There is no place in major sports where perception is more important than the college level, and at the moment there is no place in college sports failing the perception test quite like the Big 12 Conference.
Four years after nearly folding, and now three full school years into its new construction, the Big 12 should have outgrown this by now.
The league came perilously close to dissolving in 2011 and 2012, saved by a combination of luck, desperation and Texas’ inability to get a better deal somewhere else. Near-death experiences often motivate major changes, but the Big 12 is stuck in the same bad habits that helped contribute to its last crisis.
The league should’ve learned. The league should’ve improved. The league should’ve taken its dark moment as reason to change, but instead, is still presenting itself to the world as a disjointed collection of bad communicators.
We often use analogies of human relationships to talk about the sports we love, and the Big 12’s marriage needs a therapist before these differences become irreconcilable.
The Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and Pac-12 are the country’s best and most successful college leagues, and it is no coincidence that they also have strong commissioners with the trust of their presidents, athletic directors and coaches.
Mike Slive (at least until his retirement), Jim Delany and Larry Scott lead those leagues. Not the Alabama football coach, the Michigan athletic director or the Oregon president.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is an impressive man. Very smart, and better equipped for the job than any of his predecessors.
But he can’t overcome the league’s structure and culture. He can’t change the way the conference has been built.
Texas is still the boss. Baylor football coach Art Briles publicly rips the league and Bowlsby when he thought the refusal to live up to the “One True Champion” marketing slogan cost his team a spot in the playoffs, even though it did not.
More recently, the wishy-washy image was reinforced when Bowlsby gave strong indications the league wanted to hold a football championship game and then just two weeks later completely reversed.
League officials would like you to believe this is all just the product of ongoing conversations, and that the message got lost in translation. Having the right to play a championship game is different than actually playing a championship game, they’ll say, but the bigger problem of mixed and scattered messages still exists.
This is a problem, one that’s acknowledged at least in pockets around the league even if there is no apparent fix.
It’s not just that holding a championship game would be a mistake and a knee-jerk reaction to last season. The Big 12 was set to get one spot in college football’s first four-team playoff. If the league got lucky, it could’ve had two. As it happened, the league got unlucky and it had none.
But blaming the lack of a league championship game on being the odd power conference out of the playoff shows a concerning institutional amnesia. Texas and Kansas State have lost places in the national championship game — not just a playoff — by losing Big 12 title games.
All of that aside, the way this was presented publicly — yes, we want a game … wait, never mind, forget what we said — is one more brick in building a reputation for weakness, uncertainty, and instability.
The reality of the league probably isn’t as bad as perception. The television contracts are rich and solid, and television contracts are always the most important thing. The league will stay together as long as Texas and Oklahoma are making money.
But there are major issues here. Because of recent history, it is vital that the Big 12 present a united front, and on this point it is failing enormously. The complaints about circumstance keeping the league out of the playoff are a weak dismissal of accountability.
If either Baylor or TCU went undefeated, it would’ve been in the playoff. More to the point, both teams scheduled way too soft in the non-conference. TCU played just one power conference school, and that was Minnesota. Baylor was even worse, scheduling SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. Baylor will play another schedule without a non-conference opponent from a power league this fall.
It wasn’t hard to see that those types of schedules would be an obstacle for a one-loss team trying to get into a playoff, particularly without a league championship game.
Everyone knew the rules ahead of time, in other words, so it’s disingenuous to complain about it afterward. If Baylor or TCU went undefeated, they would not have been bringing up the fact that their path was easier without a 13th game.
These are all symptoms of the same disease. The Big 12 has a capable man in the commissioner’s office and every motivation to have confronted its problems.
Instead, it is largely waiting for outside instruction, incapable or unwilling to take action itself. This is more sitting on the sideline than playing the game.
In a lot of ways, this is how the Big 12 got into this situation in the first place.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com