Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2021

Longhorns And Sooners Start The Collegiate Carousel Spinning

A NOTE TO READERS:  Because of travel plans, the posting schedule is changing for the coming week.  There will be no post Thursday, and next Sunday’s post will be moved one day, to Monday.  The regular schedule will resume a week from Thursday.  As always, thanks for reading!

So long Big 12, it was fun while it lasted.  And so long to the Power 5 concept as well, because it’s hard to maintain that the structure of college sports – at least as defined by the chief moneymaker for most athletic departments, football – revolves around five dominant conferences when one of the quintet is on the way to oblivion.   

The first farewell became certain three weeks ago when the Big 12’s two marquee schools, Texas and Oklahoma, jointly declared their intention to leave the conference in 2025.  The widespread assumption at the time was that the Longhorns and Sooners were headed for the SEC, a belief that was confirmed just days later when the trustees at both universities formally voted to accept invitations to become members of the Southeastern Conference.  For the moment, and probably not much longer than that, the expansion of the SEC into a gargantuan 16-member powerhouse isn’t scheduled to take place for another four years.  But the qualifying phrase is in that sentence because the actual effective date will be determined by negotiations to decide exactly which parties will write checks in what amount to effectuate the transfers sooner.

While the realignment leaves little doubt that the SEC is the first among equals in the Power 5 structure, the departure of Texas and Oklahoma leaves the Big 12 looking like a couple of strong basketball programs – Baylor and Kansas – and several hangers-on.  Of course, one point not being spoken too loudly is that the Big 12 looked pretty much that way before the latest realignment in college sports started.  In the two sports that matter most to casual fans, the Longhorns last won a national football championship at the end of the 2005 season, and the Sooners five years before that, while neither school has ever been the last team standing at the end of March Madness.  Texas football has been particularly troubled of late, with four head coaching changes in the last eight seasons.   

But the strength of a fanbase isn’t measured solely by titles.  After all, the Fighting Irish haven’t claimed a national football championship in more than three decades, but that didn’t prevent Notre Dame from inking a lucrative television contract with NBC.  The glory days of Darrell Royal and Bud Wilkinson are in the ever-lengthening past, but the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners remain two of the most recognizable teams in college sports.

Which means their departure alone would leave the Big 12 scrambling.  But the situation for the conference is even more dire, because the Big 12 has been a construct from the start.  Formed by necessity in 1996, through a merger of the old Big 8 and the Texas members of the Southwest Conference, the Big 12 was forced to scramble in the last round of conference realignment, when several member schools departed.  Colorado and Nebraska left first in 2011, the Buffaloes for the Pac-12 and the Cornhuskers for the Big 10.  The conference was able to replace those schools by adding Texas Christian and the geographically nonsensical West Virginia.  But when Missouri and Texas A&M departed for the SEC one year later, the Big 12 became a misnamed league of just ten schools.

That’s why the initial media reaction in the cities and states with remaining conference members, urging the Big 12 to poach new schools from other collegiate leagues, was understandable but highly improbable.  More departures, until there is no conference left, are virtually certain, especially after this week’s news about the remaining three Power 5 conferences.  As reported by multiple sources, George Kliavkoff, Kevin Warren, and Jim Phillips, the commissioners of the Pac-12, Big 10, and ACC respectively, have been discussing an alliance built around scheduling.  The reports, which none of the commissioners or conferences have denied, are first a testament to the presumed media power of the SEC.  One way for the remaining Power 5 leagues to fight back is through the scheduling of games, especially interconference matchups that don’t necessarily happen every year, which are very much about what networks will pay for the opportunity to broadcast the event.  But the union of the three conferences and the exclusion of the Big 12 also sends a clear message to member schools that there is nothing to be gained by considering a jump to a league in crisis.

An afterthought, both to date and in the coming months, is and will be the impact on dozens of other sports and the young men and women who excel at them.  Some will surely wind up in a better place, facing improved competition while playing on a team with a bigger budget.  But there will also be those who find their sport reduced to the club level, without even the partial scholarships that can be crucial to the educational hopes of so many.  Meanwhile at least one major college conference will wither away, and the Power 5 will become the Power 4, or less.  For the winners, victory will be measured by ever richer television contracts for games played on Saturday afternoons in autumn.  But for others, whether their sport is football or fencing, the price to be paid will be far more personal, and the final outcome far more private.

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