before the whole thing blows up again. "Things may look a bit more settled, but I still think there's going to be a big shift in movement coming up. I don't know what it is, but it's going to be big," Perkins predicted. "There are some strange bedfellows out there. It only takes one school to do something, and the whole domino effect starts."
Perkins stressed to me that he has a very high opinion of his successor at KU, Sheahon Zenger, and he warned that "people should not underestimate the University of Kansas." But this problem is much bigger than any one athletic director. The only certainty in this uncertain world is that change is coming, and Kansas can either be a proponent or a victim of it. The state that served as the backdrop for