Sam Mellinger

The risk, importance, and uncertainty around Houston’s push to join the Big 12

Houston hopes to have its football team in the Big 12 and play along side such teams as Oklahoma. Houston beat Oklahoma this season on Sept. 3.
Houston hopes to have its football team in the Big 12 and play along side such teams as Oklahoma. Houston beat Oklahoma this season on Sept. 3. The Associated Press

You can see it all from here, the upper deck of the new and expandable and funky looking stadium where the University of Houston is playing the most important football season in school history. Might be the most important season for any school in the country.

You can see the stadium, of course, around 40,000 seats with a steel, minimalist, breathable design that makes adding another 20,000 or so seats relatively easy. You can see the parking lot and run-down buildings across the street, where a $25 million indoor football facility will be built in the next step of Houston’s high-stakes push to become a legitimate and consistent player in big-time college sports.

And over there, a couple miles north, you can see the university’s biggest selling point in a very public, no-time-for-modesty pitch to join the Big 12 — downtown Houston, the epicenter of what is soon to be the nation’s third largest city, and what has always been one of the nation’s great incubators for football talent.

This is a process rife with risk, for all sides, and Houston has pushed itself all-in to join in the prestige and money of a power five conference. If you talk to enough people around here, you get the sense that they see it as less of a sales pitch and more of a fulfillment of destiny. Bitterness remains from Houston being on the wrong side of the fault line when the Southwest Conference broke off, and two decades later, some see getting into the Big 12 as righting a wrong.

“I’ve gotten a very stern history lesson from many Houstonians over what’s happened in the last 20 years,” Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said. “I don't think there’s a fan base that exists today that this is more important to than the University of Houston.”

Here’s a plot twist: Houston is making this push with a rate of spending it likely can’t maintain without an invitation to a power five conference. Houston chancellor Renu Khator — who has been publicly vague and quiet about Big 12 expansion, and declined a request to talk for this story — admitted as much in an email obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Another plot twist: Even if they do get into the Big 12, they are unlikely to profit financially. This is the cruel reality of the highest level of college sports, where every new dollar that comes in means a new dollar going out, and sometimes more. Last year, every Big 12 school took in at least $30 million more than Houston.

Much of that gap would be covered by Big 12 revenue distribution — more than $30 million last year, compared to less than $2 million for Houston's American Athletic Conference — but the new arms race will mean even more expenses. Kansas State spent around $67 million on athletics last year, the lowest of the eight public schools in the Big 12. Houston spent $45 million.

Houston is among the many college athletic departments that lose money. But according to analysis by USA Today, the university gave the seventh-highest subsidy to athletics in the country. This is all further complicated by Houston already stretching itself to get this close, both in tapping wealthy donors and by funding the football stadium in part with a $45 per semester student fee.

Yurachek thinks a move to the Big 12 would make Houston athletics profitable “over time,” but that’s a dubious claim considering the gap his department needs to close and the trends of college sports.

Murray Sperber is a professor in cultural studies of sport in education at Cal-Berkeley and an author who has written extensively about major college sports.

“No,” he said when asked if there was any way Houston could have a net profit from a move to the Big 12. “It’s a fool’s game. Their facilities will never be better than Texas’, or Oklahoma’s. They’re the future Iowa State.”

Houston’s case for the Big 12 is strong. The Cougars beat preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma in front of more than 70,000 fans this season, and are currently ranked sixth nationally. Enrollment is more than 40,000 and despite the school’s reputation as a commuter school, it claims more on-campus beds than every school in the state but UT.

Texas A&M is a 90-minute drive from Houston. Trends in both TV ratings and recruiting rankings indicate the city is starting to tilt away from the Big 12 and toward the SEC. Last year, of the 10 most watched college football games in Houston, six were SEC games, two Big 12, and two UH. About half of last year’s top 100 recruits in Houston committed to Big 12 schools, down from about 75 percent before A&M left for the SEC.

Houston isn’t A&M, but it does have a market share. On Sept. 3, despite an 11 a.m. kickoff, Houston-Oklahoma was the most watched game in town — even outdrawing the next night’s standalone, primetime game between Texas and Notre Dame. It was the city’s highest rated non-bowl, non-playoff game since the 2009 Big 12 championship between Texas and Nebraska.

The program’s success is such that several Big 12 coaches have publicly argued against Houston’ss inclusion, essentially saying it would be too hard to compete against Houston’s advantages.

Houston is still building its profile, but has made undeniable progress over the last 10 years or so. It’s now a Carnegie Tier One research university, and houses a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa . Khator has emphasized traditional four-year paths for students, an attempt to distance the university from the commuter reputation.

There is a feeling around town — from wealthy donors to casual fans — that an invitation has been more than earned.

But here is, perhaps, the cruelest plot twist of all: David Boren, an egomaniac but nonetheless the OU president and public voice of the Big 12 expansion committee, made clear this week at a board of regents meeting that expansion is not a given. Two league officials confirmed to The Star that there is momentum against adding schools, at least right now.

Particularly when it comes to expansion, the Big 12 has been nothing if not disjointed, inconsistent, and contradictory. So who knows how much of this is honest (and appropriate) prudence, how much is posturing, and how much is negotiation.

But either way, it’s enough to put a scare into UH. They’ve been building for this moment. They’ve spent more than they should, and know they will have to spend even more. Time is working against them.

The Big 12 could use the Houston market, and a boost of better football. But UH needs this even more, and the decision may come down to how much the league is able to leverage that need, and how much UH is willing to surrender.