The most publicly insecure and paranoid institution in college sports is at it again.
Five years after a near-death experience, leaders in and around the Big 12 are talking about conference realignment again, and the fact that they approach this round as the instigators and planners instead of the reactors and the desperate does not diminish the chance of making a wrong decision — or that one of its own is muddying the waters.
The league’s showcase event, its conference basketball tournament, is being held at Sprint Center this week. Particularly this season, as the league has been as good as any league has been in years, it is the country’s best college basketball tournament.
And even so, among the conference’s leaders, it is often serving as the background noise during another conversation about what the future will look like.
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A disproportionate amount of this is the fault of Oklahoma president David Boren, an egomaniac whose platform and continued public criticisms of the league are driving the push.
Boren is such a problem that the league issued a gag order on its presidents and chancellors on the topic of possible expansion, a championship football game, and a conference television network. The league’s more considered and well-intentioned leaders have obeyed. Boren, of course, continued to talk.
Boren’s counterproductive critcisms are important context, because it means that even in a time of relative strength for the league, it is still deliberating generational changes from a position of perceived weakness.
The focus is typically on how far the Big 12 is behind the SEC and Big Ten in revenue distribution, which ignores the Big 12’s lead on the Pac-12 and ACC.
The focus is typically on the Big 12 being “psychologically disadvantaged” with 10 teams and no conference network, which ignores that other leagues have bloated past the point of diminishing returns and that the Pac-12’s network has largely been a disaster.
If the league is “psychologically disadvantaged,” as Boren famously said, it’s because he’s aired the same problems and uncertainties that exist in every league as something unique to the Big 12.
Other leagues do their fighting behind closed doors, because they don’t have a 74-year-old president at a legacy university drunk on his own power, without understanding or care for the collective good, and intent on being remembered as an agent of change in athletics — whether the change is ultimately good or bad.
Boren’s actions have clouded a process that should be clear-minded, private and methodical. Without him, the league could present possible expansion as a move of aggression, instead of fearful self-defense.
There are enough complications without Boren creating more from the inside.
Most obviously, the Big 12 has to weigh the perceived security of adding teams against the more fractured revenue distribution and unintended consequences of expansion.
There is no obvious expansion candidate, no school that even comes close to checking all the boxes, so the Big 12 begins the process choosing from a flawed pool. It’s entirely possible that the idea of stability through expansion is a mirage.
Right now, the league laments the loss of flagship institutions like Nebraska and Texas A&M, and missing out on Louisville. Why should we not believe it would eventually regret expansion with what everyone agrees would be imperfect new schools?
Expanding means not only knowing everything possible about what a university brings at the moment — in terms of revenue, popularity, market size, academics and other factors — but confidently projecting what that university will be in 30 years.
The league would not be able to renegotiate existing TV contracts through expansion, meaning the difference would have to be made up for by some combination of creating a championship football game or a conference TV network.
But they can play a championship game without expansion, and the creation of a TV network comes with its own perils, including how the Longhorn Network — a financial plus for Texas, but a significant money loser for ESPN — would factor in.
It seems as if the majority of conference ADs don’t favor expansion. That’s particularly true outside of Texas and Oklahoma, because for those schools, expansion means more league mouths to feed and more competition for the top of the standings. The Big Ten may (or may not) have more stability with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, but it also means schools like Purdue and Minnesota and Illinois are further ensured mediocrity in a growing underclass.
The rub of it is that the idea of stability through expansion is being promulgated by the words of Boren, who is the one most responsible for this public image of instability.
Five years after the Big 12 nearly went extinct, it approaches another possible round of realignment with the same basic ground rules. Leaders at Kansas and K-State and Iowa State and TCU and the like can provide input, but everyone understands the decision will be made by Texas and Oklahoma. If those schools are happy, the rest of the league is happy.
Big 12 schools are bound by a grant of rights agreement that has six years remaining. Each day, month and year that go by without an extension or other promise of stability makes the league’s eight “other” schools a little more nervous.
The whole thing rests on the eight being able to make Texas and Oklahoma happy. If Texas is asked to give up the Longhorn Network, it’s going to want something significant in return. If letting Boren lead — or, at least, be perceived to lead — expansion exploration makes Oklahoma more likely to keep the Big 12 going, then the other eight schools will shake hands and smile.
The Big 12 was always going to have to revisit its membership and other fundamental structures. Doing it away from the crisis of five years ago is an advantage.
A shame for the league if that planning is wiped away by Boren, whose lack of discipline and tact put the rest of the league on edge, and potentially lessens the Big 12’s appeal to expansion candidates.