A year ago at this time, the highest-ranked Big 12 team was Baylor at No. 16, and talk of the conference being represented in the College Football Playoff was over.
Fast starts by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season have given the league a boost, and another statement by a Big 12 member about football strength was made Friday.
Kansas has started a $350 million campaign to create and upgrade its athletic facilities over the next 3-6 years, with football as the primary beneficiary.
This is a program that has lost 64 of its last 79 games entering Saturday’s home contest against West Virginia, that hasn’t won more than one conference game in a season since 2008, or a road game since 2009. There is no more downtrodden program in the Power Five conferences.
That futility would suggest its bad timing for such an investment. Who wants to kick into this?
On the contrary, KU chancellor Douglas Girod and athletic director Sheahon Zenger agree the Jayhawks are decades behind the times when it comes to facilities, and that’s why they’re all in now.
“These are facilities that could have and maybe should have been done 20-25 years ago,” Zenger said.
The timing is important for another reason.
The Big 12 is on solid footing … now. But the Big 12 is the only Power Five conference that lost members in the realignment era. If bell cows Oklahoma or Texas decide to leave — moves both have previously considered — the Big 12 would no longer exist as a major player.
As it stands today, the Jayhawks as a free agent on the open market could be a tough sell. A storied men’s basketball program paired with non-competitive football with inadequate by comparison facilities might not be enough if there is another realignment free-for-all.
A seat at the adult table, if it comes to that, is what Kansas trusts $350 million will buy, and the first thought from Girod in his opening statement on Friday spoke to this.
“I just wanted to emphasize a few things, one of which is how important it is for us to continue to be a strong member of the Big 12 Conference and how important a Power Five conference is to the university, to help maintain our national stature, which is critical to recruiting, among other things.”
Maintaining residence in college sports’ high-rent district is costly, and you have to pay to play.
“The only thing worse than being in a facilities arms race,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “is not being in one.”
The Big 12 distributed $95 million to its members from College Football Playoff revenues for 2016. That’s just a portion of the revenue that flows into the league from its Power Five status. The five other conferences, the so-called “Group of Five,” received a total of $83.5 million from the CFP.
This financial commitment follows an eyebrow-raising deal announced in December when Kansas doubled football coach David Beaty’s salary to $1.6 million and included a bonus of $100,000 for each victory over a Power Five opponent. The first opportunity comes Saturday.
The deal was extended to 2021, and although Beaty’s record when Kansas re-upped was 2-22, the Jayhawks wanted to shed the appearance of a small-time program.
Nothing accomplishes that better than winning and the Jayhawks haven’t been able to figure things out since the Mark Mangino era. Turner Gill and Charlie Weis succeeded only in landing large settlement checks after their firings.
But financial infusion can work. Bowlsby became Stanford’s athletic director in 2006, the year the Cardinal completed a $90 million stadium reconstruction project.
“Stanford invested heavily and it changed the narrative about whether or not football was important,” Bowlsby said.
A run of seven straight losing seasons ended at Stanford in 2008. The Cardinal have posted eight straight winning seasons since then, including three that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Kansas pushed in its chips with Friday’s news with hopes of similar results … and a secure future.