The Big 12 Conference and the University of Colorado reconciled Thursday after a 13-year separation. Colorado’s return, effective July 1, 2024, will leave the Big 12 with an odd number of members, which creates possible complications for organization and scheduling. It would be much easier for the conference with 14 or even 16 members.
Even before the Colorado Board of Regents voted to apply to the conference yesterday, people were talking about other possible candidates for Big 12 membership. The University of Connecticut and San Diego State University* have been mentioned, but more importantly for today’s discussion, several remaining Pac-12 schools are also potential candidates.
My purpose in writing today isn’t to weigh the pros and cons of adding certain schools to the Big 12, or the likelihood of any school making the jump. I’m here to tell you what Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark already knows. All decisions about conference membership should be motivated by the business interests of the universities that will still be in the conference next July.
Colorado’s return to the Big 12 isn’t a decision motivated by nostalgia on either side. Colorado’s main historical rivals from the Big Seven/Big Eight years are already gone or on their way out the door. This is a business decision.
I think it’s time for a history lesson. The major shakeup of power conferences in the 2010s didn’t start with schools looking to move. It started with conferences looking to expand. In December 2009, then-Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney announced the conference would look at expanding. Adding a 12th team would allow the Big Ten to hold a conference championship game and had the potential to grow the Big Ten Network. Notre Dame was obviously at the top of their wish list, but there was lots of doubt whether the Fighting Irish would give up their sweetheart independent deal, so Nebraska and Missouri – founding members of the Big 12, and before that the MVIAA that later became the Big Seven and then the Big Eight – weren’t shy about their interest in a change of scenery.
Obviously, the loss of either Nebraska or Missouri wouldn’t have been good for the Big 12, but there would have been good candidates to replace one of them. But two months later, then-Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott** announced his conference also was looking to expand to 12 teams. And four months after that, on June 7, 2010, the Pac-10 publicly invited not two but six Big12 members: Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech.
Colorado accepted its invitation a mere three days later. Then the next day, Nebraska applied to and was accepted by the Big Ten. If the rest of the invitees joined the Pac-10, it would have been a fatal blow to the Big 12 as a major conference. The Pac-10 and its new members would have said, “Nothing personal, it’s just business.” But the Forgotten Five – Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri, and Baylor – would have had to fight like mad to stay relevant. The conference that remained would almost certainly have lost its automatic BCS bowl bid without multiple home-run signings rebuilding the conference. TCU and West Virginia probably wouldn’t have been enough.
Fortunately, one week after the Pac-10’s public invitation, Texas decided to remain in the Big 12, and the other invitees quickly followed suit. That left the Pac-10 to invite Utah in their quest to become the Pac-12.
While Missouri and Texas A&M departed for the SEC a year later, and Oklahoma and Texas accepted SEC invitations in 2021, avoiding a wholesale departure of schools in 2010 gave the Big 12 time to find good candidates to join the conference. In the intervening years, the Pac-12 has found itself in stormy waters. USC and UCLA are packing their bags for the Big Ten, and new Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has not been able to finalize a new broadcast agreement.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Yormark and the Big 12 shouldn’t kick the Pac-12 while it’s down just to be mean.
They should kick the Pac-12 while it’s down because it is becoming obvious there aren’t going to be five power conferences much longer, and it’s in the best interest of the Big 12 members to add the best one or three available members. No mercy. No remorse. No sympathy.
Nothing personal, it’s just business.
*I think the Big 12 can do better than adding UConn or SDSU, and it makes no geographic sense to add both. Only three FBS schools are farther from SDSU than UConn is: Boston College, UMass, and Hawaii.
**Before getting into sports administration, Scott was a professional tennis player in the 1980s, with a career record of 1-18 across Grand Slams and ATP Tour events. His highest ranking came in doubles, where he peaked at, no joke, 69.