Archive for July, 2015

It might be legitimate smoke or just the hot summer air of the peanut gallery, but conference realignment talk is still percolating in the wake of University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s comments last month about wanting Big 12 expansion. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald reported that five Big 12 schools approached the Big Ten back in 2010 (intimating that they were Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State and Texas A&M) about joining forces with Jim Delany. Today, Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman (essentially OU’s home newspaper) explained why Nebraska would never leave the Big Ten and noted that OU was “thrilled at the prospect of joining a conference that included the likes of Stanford and Cal-Berkeley” when it was considering the Pac-12. Finally, Dick Weiss (a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee for sportswriting as opposed to a plebeian blogger like myself) “casually” Tweeted the following on Monday:

Weiss has been on the conference realignment beat before as he was one of the first to report about the “Catholic 7” breaking away from the Big East and then forming… the Big East.

Edit: Weiss has clarified his Tweet:

I don’t position this blog as a newsbreaking site, but I have heard from a knowledgeable person with extensive contacts with current and former Big 12 members (i.e. knew specific details about Nebraska heading to the Big Ten and Texas A&M to the SEC beforehand that couldn’t have been simply guessed from the news) that basically had this to say: Oklahoma isn’t happy with the Big 12 and wants to get out.

Putting aside all of the valid issues of whether the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement can be broken or whether Oklahoma could politically leave Oklahoma State behind (both of which need to be cleared before any moves are even possible), it doesn’t seem as though OU wants to stand pat. David Boren’s comments about wanting Big 12 expansion with the “right schools” was more of a warning shot to the rest of the league because, frankly, the “right schools” wouldn’t ever take a Big 12 invite. As a result, everyone in Sooners land seems to agree on the overarching desire to leave the Big 12, but there are two mindsets within the school: the academic wishes of Boren and the athletic interests of OU Athletic Director Joe Catiglione. (Emphasis that these are currently mindsets that could take years to play out – please don’t interpret anything here as “Oklahoma is leaving for Conference X by the end of the year.”) Boren, not surprisingly, wants a more academic league, but it seems as though his focus is more on the Pac-12 as opposed to the Big Ten as of now. That’s not to say that OU wouldn’t consider the Big Ten (as it did in 2010), but there are still apparently concerns that the B1G would find OU to be academically acceptable. In contrast, the Pac-12 would like Oklahoma if they came with, say, Kansas. The West Coast league just doesn’t want an OU/Oklahoma State expansion (which is what OU had offered back in 2011 in the wake of Texas A&M bolting the Big 12 for the SEC). Meanwhile, the athletic side of the school would relish going to the SEC. Once again, the SEC would take Oklahoma in a heartbeat without Oklahoma State coming along. The SEC would likely prefer Kansas, as well, provided that the biggest dog of them all of Texas rejects their overtures.

Ah yes – Texas. The Longhorns aren’t oblivious to their rivals to the north. In a perfect world for Texas (as described to me by my Big 12 guy), they would want to join the ACC as full members with… wait for it… Notre Dame. Apparently, the UT people are convinced that the new College Football Playoff system will eventually drive the Irish to join a conference and Texas wants to be right alongside them. In turn, UT would also have Oklahoma and Kansas follow along to create an 18-school ACC behemoth. Texas would be fine with the same type of move to the Big Ten (although Notre Dame is contractually obligated to join the ACC if it chooses to drop independence until 2027, which would seemingly make that prospect impossible). The new Texas leadership doesn’t have the West Coast preference that their leaders circa 2010 had, so any new deal with the Pac-12 seems to be out. At the same time, the SEC continues to be simply a non-starter for the Longhorns.

Personally, I reflexively reject the viability of any realignment move predicated on Notre Dame joining a conference as a football member, where we might as well say that Texas would be willing to join the MAC if Notre Dame comes along with them. Also, the Irish would have 100% made a 4-team playoff in a year like 2012, so I consider any supposed South Bend-based worries about the CFP system to be false hopes for Texas partisans. Until I see actual consternation from Notre Dame itself about today’s college football world, they are going to be an immovable object. In that sense, it seems as though the smoke from Texas is more of a “If we get the PITCH PERFECT deal to move, then sure, we’ll move.”

Contrast this with Oklahoma, where they appear to be making public comments and private moves to put themselves in position to bolt from the Big 12 with merely a passable offer (as opposed to the perfect one that Texas would require). It then becomes a matter of whether it’s worth the risk of breaking the Big 12’s grant of rights of agreement with unpredictable damages claims (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and/or any political fallout if Oklahoma proactively leaves the Big 12 without Oklahoma State.

If I were running the Big Ten, it’s time to take advantage of one of those rare moments where a national football brand name is essentially begging for offers. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if we assume that Texas, Notre Dame and ACC schools are off the table, then the single most valuable expansion that the Big Ten can have at this point is adding Oklahoma and Kansas. These are two of the most elite blue blood brand names in college football and college basketball, respectively, and their small markets on-paper compared to Eastern options are irrelevant when they can effectively turn the Big Ten Network into a legit national network instead of a mostly regional one (which may become more important as cable cord cutting continues and the TV industry starts moving toward an a la carte or at least less-than-basic cable model). Also note that Kansas actually had the highest third tier TV rights revenue of any Big 12 school prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network, so it has been shown that the BTN can basically charge any price within KU’s market (and presumably OU’s market) and garner a ton of more revenue even with fewer households on paper.

Finally, I’m as much of a Big Ten academic snob as anyone, but Oklahoma’s academic reputation rankings have long been right in line with Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State despite OU never having had membership in the Association of American Universities. If the Big Ten is fine with Nebraska no longer being an AAU member from an academic standpoint, then that should make any concerns about OU’s academics much less of a roadblock. The prospect of Oklahoma and Kansas moving within the next few years is simply much more likely than schools like Virginia and North Carolina leaving the ACC within the next generation, so an OU/KU combo is the best viable expansion option for the Big Ten by far as of today.

(Image from KOTV)

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The comments from University of Oklahoma President David Boren last week voicing his desire for Big 12 expansion has kicked up some dust on conference realignment speculation. National media people such as Andy Staples from Sports Illustrated and Jake Trotter from ESPN have started weighing in on at least the possibility of the Big 12 expanding (even if there is a wide range in opinions about how likely that will be in the near future). The Twitter universe continues to be a source of rumors of all types (and for those of you that follow the NBA closely like I do, this is the most rumor-filled week of the year on Twitter with free agency starting), including the following:

Yeesh. A Paul Finebaum Tweet that quotes Colin Cowherd*. All we need to do is add in the HOT TAKES of Stephen A. Smith and (IMHO, the absolute worst) Skip Bayless and we would have an ESPN shock jock grand slam.

(* What’s interesting is that if you’ve ever heard Cowherd in interviews outside of his own show, he actually comes across as a measured and analytical guy with a ton of business savvy. I didn’t even feel he was out of line in his awkward interview with Jim Harbaugh yesterday that received a lot of attention. Cohwerd reminds me of a sports version of Howard Stern in a way, where I never really enjoyed Stern’s show but it was clear that he was a media business genius. Of course, that makes Cowherd’s liberal use of HOT TAKES on his show that much more disappointing. Finebaum, Smith and Bayless are just plain terrible and don’t know any better.)

It’s all interesting speculation to get people to call in on radio shows, but there’s not much substance. Even if we were to buy that Oklahoma were to go to the SEC, how do we rectify the clash of interests between the Pac-12 Network and the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network if Texas were to go to the Pac-12? I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Texas will never get a better offer than the Pac-16 deal from 2010 that would have brought Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State along with them. That would have given them a power base in a superconference with a division largely made up of their historical rivals. Now, Texas A&M has gone its separate way to the SEC and the Texas TV deal with ESPN complicates any potential move. Honestly, it’s hard to see Texas ever agreeing to be an equal member of any conference. Sure, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 all want Texas (just as the Big Ten wants Notre Dame), but it’s with the caveat of the Longhorns being an equal member. Outside of the Big 12, the only other viable power conference option would be for Texas to go independent in football and then join the ACC for other sports in the same manner as Notre Dame. This allows Texas to receive the special treatment it desires/needs if it ever wants to leave the Big 12.

That being said, one of the things that I was very wrong about in 2010 was thinking that Texas wanted to get away from the Big 12 members that weren’t bringing in much revenue and that they could make so much more in the Big Ten (or Pac-12 or SEC) by aligning themselves with much stronger brands and markets. Instead, Texas has proven that it wants other schools like Texas Tech and Baylor to be dependent upon them. Notre Dame wants everyone to get off of their lawn as an independent, whereas Texas wants a huge estate with lots of worker bees from Lubbock and Waco. Controlling a conference (even if it’s weak) has shown to be more of an end game for Texas than merely being a member of a strong conference.

With that backdrop of the Texas desire for control, here is a sampling of direct Big 12 expansion Tweets from Dave Sittler over the past few days that conference realignment observers should be much more aware of, as he is known to have very close connections with David Boren and administrators throughout the Big 12:

Putting aside the Big 12’s obvious delusions of grandeur of reverse raiding the Big Ten for Nebraska or adding Notre Dame and/or Florida State, this actually appears to be some legitimate information from someone with contacts with people that control the situation. Follow Sittler’s Twitter timeline for some further comments. Bottom line: Houston has seriously vaulted itself into Big 12 expansion talks. Now, this makes little sense for the Big 12 when looking at the typical goals of power conference realignment, such as expanding into new TV markets and recruiting territories. However, we would be remiss to forget that Texas politics (whether we’re talking about the state itself or the university) effectively control the Big 12 (as Sittler alluded to in his Tweets). The Big 12 was initially formed with heavy demands from then-Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other Texas politicians in order to get Texas Tech and Baylor to tag along with UT and Texas A&M. It’s a bit of surprise to see such relatively strong statements about Houston’s Big 12 candidacy here, but not completely shocking when looking at the political history of the conference. Back in the midst of conference realignment mania in 2010, I recall then-UT President Bill Powers stating that it was a goal for Houston to become a “Tier 1” university, so there was an acknowledgment even back then of some broader goals to elevate the stature of that school.

This is just my personal reading between the lines, but it’s noteworthy to me that these quotes and sources are coming out of Oklahoma. There isn’t any obvious reason why Oklahoma itself would be pushing Houston specifically over the likes of BYU or Memphis (note that it seems that Cincinnati is still a frontrunner for a Big 12 spot) – it’s hard for me to fathom that the Sooners have a strong feeling either way outside of who can make them the most money. As a result, these aren’t quotes that seem to be pushing a specific school’s agenda, but rather a reflection of what the Big 12 overall is thinking… or more specifically, what Texas is thinking (as the Longhorns do have a very specific interest one way or another about Houston). This is critical because if Texas wants (or outside forces like politicians force them to choose) Houston, then that’s going to be a game-changer for Big 12 expansion candidacies. If a spot is effectively reserved for Houston by the powers that be, then that is going to be disheartening for schools like BYU, Memphis and Tulane. Cincinnati seems to be in good shape with the right combination of a solid athletic program in an advantageous location as a bridge between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12.

It goes to show you that whatever might seem logical in conference realignment can get changed up by outside forces (such as politicians in the form of a Bob Bullock-type) or personal connections (see how the athletic directors at TCU and Louisville won over their counterparts in the Big 12 and ACC, respectively, while BYU’s personnel seemed to have turned off the Big 12). Who knows when or where Big 12 expansion will happen, but it’s fair to at least move Houston onto the short list of candidates (as opposed to being a complete long-shot) based on these Tweets. These comments carry a lot more weight than what Finebaum and Cowherd are throwing out there. At the same time, if both Texas and Oklahoma want the Big 12 to expand, then expansion will likely happen sooner rather than later.

Have a great Fourth of July!

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