Brigham Young football coach Bronco Mendenhall wants to be in the Big 12 and made no bones about it a few days ago. But no Big 12 invitation is likely anytime soon, and BYU and other football-serious schools clearly are sweating in this uneasy age of collegiate athletics.
Conference realignment has settled down to some degree. But national governance is rumbling like Oklahoma earthquakes. Some new tremor every day.
The fledgling College Football Playoff. Constant demand for self-governance from the five major conferences. Lawsuits galore against the NCAA. Just when all the league-jumping seems settled, the larger question of NCAA rule and rules have become paramount.
It seems quite likely that the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC schools are on the path to more autonomy. More freedom to regulate themselves, mostly in terms of benefits for athletes. The schools within those conferences can afford it, as television money has increased again. The schools outside those conferences will be hard-pressed to keep up. The gulf between majors and mid-majors is about to widen, probably significantly.
And the decision-makers at BYU and Connecticut and South Florida know it. The schools that have tasted the sweet wine of big money and big stages don’t want to fall back yet know they absolutely will if they don’t hop aboard the life raft of one of those conferences.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty because of the impending governing structure and the proliferation of lawsuits against the NCAA,” said Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder. “It’s unprecedented times within our organization. There’s a lot of trepidation in our conference and throughout college athletics.”
And Holder is employed by a school where the milk and honey flows. If there’s trepidation in Stillwater, how about in Cincinnati and Tampa and Houston? How about at the schools that have tried hard, built up their brand and had some success but could face a divide from the big boys unlike anything they’ve ever had to combat?
Consider the schools still in the American Athletic Conference, which had an automatic berth to a BCS bowl. Central Florida won that league and then popped Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
But this year, and for the next 12 years by contract, the American champion goes into a pool with a representative from four other leagues of a lesser god. One of the five will be admitted to a major bowl each season. The AAC schools’ access to the big money available in the postseason has decreased dramatically.
And poor BYU is trying to make it as an independent; the Cougars could be squeezed out in scheduling, no matter how good football they play.
The major conferences are making more and spending money, and everyone else but Notre Dame has no chance to keep up or even keep the majors in their view.
No wonder Mendenhall told the Austin American-Statesman, “We would love to be in the Big 12. I would love to be a member of that conference. I think that would make a lot of sense.”
Mendenhall was not too proud to politick. “Our attendance is high enough. And our winning percentage is high enough,” Mendenhall said. “We have the entire Salt Lake City and Utah market as well as a worldwide following because of the (Mormon) church. There'd be a ton to offer the Big 12 because it's a money-generated world right now. You're talking about an amazing kind of brand.”
Trouble is, of course, the Big 12 has no desire to expand. It stabilized at 10 during the chaos of a few years ago and is thriving, at least financially. The Big 12 announced a record $220.1 million revenue distribution for the just-completed school year.
“It’s working really well,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “The addition of an 11th or 12th team has to strengthen the conference. Just adding other schools that doesn’t strengthen the conference doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
Joe C. is more cautious than most, which is good in this climate. “I don’t think anybody could ever say never,” he said. “You can’t discount the fluid nature of our whole structure. There’s so many things going on at the moment. To close out any option would be very short-sighted. That doesn’t mean we’re actively pursuing any of them. But if the world around us changes, you reserve the right to consider your options. That’s why I’ve been very open-minded until we see if things are truly settling.”
But no great options exist for the Big 12. Be it branding (UConn football and Cincinnati football don’t move the needle) or geography (Provo, Utah, and Morgantown, W.Va., in the same conference?) or saturated market (Houston), no school on the outside seems a home run for the Big 12. Or even a ground-rule double.
“I’m not hearing any interest in expansion,” Holder said. “Bigger has some advantages. It definitely has some disadvantages as well.”
The Big 12 for now is in solid shape. But that pounding on the door of the ark is from schools not in solid shape who feel it beginning to rain.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.