Wednesday, August 17, 2011

As the conference turns, pt. 2

After Arkansas left the SWC, it became a dead league walking. With three teams of national prominence and large fan bases in Texas, Arkansas and Texas A&M, the growing problems of the league could be overlooked and glossed over. But with only the two big state schools remaining, the fact that TCU, Rice, Baylor and SMU were small private schools with small alumni bases and almost no television presence was magnified. The fact that the University of Houston played most of its games in a mostly-empty Astrodome despite a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Andre Ware and the excitement of the record-setting run-and-shoot offense didn't help. A&M and Texas were subsidizing the rest of the league's athletic budgets with large and loyal fan bases. SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby, after insisting Arkansas would never leave, began mentioning schools like Louisville, Tulsa or Tulane as potential additions to the league. To try and keep the league viable, A&M made overtures to LSU, which quickly said "Thanks, but no thanks." Likewise, Texas inquired if Oklahoma would consider joining the SWC. Here, things get interesting. Oklahoma was unhappy with revenue sharing in the Big 8 at the time, and felt that too many of the weak sisters--Kansas State, Iowa State, etc.--were padding their athletic budgets with disproportionate shares of money from Oklahoma's television appearances. A "keep what you kill" arrangement similar to what had been put in place in the SWC--in that home schools kept larger portions of home gate revenue, television appearance fees and bowl payouts--appealed to the Sooners' athletic director and president. And they said so. Publicly. Make note of this, because it becomes important. For maybe a week in 1994, it suddenly looked like Oklahoma was thinking about leaving the Big 8 to join the ailing SWC.

Except, that's not what happened, at all. Oklahoma wanted more favorable revenue distribution, but they weren't about to hitch their star to the foundering SWC. A&M and Texas were already looking for a way out. Texas looked westward, wanting to join the academically prestigious Pac 10 and all the member schools there that were part of the American Association of Universities. They also flirted with the Big 10 as well. Sound familiar? Texas A&M, for its part, looked eastward, wanting to follow Arkansas to the SEC and play LSU, Alabama and the rest in that football mad circuit. Texas objected to the SEC because of low academic standards. A&M objected to the Big 10 and Pac 10 because of distance and culture. All of these issue would come into play once again in 2010-2011. In the end, joining the Big 8 was something of a compromise between the two, the only way they'd both be able to get out of the SWC.

Once word got out in Austin that the two flagship institutions were bailing on the SWC, political forces lined up against them. Governor Ann Richards, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and powerful State Senator David Sibley were all Baylor alums, and Texas Tech had State Senate President Pro Tempore John Montford and Speaker of the House Pete Laney in its corner. The message was clear--take Texas Tech and Baylor along with you, or don't go at all. If A&M would give up its aspirations of playing in the SEC, legislative opposition to A&M's long-delayed Reed Arena would magically vanish. And thus, the Big 12 came into being.

By all rights, it should've been the perfect athletic conference. The southern division made up of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor were close to the original lineup of the Southwest Conference from 1914. Many of the regional rivalries stayed in place, and the schools were rewarded with a whopping $100 million, five-year deal (a huge contract for the time). It should've been one big happy family, but it wasn't. Almost immediately, Texas and Nebraska started butting heads. Nebraska viewed the Big 12 as an expansion of the old Big 8, while the new Texas schools viewed the league as an entirely new entity--at worst, it was a merger. Nebraska wanted the Big 12 offices to stay in Kansas City, where the Big 8 had been headquartered. The Texas schools wanted them in Dallas, where the SWC had been headquartered. The Texas schools, led by Texas AD Deloss Dodds and supported by the Oklahoma schools, won out. Nebraska supported one candidate for first Big 12 commissioner (whose name escapes me) whereas the Texas schools supported Steve Hatchell, a former administrator from the University of Colorado who'd joined the SWC front office just prior to the league's dissolution. Again, Texas won out. When the league split into two divisions, north and south, Nebraska protested that its annual rivalry game with Oklahoma would end. Nebraska lost that fight, too. The Big 8's more equitable revenue sharing was abandoned in favor of an unbalanced, SWC-style financial arrangement. The bitterest fight came when Texas moved to impose SWC academic standards limiting the participation of partial qualifiers into the Big 12 rule book. Nebraska, which had built a decades-long championship streak on the muscle of unlimited partial qualifiers in the academically lax Big 8 fought the new standards tooth and nail. And lost again. I believe it is no coincidence that Nebraska's on-field dominance waned quickly from that point on, and head football coach Tom Osborne retired shortly thereafter to enter politics.

The final indignity came in the very first Big 12 championship game, where a John Mackovic-coached Texas team stunned the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers for the first league title. At this point, I have to wonder if this was all clever strategy by Oklahoma to undercut Nebraska by using Texas as a proxy. Certainly, Oklahoma's interests paralleled Texas' in most cases, and the Sooners benefited indirectly from the Longhorns' off-field victories over the Cornhuskers. In any event, the Texas-Nebraska antagonist relationship was cemented, with Texas AD Deloss Dodds outmaneuvering his counterparts at every turn. The rot from within had taken hold, and it would be only a matter of time before it made it to the surface.

As the conference turns, pt. 1

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