Big 12 Under Siege

Under_siege_medium

via assets.sbnation.com

Thanks to RPT at Rock M Nation for the picture.

After an expected lull on the heels of the "Big 10 may expand!" announcement, talk of conference realignment has heated up once again.  It started on Tuesday, when the Pac-10 made it known that it will explore expansion.  Then, it continued when it was leaked that Texas has held preliminary discussions with the Big 10 regarding expansion.

When the news about the Pac-10 expansion hit the wire, Colorado fans predictably fell all over themselves to make it known that they would happily kill a few social conservatives for the chance to join the Pac-10.  The main reason, apparently, is that the alignment of tectonic plates underneath their state makes them vastly different from the rest of the Big 12 in some way other than altitude.

The reaction of Texas fans was a bit more mixed.  Some are just dying to move to the Big 10, while others don't see the benefit.  Now, some writers are even talking about the Pac-10 taking a look at Texas.  It's enough to make your head spin.

If you haven't already had enough of this issue, then click the jump for some discussion of my thoughts on both these schools, their options, and what it means for K-State and the rest of the Big 12.

Colorado: Of the two, I think it's more likely Colorado actually ends up making a move.  We'll get into why I believe that's true with regard to Texas below, but it's not exactly been a secret that CU has been interested in moving before.  For various reasons, Colorado fans don't believe they fit in with the rest of the Big 12.

Interestingly, I don't see this as a home-run move for Colorado the way a move to the Big 10 would obviously be a success for Missouri.  Or, really, anyone for that matter.  The Pac-10 actually makes less money off its TV deal than the Big 12 does, splitting $58 million among its 10 schools.  Obviously, with new media markets and a conference championship game, that number would go up substantially.  But would it be enough that the revenue would surpass the Big 12's current $78 million (and growing)?  That's a legitimate question that Colorado needs to be asking itself.  This is the school that didn't have the money to buy out a football coach who has been a spectacular failure.  They can't really afford to take a pay cut via their conference affiliation.

However, all the speculation points toward Colorado accepting an offer if it were extended.  Neill Woelk, one of CU's beat writers, mentions in one of the linked articles that CU narrowly turned down a Pac-10 offer in the mid-1990s, and speculates that it would accept one today.  Given that the money would be worse, or in the absolute best-case scenario a wash, why on earth would CU do that?  Affiliating with Pac-10 schools would be more prestigious academically, which would appeal to the Ivory Tower element in Boulder, and it cannot be underestimated how much pull that faction has in Boulder.  However, given the current financial state of Colorado athletics, I can't see this being a good move.  Maybe the powers that be are more worried about academics than athletics.

As far as the squishier factors, like rivalries and "ties" to a conference, Colorado doesn't have a lot holding it to the Big 12.  Sure, there's the rivalry with Nebraska, but that rivalry is defined more by its mutual contempt-bordering-on-hate than by the emphasis placed on the actual results.  Both fanbases really just wish the other didn't exist, and would undoubtedly be happier in a world where the other actually didn't exist.  As far as ties, Colorado has been a long-time member of the Big 12 and its precursor conferences, but history and tradition don't seem to matter much to them.  Their only real rival is Nebraska, and that's only in football.  Their basketball tradition is essentially non-existent.

Putting all that aside, I'd still hate to lose Colorado.  From a media market standpoint, Denver is the best the Big 12 has after Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston.  Losing Denver would be as bad as the combined loss of St. Louis and part of Kansas City if Mizzou were to leave.  If the speculation that Utah is likely the 12th addition for the Pac-10, then that takes away our best opportunity to replace CU with another viable media market (Salt Lake City).  Basically, if CU leaves, it's the same situation as we discussed with regard to Mizzou.  There simply are no replacements that adequately compensate the loss.  New Mexico, Colorado State, Memphis, and especially TCU and Houston add little to this conference.  BYU might be an interesting option, as they would bring in Salt Lake City.

Despite all that, I'm not sure I've reached the point where I'm willing to fight tooth and nail for Colorado.  In Missouri's case, I can completely understand why they would want to jump to the Big 10.  The monetary gain is indisputable, and academics would benefit by being associated with the CIC.  In Colorado's case, they take less money and go to a conference of generally good schools that doesn't have anything like the CIC.  In other words, it seems like Colorado wants to leave just because it doesn't really like us.  Therefore, if we had to choose to lose one among Colorado, Missouri and Texas, I would let the Buffs search for greener pastures on the West Coast.  That's an absurd hypothetical that's not based on reality, similar to the "would you trade all your wins for a win over your rival" hypo.  Regardless, it fairly sums up my feelings on this issue.  I'd hate to lose the Buffaloes, but I'm not sure there's a lot the Big 12 could do to entice them to stay.

Texas: As Kevin Haskin put it today in the Topeka Capital-Journal, nobody really likes Texas.  Of course, they love themselves so much it's really a wash all told.  However, regardless of your feelings toward Texas, you have no choice but to admit that losing UT would be an unmitigated disaster for the Big 12.

As mentioned above, I am not yet convinced that Texas is on the brink of a jump to the Big 10.  Yes, I know it was leaked this week that they had "preliminary discussions" with that conference, whatever that means.  Let's use a poker metaphor for a moment to depict what I think is happening here:

Twelve gentlemen are sitting around a poker table.  A man in a peculiar orange color has a massive stack of chips.  Next to him, a gentleman in maroon who makes strange "whoop" noises whenever he wins a hand -- not often these days -- has seen his stack dwindle drastically.  Two gentlemen in slightly varying red-and-white outfits have a solid chip count, but not nearly that of the man in orange, and they occasionally whisper back and forth derogatory words about the man in orange.  Nearby, a man in black and gold with a strange penchant for pronouncing the vowel "I" using a short "U" sound (i.e., "uh"), has a surprisingly large stack of chips despite the fact that he never seems to win much.  The rest of the crowd includes the following characters: a man in purple who seems to win quite a bit despite not having a very large stack, another man in black and gold who smokes a funny-looking cigarette and acts like he doesn't want to be there, a man in bright orange dressed like Flava Flav, a man in black and red with two pistols on his hip that he randomly fires into the air for no good reason, a Baptist, and a guy in red and yellow for whom nobody remembers a name.

The cards are dealt for what will be the biggest hand in the game.  The man in black and gold who can't pronounce his "I"s makes an insanely large bet that elicits a murmur even from the stone-faced poker players at the table.  Next up is the man in orange with the big stack.  He considers his options, asks the man in black and gold how many chips he has left after the big bet, and then pushes in enough to put him all in.  In fact, it's a sufficiently big bet to put all the other players at the table all-in, many times over.  Nobody in the room has any idea whether the man in orange is holding a pair of aces, or two-nine off-suit.

I happen to believe that UT in this case is holding two-nine off-suit, not because they couldn't move, but because they don't want to move.  While they have likely moved beyond the insecurity issues that were part of the basis for not wanting to move to the Pac-10 or Big 10 back in the 1990s, a move like that right now would be a leap of faith for Texas.  The money is undoubtedly better in the Big 10 right now, but what does UT want with more money?  They have the highest athletic department revenue in the country.  They can pay for any amount of money necessary for any coach in any sport.  They have incredible facilities for every sport.  They have billionaire alumni that compete with each other over who gives the biggest gift.  As Mr. Dodds put it, they don't keep up with the Joneses, they are the Joneses.

Further, don't discount the benefit UT reaps from the revenue distribution disparity in the Big 12.  They get more every year while everyone else gets less.  In the Big 10, they'd get more in an absolute sense, but so would everybody else.  They wouldn't be able to continually leave the Indianas and Northwesterns further behind in the arms race like they can the Iowa States and Baylors.  Sure, maybe the smaller schools will find a coach occasionally who gets them on a run, but generally they won't be able to pay to keep him.

While travel seems to be a popular topic regarding Texas and the Big 10, I'm not going to get too deep into it here.  Very few people seem to realize that you can fly into every Big 12 city.  So while UT fans may complain about having to fly to KC and then drive two hours to Manhattan, their team flies those university jets right into MHK.  I'm sure UT could fly into the local airports near Bloomington, Ind., and Champaigne, Ill., just like you can fly into the local airports in Manhattan, Kan., and Columbia, Mo.  Also, any increase in travel costs would be more than offset by the increased revenue the Big 10 would bring, so that's not an argument against a move.  Maybe there would be an increased toll on the student athletes, but I'm not sure I can quantify that, so I'll leave it alone for now.

Probably the biggest impediment between UT and a move to the Big 10 is its own state legislature.  At this early stage, there's been no discussion of whether Texas A&M would be included in move to the Big 10.  Perhaps the Big 10 really is interested in going all super-conference on the rest of us and expanding to 14 or 16 teams.  If they are, maybe a UT/TAMU package deal is in the works.  But if it's not, UT is in for the fight of its life inside the Texas Capitol.  You thought the fight was big last time, when Baylor and Texas Tech grads banded together to forge their way into the Big 12 with UT and TAMU?  You ain't seen nothin' yet.  This time, Texas A&M would be against UT in the capitol, and TAMU by itself could at least make UT think twice about this move.  In combination with Tech and Baylor interests, UT would have to have a steel stomach to take on that fight.

Over at BON, Hopkins Horn has made the argument that the forces allied against a UT move wouldn't be as strong this time around, because those left behind would still be in a BCS conference, whereas in the mid-1990s it was clear the Southwest Conference was doomed when UT and TAMU left.  While the Big 12 would probably still be a BCS conference if only UT left, it would be irretrievably weakened.  The dominoes could start to fall.  Colorado could go to the Pac-10.  If Texas A&M doesn't think it has an escape plan in place -- for example, going to the SEC with Oklahoma -- you can be damned sure it will throw everything it has into the fight to keep UT in the Big 12.  Being stuck with a bunch of schools from Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, and the leftovers from its own state can't be appealing to Texas A&M.

To wrap this up, let's return to our poker players:

As the man in the funny orange color pushes his chips into the circle, he makes eye contact with the man in purple.  And the nameless man in red and yellow.  And the men in various red-and-white tones.  And the whooping man in maroon, the Baptist, and the crazy man shooting his pistols off in the air.  Finally, he takes an extra-long look at the man in black and gold who mispronounces his "I"s.  He says nothing, but the look on his face is clear.  It says "Maybe I really am just holding two-nine off-suit.  But can any of you really afford to call me?  You're staking your entire future on this bet if you do.  If you call me, and I'm bluffing, maybe you get the equal revenue sharing you so desperately want.  But if you call me, and I have the cards, I'll be off to greener pastures and you'll all be Conference-USA 2.0.  So what will it be?  Hold 'em?  Or fold 'em?"

This is the bet all the other schools in the Big 12 face.  If they call, and UT is holding junk, the conference could stay together -- even if Colorado does defect -- and UT's bargaining power would be weakened.  But if they call, and UT has the cards, then it's a brave new world for all of us.  We could end up having to make do with only K-State, KU, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor and some combination of Mountain West, Conference-USA or WAC schools.  Sometimes, the safest bet is to swallow your pride and fold 'em.  Maybe this is one of those times.

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