Big 12 Imploding

The long-predicted collapse of the Big 12 athletic conference—and perhaps college sports as we know it—seems about to happen.

Nebraska is going to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-10, with many other teams expected to flee as well as the big football powers race to establish 16-team super-conferences.

The Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera reported early Thursday morning that the University of Colorado has officially accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10 and will make the announcement publicly at a 1 p.m. ET press conference on Friday. The Camera says multiple people with knowledge of the move confirmed the news.

Colorado’s addition would give the Pac-10 a total of 11 schools, but speculation persists that the league will also look to bring in Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to give the conference 16 teams.

The Texas schools seem to hold the keys to the survival of the Big 12 in some form:

Texas and Texas A&M officials are scheduled to meet to discuss the future of their athletic programs and the Big 12 amid speculation the league could be raided by rival conferences and broken apart.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said he wants to keep the Big 12 together.

Thursday’s meeting at an undisclosed location comes on the heels of reports that Nebraska could be ready to bolt the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Colorado could move to the Pac-10.  Baylor and Texas Tech officials have said that even if the Big 12 breaks apart, they want to remain with Texas and Texas A&M as members of the same conference.

That’s going to be difficult, however.   Texas and A&M are big prizes in college football and Tech has had some recent success.  Baylor . . . not so much.

Still, the Big Ten has, despite the name, had eleven members since Penn State joined in 1993.  Adding Nebraska brings them to 12 and adding the four Texas schools would bring them to the magic 16.   Thing is, they’d much rather have Notre Dame than Baylor.

It’s hard to get particularly nostalgic for the Big 12, itself an amalgamation of the old Big 8 and the carcass of the venerable Southwest Conference.  It’s only been competing since 1996.  But we appear ready for an arms race for the good football schools that will destroy some of the smaller conferences and, quite possibly, the NCAA.

Sportswriter David Moulton:

Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten is the college sports equivalent of the Archduke Ferdinand being assassinated. His death set off a chain reaction that led to World War I. Nebraska’s shot has set off a chain reaction that will ultimately lead to the death of the Big 12, the Big East, the athletic irrelevancy of major universities and all their sports not named football.

How could this happen?

The roots began four years ago when the Big Ten went looking for more money from ESPN for their product. ESPN said “No.” The Big Ten said, “If you don’t give us more money, we’ll have to start our own network.” ESPN didn’t, so the Big Ten did. The Big Network kicked off in 2007 and regionalized the conference — a bad move which would have to be corrected by expansion — while also becoming a cash cow.


Despite all this incompetence, the only moves that had to take place were the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big East becoming 12-team conferences. Why? Because BCS bylaws state that to have a conference championship game in football (big $$$) you need 12 teams. The only question that mattered became, who would the Big Ten add?

Immediately, Nebraska raised its hand. The Big Ten would offer them triple their current TV revenue. Of course, they didn’t really want to replace Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas with Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern. Nebraska just wanted more money. Who controls the money in the Big 12? Texas. When Nebraska asked one final time last week to get TV revenue shared equally, the Big 12 (i.e., Texas) said “No.”


Yet despite everything that had transpired the last four years, the school that could have stopped all of this as late as 48 hours ago was Notre Dame. Because they were the only school the Big Ten wanted. If Notre Dame earlier this week, had said to the Big Ten, “OK, you win. Instead of all this crazy expansion talk, blowing up conferences, and us being on the outside looking in, what if we agree to join your conference? Will you then stop the madness?”

On last night’s PTI, Tony Kornheiser suggested that the upshot of all this will be maybe four major conferences, each with 16 teams—thus, 64 total—driving the bus.  And, with all the major football schools in four conferences, who needs the NCAA and its pesky rules about academics—much less sharing the massive television revenue with weak sister schools with lousy football teams?

Interestingly, the first of the super-conferences, the vaunted Southeastern Conference (SEC), is keeping its powder dry at the moment. But longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution hand Tony Barnhart thinks this may be the calm before the storm.

There are also reports out there that very quietly, Mike Slive and his folks at the SEC could still invite Texas and Texas A&M if the Big 12 breaks up. Would Oklahoma and Oklahoma State come along? Yes, I know about the Pac-10 offer to the six Big 12 teams (Texas, A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado). But as one official put it to me yesterday: Do you think DeLoss Dodds (the Texas athletics director) would rather send his women’s softball team to Pullman, Washington (home of  Pac-10 member Washington State) or Tuscaloosa, Ala? I know all about the academic arguments in favor of the Pac-10. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Notice that Baylor’s not on that list, either.

Who cares, though, really?   Big-time college football is about money, after all.  And even with geographically spread-out conferences, schools would only have to take long road trips a few times a season.    But, oops, there are other sports!   Baseball and basketball play much longer schedules and many, many more games each season.  And basketball coaches, like Kansas’ Bill Self, are not happy.

The decisions being made in the ivory towers of presidents’ offices and conference commissioners’ meeting rooms are driven solely by the promise of a potential pigskin-inspired financial windfall.

Nowhere is that more evident than at 1651 Naismith Drive, where Kansas has gone from storied, tradition-laden program of lore to afterthought. If the rumored Pac-16 models are to be believed, the University of Kansas could soon be a sports vagabond, left searching for a new conference home to cobble together.

The Jayhawks would have plenty of company but that Kansas — Kansas — is hanging by a thread tells you just how much of an ugly stepchild basketball has become in this process.   “We play on Naismith Drive; the father of coaching [Phog Allen] was our second coach; Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith went to school here; the most dominant player in the game in Wilt went to school here,” KU head coach Bill Self said. “And it’s not like we haven’t lived up to it lately. … But here we are potentially trying to find a home? I don’t get that.”

But, of course, he does.   Football is the money machine in college sports and Kansas is only occasionally a major player in that sport.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Trumwill says:

    Seems to me this makes the Pac-16 pretty much a done deal. I don’t think that the Pac-10 would have invited Colorado unless they had strong reason to believe that they could get the Big 12 South (minus Baylor). This makes the State of Texas thrusting Baylor on them (an unlikely possibility before but a possibility all the same) next to impossible. It adds instability to an already unstable conference. It could be a risky move if Texas, A&M, OU, and OSU go to the SEC instead. They need Texas to make Colorado worthwhile.

    What I find a bit surprising about all of this is how the Pac-10 got the Arizona schools to go along. They’re now going to be in a subconference where they are geographic outliers. Far fewer games against and in California, which is likely to have a detrimental effect on recruiting.

    The MWC may ultimately be a real winner in all of this. The current MWC plus Kansas, K-State, and Missouri would be a formidable second-tier conference along with what’s left in the ACC and Big East (or a merged conference if they both get raided).

    Also interesting is that it makes a 4+1 (or 5+1) bowl/championship model pretty attractive (particularly if the SEC and Big Ten each expand to 14 or 16). You get the Pac-10 and Big Ten playing in a Rose Bowl and the SEC playing somebody else in the Sugar Bowl and the winners of each of those games would, far more often than not, play in the national championship game. The Premier Three would like it because they’d have an automatic in. What becomes of the MWC/B12, ACC, and Big East would probably accept it because they would have a chance at that fourth slot.

    This assumes a conference championship for the Pac-10. Rumors are swirling that they may not have one so that they can get two of their own teams into a national championship. I’m not sure the other conferences would go along unless they had a similar arrangement. I’m also really not sure that it would be in the Pac-10’s best interest. A Pac-10 championship in this scenario would be huge and would, far more often than not, have national championship implications. And the conference would keep all of the money (and whomever loses will probably still get a BCS game invite). Really, the conference championship would become more like a bowl game than conference championships as we now know them.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Texas approached in the Big Ten in the 90s to discuss being a twelfth. Distance was the big issue and teams are repeating it again. It may not be so difficult to get football teams to where they need to be on a Saturday, but weekday basketball gets to be a point, you know, with classes and all.

    Chicago is the rough center of the conference, and the distances are:
    Penn State (570 miles)
    Minnessota (408 miles)
    Nebraska (523 miles)
    Texas (1165 miles)

    I think Moultan makes too much about the Big Ten being drunk on tv money. Since Penn State joined, scheduling an odd number of teams has been a problem. They’ve wanted another team and from the Big Ten’s p.o.v. Notre Dame was the logical team. I would not be surprised if the chain of logic is that in order to add N.D., the Big Ten has to go to 14 teams. If so, I would expect more looting from the Big East than the Big Twelve.

  3. Ugh says:

    Meh, not sure why we can’t have 4 mecha-football conferences and have all the other sports stay as-is for conference affiliation purposes. Seems easier than blowing up all things.

  4. Trumwill says:

    Ugh touches on a good point. I’m sure if they wanted to, the Pac-10 could work something out for tertiary athletics. The volleyball and track teams may just play in their division. They already do this for some sports where South Carolina and Kentucky play in Conference USA for soccer. I think that Division I conferences (particularly the less wealthy ones) should consider one set of conferences for major sports and another set of conferences for minor ones. I want my alma mater’s football and basketball teams to play the best teams possible. I’m less concerned about the soccer and swimming teams. I would actually probably prefer them play local schools.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    This is a sad day for college athletics and my beloved PAC 10 conference.

  6. David says:

    Kansas, just move to Conference USA! I’d love to see Memphis have some competition in there. And if basketball is all you care about…well, Rock Chalk would have a #1 seed just about every year playing in CUSA.

  7. Trumwill says:

    If the remainders of the Big 12 decide to regroup, it seems probable that Memphis (along with Houston and SMU) would be under consideration. That’s a big “if”, though. My guess is that the best of what’s left go west.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    The long term consequence is that all of the schools outside the four big conference may have to give up football. Since all of the other schools will have zero chance of competing against the big four conferences and the other schools are losing millions trying to stay competitive now, it would make sense that every school in the Mid-American, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and WAC should give up football. Unless the current Big East makes a drastic changes it along with the Mountain West will become the panties of the big four. Playing four road games for paydays to keep their programs going.

    In the longer run, schools like Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Washngton State will keep their football programs going to get the money while having zero chance to complete. In addition, four big conference means that programs like Texas Tech, South Carolina, and Arizona State will go down because the will have more automatic loses on the schedule.

  9. Trumwill says:

    Considering that schools way below the Conference USA and MAC maintain football programs, there’s no reason to believe that they will give up theirs. They may drop down a level, though.

    The ACC is just as vulnerable as anyone else. The SEC taking four of their teams will leave them in a very bad place. They could end up merging with the Big East or just taking some of their teams, but either way they will probably be on par with the Mountain West Conference. That will probably be enough to get them an invitation to BCS games, though not enough of one to play for championships.

    The only exception is if they go to a 4+1 or 5+1 BCS system where the top two post-bowl teams play one another. More years than not it would be the Rose Bowl victor against the Sugar Bowl victor. Take whichever conference champion is better between the MWC+B5 and the ACC+BE.

    I don’t think South Carolina’s schedule can get more difficult than it already is. I think if the SEC expands, they may expand with some lesser teams with bigger media markets. Think North Carolina (and State) and Virginia (and Tech). At least two of those four along with the Florida schools. South Carolina already plays a pretty tough schedule as it is. I also don’t think Texas Tech’s schedule is going to get much worse. Only one or maybe two out of division games would be played in the Pac-16 and none of their new division mates (Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State) are automatic losses. Arizona State is in some trouble, though, as is Arizona. They’re going to be cut off from their main recruiting ground.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    Every school in Conference USA, Mid-American, Sun Belt, and WAC loses money on their football programs. Now, the schools in the Pac-16, SEC, Big-10(+) will make at least 10 million more than they already make. That means that those second tier schools will either lose more money(that they do not have) or give up football. Do you really think that Houston, San Jose, or South Florida will move down to the old Division I-AA to try to maintain football. Do you really think that it benefits schools to move their programs down.

    I wonder who the SEC will schedule for their four non-conference games once the Sun Belt gives up its football programs?

    Any schools that tries to maintain a football program outside the big four conference is a fool. They will be perenial losers who cannot get recruits and will lose millions. Why would any school want to be considered such losers?

  11. Trumwill says:

    Why would they? For the same reason that William & Mary and Villanova sponsor an FCS football team. And the University of Montana and the University of Delaware and California-Davis. Cause it’s better than nothing. If they simply can’t make it in the FBS, many will just move down to the FCS. Or alternately, they made create a “middle league.”

    Some schools may well prefer not play than to play in FCS, some middle division, or futile FBS ball, but by no means all. I don’t even think most. Most of the SBC is not far removed from FCS. The FCS isn’t such an indignity in the west and so you’d get quite a few WAC teams joining Montana and Montana State there. The MAC is pretty tightly-knit with little pretense and inexpensive and I could see them all going down to I-AA together. Conference USA is the dicier one.

    South Florida is in the Big East, which at the moment still qualifies as a major conference. In the event that the ACC gets raided by the SEC, USF actually has a pretty good chance of getting into the ACC. San Jose State probably is among those that would drop football. No idea about Houston.

    The thing is, people in BCS conferences look at people in non-BCS conferences and wonder what the point is of even having such an irrelevant program. People in non-BCS FCS programs look at FBS programs in the same manner. FBS programs likely look at Division II and Division III programs that way.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    As a Tulane alumnus, the problem is you can have a 12-0 season in Conf-USA, be ranked in the top 7 in the country, and not gain recognition for that with a BCS bowl invitation. That made express and clear what was already known, but politely unsaid, there are at least two tiers in football and you can be the best in the second tier, but it’s not enough.

    Tulane agonized over dropping to I-A and I think the numbers supported doing so, the heart and subjective factors won an reprieve though. I would bet that if SMU, Rice, Tulsa and similar schools dropped, Tulane would, as would a lot more who no longer felt the peer pressure to stay in a division of professional athletics.

    I think the problem of creating competitive basketball and other sport leagues is going to be serious though.

  13. Trumwill says:

    PD, some have speculated that there may be room for a group of private schools and academies to go the Ivy League route. Scholarship-free football at the FCS level with no participation in the post-season. Rice and Tulane would be good candidates for that, as would Army and Navy. Not sure which other schools would go along, though. SMU and Tulsa are kind of self-important at this point, though both would probably agree to it if the alternative was scotching their football programs.