The Louisville ship has passed, as far as the Big 12 is concerned, and after the Cardinals’ 33-23 pasting of Florida in the Sugar Bowl, there is even more evidence that the Big 12, despite newfound stability, is asleep at the wheel concerning its leadership.
The Big 12 could have had Louisville, and some Big 12 leaders were pushing for Louisville, and yet now the Atlantic Coast Conference has Louisville while the Big 12 remains at 10 members. Maybe that works out fine. But if the Big 12 finds itself in expansion mode anytime soon, it’s going to wish it had jumped on Louisville.
In the last year, before Maryland’s jump to the Big Ten prompted the ACC invitation to Louisville, the ‘Ville absolutely was wishing for a Big 12 offer. The Cardinals would have come immediately, no questions asked. Here were the benefits of adding Louisville:
* Excellent athletic program. That’s been well-documented. Mountain peak basketball. Solid in minor sports. And an up-and-coming football program. Louisville now has two BCS victories since 2006. Plus a coach who appears to have some staying power. Tennessee tried to hire Charlie Strong. The Volunteers failed.
* Strong fan support. Louisville is a decent mark. Ranks about with Oklahoma City in media-market size. The Cardinals’ basketball support is off the charts, and Louisville’s football attendance is solid — averaged 49,991 in 2012. That’s without a big-name opponent visiting Papa John Stadium. Louisville hosted Kentucky, Missouri State, North Carolina, South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple and Connecticut. That’s a basketball who’s who. Not so much a football draw.
* No great risk. The Big 12 could have had Louisville without compromising its newly-stated values. With 11 schools, the Big 12 would not necessarily have had to keep expanding. The Big 12 could have stayed at 11 and avoided the championship game, which seems to be a priority. The Big 12 could have kept the round-robin scheduling, play 10 conference games, which would have established the Big 12 as more robustly competitive than any other league. If the round robin didn’t work out, the Big 12 could go back to eight conference games. There were options. And while the addition of Louisville likely would have cost the Big 12 a little money — the Cardinals likely would not have increased the television contract enough to offset the extra mouth to feed — the cost would have been small enough to be worth the increased stability.
* Bridge to West Virginia. Sorry, but I’ll keep harping on this. West Virginia on an Appalachian island, off by itself, is not a long-term solution. The Mountaineers need to feel like they’re part of the league geographically. A school between Kansas City and Morgantown would be invaluable to stability.
But Louisville is ACC-bound. Which means the Big 12 is back to other options. Here are the Big 12 options:
1. Stay at 10. It might work. But I doubt it, long-term. The cultural pressures to keep expanding are great. Look at the Big Ten, which added Rutgers and Maryland, with some thought that North Carolina and Georgia Tech could be next.
2. Cull the ACC. If the Big 12 can grab Clemson and Florida State, then the decision to pass on Louisville will look great. Clemson and Florida State, grouped with West Virginia, would form a potent Eastern axis. But I don’t see Clemson and Florida State jumping unless the ACC gets picked apart by the SEC or Big Ten — both would like North Carolina, and Virginia and/or Virginia Tech are possibilities, too, for market and academic reasons.
3. Go West. The Big 12 really doesn’t want to do this. Brigham Young and, I suppose, Boise State would stretch the league almost from sea to shining sea. BYU and Boise State have some name-brand quality and would be like Louisville, in that the television contracts might increase enough that the financial hit wouldn’t be too rough. But going to Provo, Utah, and Boise would produce all kinds of non-football problems.
4. Take the leftovers. The two institutions on the outside looking in are Cincinnati and Connecticut. Both are stuck in the Big East. Both are in the excellent markets that just don’t care that much about college football. Or at least those particular college football teams. They would not provide a big boost to the Big 12 TV contracts — Texas Tech-Connecticut? OSU-Cincinnati? — or the league’s prestige. Basketball would be great, and they at least fill out the 12-team desire. But this would be a worst-case scenario for expansion.