Welcome back to the brink, Big 12.
When commissioner Dan Beebe miraculously held the league together with ten remaining members last year, it was with the natural assumption that another round of expansion would pad the conference's ranks back to an even dozen at some point in the near future. Instead, with official word of Texas A&M's pending departure for the SEC this morning, Beebe finds himself once again pledging the league to just to maintain an already diminished status quo. And once again, he doesn't have much time before the urgency to bail a sinking ship begins to outweigh the urgency to salvage it.
The question now: What are the Big 12's membership options? They're not many, and as you might expect, they're not pretty. But here they are, in order from least likely to happen to most likely:
Even though the Big 12 has reached out to the Irish as a possible replacement for Texas A&M should the Aggies bolt for the SEC as is widely assumed, Notre Dame, in all likelihood, is staying put as an independent, its athletic director just told me.
"Our priority — and our clear priority — is maintaining our football independence and continuing to build our relationship with the Big East with our other sports," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Monday morning when asked if there was a viable chance his school could join the Big 12 now or in the near future.
They're flattered that you thought of them, though. Really.
• Arkansas. There was actually a bit of scuttlebutt about the Razorbacks rejoining their traditional Southwest Conference brethren during last summer's apocalyptic round of musical chairs, even if it existed almost entirely in the mind of Arkansas alum Jerry Jones. But it made no sense then, and it makes less sense now: Arkansas is finally competitive on a consistent basis in the most stable and respected league in America and has far, far fewer incentives pulling it back toward Texas — I can think of exactly zero — than Texas A&M has to stay. And which team is trying to get out?
• Boise State. If the decision was only about football, the Broncos would have been snapped up a long time ago: Boise is easily the winningest program in the country over the last decade and has built itself into a legitimate national presence. But it has nothing else going for it — geographically, demographically, academically, historically, in other sports… Boise offers nothing outside of a few years of good football. In a long-term decision that's primarily about the money, that's not enough.
• Houston and/or SMU. The Cougars and Mustangs belong together because the cases for and against them are the same. For them: Like Arkansas, they're both historic Texas rivals from the SWC, and both play in major metro areas. Against them: Neither has been competitive or relevant outside of Conference USA since the eighties, and they both had to cheat to claim relevance back then. Texas already owns the Dallas and Houston markets, anyway. Houston and SMU bring nothing to the table except another mouth to feed.
• TCU. TCU makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways — competitively, historically, geographically, demographically — but after a decade-a-half of hopping from the old SWC to the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West, the Horned Frogs have finally found a home in the Big East that will give them a regular BCS payout and an opportunity to keep playing in one of the big-money games themselves. Would they be willing to snub their nose at the league that gave them their big break for the privilege of playing second fiddle to Texas and Oklahoma? Only if the dominoes began falling in the ACC and SEC in a way that made the Big East look substantially less stable than the Big 12, which it does not at the moment.
Also, as far as demographics are concerned, TCU wouldn't exactly be delivering the Dallas/Fort Worth market during the next round of TV negotiations: Again, Texas already owns those eyeballs, making the Frogs slightly redundant when it comes to growing the pie.
Two sources told me today Pittsburgh continues to move up as a Big 12 target, and may even be moving into the lead. Pitt AD Steve Pederson is sending out signals the Panthers are content in the Big East.
But Pittsburgh would bring football and basketball tradition to the Big 12 as well as a large television market in the northeast. Considering Pitt makes about $8 million per year currently in TV revenue, the Panthers would probably love the upgrade in pay in the Big 12 (to between $17 million and $20 million) starting next year - as long as the Big 12 is still together at that point.
That makes some financial sense for Pitt — hey, guys, interested in doubling your annual take-home? — and some demographic sense for the Big 12. But it would also require the Panthers to essentially abandon their geographic footprint in the Northeast and possibly forsake their traditional rivalry with West Virginia for entry into a part of the country in which it can't possibly hope to compete with the traditional powers. And who in Texas or Oklahoma would be excited about booking a road trip to Pittsburgh? The Panthers' persistence as a legitimate option reeks of desperation to stave off extinction for a few more years.
Which brings us to...
• BYU. The Cougars may not be in the thick of any national championship races anytime soon, but if they can make the cut as independents, they can certainly make the cut for the Big 12. On the field, BYU football has a stronger national brand than any current Big 12 program save Oklahoma and Texas; its one national championship, in 1984, is one more than Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have won put together. Off the field, the university has an international following thanks to its connection to the Mormon church. It's a major presence in one of the fastest-growing states in the Union, in the most attractive market west of the Mississippi that's not already dominated by the Big 12 or Pac-12. It already has its own television contract with ESPN/ABC, which should be easily reconcilable with the Big 12's television contract with ESPN/ABC.
Maybe most importantly, the university took the time this afternoon to issue a statement that pointedly does not say "no":
"There is much speculation right now regarding conference affiliation that seems to change by the hour. Commenting on such conjecture is not productive and creates a distraction for our program. As we enter the 2011-12 athletic season, BYU is focused on the opportunities ahead. We are excited about our relationship with ESPN as a football independent and our affiliation with the West Coast Conference [in non-football sports]. The university will have no further comment."
If BYU is really determined to make it work as an independent — and there is some cachet to building a brand as "the Notre Dame of the West," if it can manage the scheduling — then the chronic instability of the Big 12 may not seem worth the risk. But since Notre Dame itself has already laughed in the conference's face, I don't see any good reason the Cougars aren't now at the top of the wish list.