The most argumentative and publicly disjointed band of schools in college sports is at it again, right on schedule, another summer meaning another round of non-uniform comments exposing a stubborn discontent.
The Big 12 held its media days here this week, and like usual, a lot of the talk focused on the future of the league.
The dangers here aren’t immediate, but they are vast. The league’s TV contracts are backed by a grant of rights for another 10 years. All contracts are negotiable, but this is a strong commitment, at least by the standards of modern-day college sports.
The problems are more deeply rooted. The Big 12 is less a group of like-minded institutions made stronger by a partnership than it is 10 schools without better options. This is college sports’ most disconnected league.
It used to be that Texas could be justifiably blamed as the agent of instability in the Big 12 — but now it’s Oklahoma. More specifically, it is Oklahoma president David Boren.
Four years after his “wallflower” comment shook the league and was at least a convenient excuse for Missouri to leave for the SEC, the former governor and senator is again watching the rest of the Big 12 react to a verbal grenade.
Boren called the league “psychologically disadvantaged” by not having 12 members, forcing commissioner Bob Bowlsby to consent to constant interviews downplaying the impact.
“I don’t think there’s critical mass for expansion,” Bowlsby said.
That may be true, but there is critical mass for worry about where the league is headed, and, more importantly, widespread concern about, and distrust of, Boren.
He is seen by many as ego-driven, selfish and disruptive. One source said the league’s future rests in large part on whether Bowlsby’s respect and strong leadership can last until whenever the 74-year-old Boren retires.
Some see Boren as devious, wondering if he’s trying to send signals to other conferences that Oklahoma is on the market. Some see him as a politician, drumming up support from his base and by extension more money for his school. Some think he is merely trying to distract from controversies on his own campus.
Whatever his motives, he is bringing to light some of the league’s fundamental problems with trust and stability. Publicly, the league promotes the idea that the grant of rights is proof of cohesion, but that’s either spin or delusional hope.
This round of Boren reaction brings up at least two gripes. The first is that Boren is not being realistic. In a perfect world, yes, 12 is better than 10. But who would he have the league add? Houston and SMU don’t provide anything the league doesn’t already have. Cincinnati doesn’t add enough. BYU would come with its own headaches and baggage.
You could say that Boren is out of touch or ignorant with how these things work, but he’s far too smart for that, which is where the distrust surfaces.
“There’s a lot of people who suggest they’d be good candidates (for expansion),” Bowlsby says, leaving unsaid that he doesn’t see an actual good candidate.
The second gripe is that there is a remaining bitterness about what is seen by many in the league as a missed opportunity to add Louisville instead of West Virginia. The reasons for West Virginia joining the league depend on the perspective of the person you talk to, but there seems to be a general agreement that adding Louisville would’ve made the conference stronger, and by extension the discontent smaller.
Big 12 leaders know they have some fixing to do here. Change is the new normal in college sports, and the speed of evolution is only picking up. New autonomy rules benefitting bigger programs are cracking a divide between smaller programs that will only grow.
The future will favor the strong, in other words, and the Big 12 is creating a reputation for missing strength.
It used to be that the Big 12’s problems could be oversimplified and blamed on Texas. But, actually, Texas ended up being a strong advocate to keep the conference together during the last round of realignment. The school did this for its own benefit, of course — everyone is acting for themselves.
At least Texas’ advocacy was beneficial around the league, helping schools like Kansas and K-State not have to go looking for lifeboats.
It’s hard to say the same about what Boren is doing. At a time when the league should be working together to strengthen its standing for the college football playoffs and best navigate the unpredictable future of the industry, it is instead responding to a powerful and potentially corrosive campus leader.
Bowlsby is the best commissioner the league has ever had. Boren is his greatest challenge, and there are some who believe the Big 12’s future rests largely in the balance.