August 15, 2011
Kicking off Big 12 Week.
As of this morning, we can say this much for the existential reality of the Big 12: It's still here.
How long that will be the case after this afternoon, when the Texas A&M Board of Regents is expected to effectively vote the Aggies out of the conference, is an open question. The Higher Education Committee of the Texas House of Representatives is set to take up the issue on Tuesday, with Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and SEC commissioner Mike Slive both invited to the proceedings. The SEC will take it from there, or perhaps not.
"Limbo" is a polite way of describing the future of the Big 12 in the meantime. Publicly, anyway, the rest of the league is trying to shrug off A&M's pending defection and convince one another that they're going to be just fine with only nine members, really, and there's always the next round of expansion to pad their ranks. In reality, the entire operation looks as wobbly as a Jenga tower. If A&M splits, the next piece to go will bring the entire operation down, and everyone knows it. They also know, for their own sake, that they'd much rather be that piece than pray for a soft landing if one of the others gets pulled out first.
Even if Texas A&M doesn't leave, the status quo Beebe miraculously salvaged after Nebraska and Colorado left the conference last summer is teetering on the brink. Obviously, the Aggies will leap at the first opportunity to escape an alliance that orbits around the Longhorns and their nascent media empire. Missouri all but threw itself at the Big Ten last year. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were all on board to follow Texas to the Pac-10, which may see a fresh opportunity to finish what it started when it lured away Colorado. If the SEC comes calling for a 14th member after adding Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Missouri could be two of the first numbers Slive dials. And Texas, the anchor holding the entire thing in place by virtue of its gravitational pull, always has the clout to drop the satellites and set up shop for itself pretty much anytime it feels like it.
Of all the possible scenarios, the least plausible remains the Big 12's long-term survival as a major football conference. Half the league could be gone at the first opportunity, which only reinforces the urge to get out while the getting's good.
That's a shame, because in a conference whose members could actually operate in good faith, the headlines right now would be all about what's shaping up to be a fairly excellent product on the field. The Big 12 opens the season boasting the No. 1 team in the country, Oklahoma, and two more (Oklahoma State and Texas A&M) in the preseason top 10, more than any other conference. Texas and Missouri give it five teams in the top 25, second only to the SEC. Thanks to T. Boone Pickens' efforts at Oklahoma State, all of them have the resources sustain that kind of success on an annual basis, and with the elimination of the two-division format in favor of a nine-game, round-robin conference schedule, they can't dodge each other anymore in the regular season. From a strictly football perspective — based on the players, coaches, programs and traditions — this is still very much the heavy-hitting, upper-crust conference it was designed to be 16 years ago.
But its fate doesn't rest on anything that happens on the field. It relies on what happens in board rooms and on conference calls with media executive who just can't make the numbers in Lubbock, Texas, and Manhattan, Kansas, add up to something that can compete with the ever-rising sums in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Even at the time, Beebe's eleventh-hour bargain to save the league last summer appeared to be too good to be true, less a long-term save than a short-term Hail Mary. Now, barely a year later, the term is beginning to look even shorter than anyone imagined.