Big 12 Expansion
By Berry Tramel - The Oklahoman
Want to feel better about Morgantown being 879 miles from its nearest Big 12 partner?
The University of Hawaii is 2,606 miles from San Diego State, its nearest Mountain West Conference opponent. And you can’t drive it, no matter how early in the week you leave.
When Miami was in the Big East for 14 seasons, its shortest football trip in conference play was to Blacksburg, Va., 906 miles from Coral Gables.
Or how about this? Until a couple of Texas schools joined the WAC in 2012, Louisiana Tech was 936 miles from New Mexico State, the closest WAC school to Ruston, La.
Doesn’t help? Stories of other outliers don’t warm your heart, Mountaineers? What you really need is not someone with which to commiserate, but a neighbor or three?
Sorry. Can’t help. The Big 12, and frankly all of big-time college football, has reached a state of stability.
Just great, says West Virginia. The music picked a fine time to stop.
When the Mountaineers hopped aboard the Big 12 in November 2011, bringing the league’s membership to 10 schools, there was every reason to believe West Virginia wouldn’t be an outpost for long. The Big 12’s lone Eastern time zone school surely would get some company soon enough.
But Big 12 decision-makers continually stated their preference at keeping the status quo. No expansion. And now, no kidding.
The Big 12 seems stuck at 10 for the foreseeable future. Conference realignment, which since June 2010 has bubbled like Alka-Seltzer, has stabilized.
The Atlantic Coast Conference schools agreed to sign the grant of rights, joining the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 as conferences that now own their members’ television rights, effectively ending the recruitment of ACC schools. No Florida State. No Clemson. No Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech. And no Louisville, since the Cardinals quickly were scooped up by the ACC after Maryland jumped to the Big Ten.
“I don’t think there’s a need for expansion,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is fond of saying. “There may be a want for expansion.”
Louisville clearly should have been the Big 12’s target. If the Big 12 wanted to avoid a return to a dozen-school league and the divisional format that goes with it, the conference could have stayed at 11 with the addition of Louisville, which had three things the Big 12 desperately needed and still does: a solid television market (No. 48 in America); an athletic program with multi-faceted success, including in king football; and a decent neighbor for West Virginia.
The Mountaineers need a partner, not so much for travel but for morale. The Mountaineers need to feel they’re not alone, which they most assuredly are in the current Big 12 configuration. Most everyone acknowledges West Virginia’s malaise; WVU athletic director Oliver Luck asked for some scheduling considerations, and Big 12 leaders have agreed. The Big 12 will try to avoid having the Mountaineers make back-to-back conference road trips in football, as well as a few tweaks to WVU’s basketball schedule, including two road games before the academic schedule starts in January, more two-game road trips and reducing mid-week road games.
Of course, the Mountaineers signed up for something close to this. There were no guarantees of expansion when WVU joined the Big 12. West Virginia needed out of the Big East and fast. An invitation from the Big 12 wasn’t exactly the time for serious negotiation.
Still, the Mountaineers had to think expansion was on the horizon. Big 12 leaders, like Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, stated their desire to make a run at Louisville. Lots of possibilities were floated, from Brigham Young, Air Force and Boise State out West, to Cincinnati and Louisville and even Rutgers from the Big East, plus the ACC options.
But the Big 12 stayed stoically at 10, mostly for financial reasons. The television networks ponied up big money for Big 12 contracts, and adding schools would just be another mouth to feed.
Ten is the right size for us,” Bowlsby said. “Are we oblivious? No, we can’t afford to be. But we are distributing a lot of money. We’re highly-competitive. It’s hasn’t been demonstrated to us that larger is better. There is no empirical evidence that larger is better. In some ways, it’s difficult to appear to be doing nothing, when actually we are taking no members by choice.”
But then the ACC applied the same handcuffs to its members that the Big 12 applied, and the Big 12’s “choice” became its destiny. Legal experts say the grant of rights is binding. So now, any expansion before 2025 apparently will come from lower-ranking conferences.
For West Virginia’s interests, the best bets are Connecticut and Cincinnati, but neither hold the football cachet the Big 12 – or networks – desire. BYU and Boise State remain options, but their addition would make the Big 12 stretch from the western Rockies to the Appalachians. Not quite the Sea to Shining Sea Conference, but close enough to go through more jet fuel than you’d like.
So it’s possible West Virginia remains on an island. Bowlsby talks about how the world has changed; how technological footprints are just as important these days as geographic footprints. And perhaps he’s right. Perhaps West Virginia becomes as ingrained in the Big 12 as it was in the Big East. Certainly one season of football already has produced a handful of memorable Mountaineer games – wins of 70-63 over Baylor and 48-45 at Texas; losses of 39-38 to TCU and 50-49 to Oklahoma. Few college football teams in 2012 played an array of games as exciting as did West Virginia.
I hope the Mountaineers like their nine-game conference schedule. It might be with them for awhile.
Bowlsby said there’s no need to add schools unless they “are of the ilk of the 10 schools and have helped all boats rise. We spent a lot of time talking about conference composition. It’s been our considered opinion that the 10 we have is where we want to be. Does that mean we’re oblivious to what’s going on around us or that we aren’t going to be constantly vigilant? No. We definitely are. We’re not 10 by lack of action. We’re 10 by a considered decision. Is that going to stay that way forever? We’re going to keep our eyes open. But right now, we’re feeling pretty good.”
Even if West Virginia is feeling a little lonely.
For more from Berry Tramel, be sure to follow him on Twitter @BerryTramel