As the remnants of the Big 12 North braced for the worst and Texas power brokers dug in for a long weekend of horse-swappin' to resolve a rift between Texas and Texas A&M over the old rivals' future destinations, Big 12 refugee Nebraska breathed a sigh of relief today in the company of its new conference home, the Big Ten. Then it took aim at its old conference mates – one of them in particular – and let it rip:
"There has been much discussion to make Nebraska responsible for the changes that have been made and forecast for the possible breakup of the Big 12 should it occur," [chancellor Harvey] Perlman told the Board of Regents. "One school leaving a conference doesn’t destroy a conference."
[Athletic director Tom] Osborne took the breakup notion one step farther and pointed the finger directly toward Texas.
"One school leaving a conference does not break up a conference," Osborne said. "Two schools leaving a conference does not break up a conference.
"Six schools leaving a conference breaks up a conference."
The trajectory I outlined earlier this week is worth reiterating: From the Cornhuskers' perspective, the Big 12 was always supposed to be their league. When the conference formed in the mid-nineties, Nebraska was one of the two or three most dominant programs nationally, the unquestioned Big Eight overlord that graciously opened the doors of its conference to the refugees of the corrupt, crumbling SWC.
From the beginning, though, Texas asserted itself. The Big Eight was officially dissolved, along with all of its records; Nebraska's traditional post-Thanksgiving rival, Oklahoma, landed in the opposite division, where the two would only see one another in the regular season every two years; Texas won early fights over partial qualifiers (Nebraska was for allowing them) and instituting a conference championship game (Nebraska was the only vote against, and immediately paid when it lost a certain national title shot in 1996 with a championship-game upset at the hands of ... Texas). Within five years, the power had shifted to the South: With Osborne in the Nebraska legislature, Mack Brown and Bob Stoops became the league's premiere coaches, and Oklahoma's annual South Division rubber match with Texas became one of the marquee national games of every season. Conference headquarters moved from Kansas City to Dallas. The South champion beat the North in six straight championship games, including last December, when officials infuriated Nebraska by adding a second to the clock after it had expired with the 'Huskers leading 12-10, allowing Texas to kick the game-wining, BCS-clinching field goal on the final snap. Last week, over Nebraska's protestations, the conference awarded the championship game to Cowboys Stadium in Dallas through 2013. And of course, Texas always brought home the largest share of the league's unequal annual payout.
It's no wonder Nebraska reached out to the Big Ten first, when it sensed North Division rivals Missouri and Colorado making friendly noises toward the openly expansion-minded Big Ten and Pac-10, respectively, or that today's Big Ten vote was unanimous. Based on today's postmortem press conference, the fact is that Nebraska probably could have saved the Big 12 by preventing Texas and its South Division orbits from breaking up the conference: When the 'Huskers were presented with an ultimatum to stay or go at last week's meeting, Perlman said, the Texas/Oklahoma contingent strongly suggested that "if Nebraska stayed in the Big 12, they would stay in the Big 12." Not if Nebraska and Missouri or Colorado. Just Nebraska.
In this case, then, Osborne was half right: One team leaving can't break up a conference, but one team staying – his team – could have kept this particular conference together, at least for the length of another, more lucrative television contract. When it came down to it, after 15 years, Nebraska basically decided the conference wasn't worth saving. Given Texas' seeming eagerness to take its act to the Pac-10 (or Pac-16, or whatever it is after Tuesday's decisive meeting of the Texas Board of Regents), and the eagerness of the rest of the South Division to follow UT out, the Cornhuskers weren't the only ones who felt that way; just about everyone, it seems, was in search of an exit strategy. (See: Colorado and Missouri above, one of which actually got its wish.) And the more that trickles out from behind closed doors – the secret coalitions, ultimatums and petty back-stabbings – the more the irreparable chasm that emerged between North and South over the last month seems like a mercy killing.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.