In a move that has been met with mixed reactions, the University of Texas and Oklahoma have filed a petition to be admitted into the SEC. The two states hope that their membership will help them better compete in recruiting top athletes and improve their overall athletic programs.
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[Editor’s note: The announcement on Friday that Texas and Oklahoma were preparing to depart the Big 12 was a reminder that in college football, the past is never really gone. Heather Dinich, Mark Schlabach, and Dave Wilson of ESPN explain how the origins of this decision can be traced all the way back to the Big 12’s inception, and why it has reached a breaking point this time.]
Last Tuesday, the Big 12 conference athletic directors had their weekly conference call, something they’ve been doing since the outbreak began. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and all ten schools were in attendance.
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, whose school now plans to go into the SEC, offered to be on a committee to evaluate the Big 12 women’s basketball championship, according to several people on the call. The Houston Chronicle reported the next day that Texas and Oklahoma planned to quit the league. While it’s doubtful Castiglione realized the league’s best-kept secret was going to blow out, there’s now a recognition that he was a part of keeping it hidden.
“Consider how phony that promise was,” the insider added. “That’s how painful this is.”
The Big 12’s drama over the past week, which included the imminent departure of marquee schools Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, was all too familiar for a conference that is seeing history repeat itself.
It’s how the Big 12 got its start.
A fight the size of Texas
The league, which hadn’t even appointed a commissioner yet and wouldn’t play its first game for almost two years, was already in danger on Dec. 22, 1994. The Pac-10 was surrounding Colorado and flagship member Texas, and sharks were circling. Coaches and administrators responded with surprise, rage, and a sense of betrayal.
At the time, Iowa State president Martin C. Jischke stated, “We would hope they would see the prudence and desirability of honoring the promise we all made to one other.”
The Buffaloes and Longhorns eventually remained put, with Texas adamant about their intention to start a new league.
In 1994, DeLoss Dodds, then the athletic director at Texas, stated, “We simply aren’t going to do it.” “We’ve made a commitment to the Big 12 Conference. It’s a moral obligation and the proper thing to do.”
Dodds, who led Texas for 32 years until retiring in 2013, was a proud member of the Big 12. He started his goodbye news conference by honoring Donnie Duncan, a friend and former Oklahoma colleague.
“Donnie and I very much took the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference and created the Big 12 when he was the AD at Oklahoma,” he remarked at the time.
The adversaries have banded together once again, this time to leave the conference they co-founded.
Given that Texas and Oklahoma’s television money belongs to the Big 12 until 2025, the timing of the decision may seem unexpected. In hindsight, though, the Big 12 has been plagued by insecurity over the last decade. It all began with Texas’ flirtation with the Pac-10 in 2010, which almost resulted in a mass exodus from the league, causing mistrust, wounded emotions, and a perception that the league had to bend to the Longhorns’ whims, regardless of whether they were winning football games or not.
Lawrence Phillips and Nebraska dominated Michigan State on route to a national title in 1995, and the Big 12 was formed the following year. The Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. Allsport / Jonathan Daniel
Colorado was in the Big 12 for 15 years until joining the Pac-10 in 2011. Nebraska separated in 2011, trying to regain its footing in the Big Ten after winning consecutive national titles in 1994 and 1995 before transferring to the Big 12 in 1996. In 2012, Texas A&M and Missouri discovered a way to join the SEC, which was their desired destination.
In many respects, this was a rehash of old grudges and bad blood that had accompanied the clubs from the SWC.
After 81 seasons in the Texas-centric league, Texas and Texas A&M were frustrated with being dragged down by lesser competitors with fewer finances, smaller stadiums, and smaller aspirations. Baylor and Texas Tech joined them in the new league, squeezing their way onto the life raft with the aid of strong politicians.
Ann Richards, the governor of Texas at the time, was a Baylor graduate. Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock graduated from Baylor University and Texas Tech University. In the book, Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson tell their stories “In early 1994, Bullock summoned the presidents of Texas and Texas A&M to his office and informed them, “You’re taking Tech and Baylor, or you’re not taking anything.” I’m going to stop paying you, and you may join privately if you want, but you won’t receive another dime from the state.”
Bill Connelly, 2d
Tom VanHaaren, 2d
The four Texas colleges were leaving behind a league renowned for petty rivalries amongst teams, where the closeness and pride of Texas egos spilled over onto the field and into a costly booster rivalry that resulted in a finger-pointing culture. Their new Big Eight companions didn’t like it since they thought they carried that mentality with them from the start.
In 2016, former Nebraska athletic director Bill Byrne told the Houston Chronicle, “There was a feeling in the Big Eight that a rising tide lifts all ships.” “The Big Eight had a culture of working hard to ensure that everyone prospered. Rather of tearing one other down, they assisted one another. When we entered the Big 12, that changed. ‘Man the lifeboats,’ it said. ‘You’re on your own,’ says the narrator.”
Multiple Big 12 sources said they were taken aback by the news that Texas and OU wanted out, with one saying they didn’t believe the Houston Chronicle report at first because the league had been so united throughout the pandemic and confident in Bowlsby and the conference presidents’ leadership as they navigated the tumultuous 2020 season.
Following decades of Dodds’ dominance, Texas now has a new power structure in charge. Del Conte came from TCU in 2017, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nominated Kevin Eltife, a businessman and state legislator, as head of the UT system board of regents in 2018. Last year, Eltife selected Jay Hartzell as the new Texas president. All three men have talked of a new “alignment” for the Longhorns and a unified goal.
“We will not accept second place to anybody,” Eltife declared at an alumni gathering in his hometown of Tyler, Texas, on Thursday night. “And if we believe something is in our university’s best interests, we will do all we can to pursue it.”
Those conflicting agendas, according to the league’s first commissioner, Steve Hatchell, already existed. The Big 12 schools couldn’t even agree on whether it should be considered an enlargement of the Big Eight or a separate league from the start. The trophy, emblem, and league personnel were all highly contested choices that were ultimately chosen by a majority vote.
Last year, Hatchell told ESPN that “everything was seven [votes] to five.” “It wasn’t always the same seven, and it certainly wasn’t always the same five. Eagles do not fly as a flock.”
The league’s headquarters relocated from Kansas City to Dallas, which upset programs outside of Texas. Another thing that upset them was the condition of Texas’ programs. Specifically, the one in Austin.
“Things were steady as long as Texas got what it wanted,” Byrne, who eventually left Nebraska to become the athletic director at Texas A&M, told the Chronicle. “But there was resistance when an institution — and I was at two of them — said it shouldn’t be Texas’ way or the highway.”
From the outset, the Big 12’s income distribution was not equitable. After Colorado and Nebraska departed in 2011, the Big 12, which now has ten teams, established a new income sharing arrangement that was more fair. To retain Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M in the league, Baylor, Kansas State, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa State proposed to donate their portion of the projected $30 million buyout money paid to the league by Colorado and Nebraska to Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M.
Dan Beebe, the Big 12 commissioner from 2007 to 2011, said in 2010 that “those five schools who were not being pursued as aggressively were looking at a very tough future with substantially less income.”
But there was one item I didn’t want to share. Texas’ new Longhorn Network has signed a 20-year, $300 million contract.
Dodds stated at the time, “That’s never been in play, that’s not in play.”
Texas established the LHN because the Big 12 was the only major conference that permitted schools to sell their third-tier broadcast rights. The Sooner Sports Network was created in collaboration with a regional network. Every league school had the same chance to sell theirs, but they couldn’t get the same amount of money as those two – particularly the Longhorns. The other eight colleges ultimately agreed to combine their third-tier rights in a $40 million a year deal with ESPN+, which will begin in the 2019 season. Despite this, the league remains the only Power 5 conference without its own television network. That is at the core of our current situation. The same issues that plagued the SWC — smaller institutions being supported by larger colleges — persisted in the Big 12.
Dodds, on the other hand, was never hesitant about bringing the Longhorns to the table or bringing the marketplace to them. In 2011, he spoke to the McCombs Institution of Business at Texas and updated them on the status of college sports talks, starting with the Pac-12’s new television contract, which was worth approximately $225 million per year, with each school receiving $21 million per year.
“We’re going to be at those levels in the Big 12,” he added. “Texas will be far ahead of those figures. In terms of television money, Texas will be ahead of any other institution in the country. The media makes a big deal about independence. We’d be able to accomplish it if we had to. We’ve had a lot of discussions with Notre Dame about what we could do differently right now if we had to do something else. We’ve discussed the possibility of establishing a nationwide organization. If there are more than 20 teams, just create some levels and schedule conferences from there.”
Texas could go anywhere it wanted, whenever it wanted, and be just fine. The SEC will now be located someplace. So, what went wrong?
Realignment and revenue
Texas is nearing completion on a $175 million stadium renovation that will open this season with a new south end zone expansion. Louisiana, Rice, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Kansas State are on the Longhorns’ home schedule in autumn. This isn’t a roster that will demand high ticket prices. The same can be said for Oklahoma, which finished a $160 million stadium makeover just in time for the 2016 season.
“They don’t want empty seats,” a source in the business said. “At least that’s something they have control over.”
Oklahoma had the fourth-best 2019 recruiting class in the country, while Texas was fifth. Icon Sportswire/John Korduner
As the Big 12’s remaining institutions — Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, and West Virginia — race to either shore up their league or find a new home, concerns about “footprints” and “brands” have arisen.
That should frighten them. As The Athletic reported earlier this week, Oklahoma or Texas, or both, were featured in 33 of the 38 Big 12 regular-season games aired on ABC and Fox in 2018 and 2019. Even more revealing, the Longhorns and/or Sooners appeared in 27 of the league’s 30 most-watched regular-season games.
The 22 Oklahoma regular-season games on ABC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, or FS1 averaged 3.76 million viewers in 2018-19, according to The Athletic, which based its statistics on Sports Media Watch. The 18 Texas regular-season games on those networks averaged 3.2 million people. The other eight Big 12 teams — not OU or UT — averaged roughly 886,000 viewers in the other 59 games.
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told ESPN this week that “all of those institutions in the SEC have the ‘University of’ in front of them — the University of Alabama, University of Georgia, University of Florida.” “They all have a capacity of 100,000 people. It’s not like the Christian schools that we have in our league.”
In the SEC, Texas A&M has discovered that it does actually matter more. The Aggies have appeared in five regular-season SEC football games with over seven million viewers, according to the 12th Man Foundation. During the same time period, the Big 12 had just one game that attracted that many views: Ohio State’s game against TCU in 2018, which drew 7.2 million people.
Former Texas A&M and Alabama coach Gene Stallings remarked, “It’s a bigger stage.” “Whenever they play a game, it’s in a huge stadium and it’s a sellout,” he says.
According to industry analysts, this is one of the reasons why the Big 12 would never have been able to match the Big Ten and SEC in terms of television income. According to USA Today, the Big 12 awarded an average of $38 million to its members in fiscal 2020, ranking third among Power 5 conferences behind the Big Ten ($54.3 million) and the SEC ($45.5 million). However, even with Oklahoma and Texas remaining there, that may have been the Big 12’s income limit, while the Big Ten and SEC are projected to continue to expand at a rapid pace. Disney and the SEC signed a 10-year agreement in December that would make ABC and ESPN the official home of SEC football and men’s basketball for the next ten years. According to the New York Times, the agreement is worth about $300 million per year and will boost the league’s payments to schools to around $68 million per year.
According to one source, certain members of the Big 12 are hoping to combine with the Pac-12. While the American Athletic Conference intends to grow to 14 or 16 teams, the remaining Big 12 clubs would likely choose a Power 5 invitation if given the option. In terms of the Big 12 acquiring four additional teams from the AAC, the other schools understand that it would be insufficient to compensate for the losses of OU and Texas.
The Big 12 is in desperate need of a power play once again.
The conference’s athletic directors met for their weekly teleconference on Tuesday, but this time without Texas and Oklahoma.
One source described the stillness as “deafening.” “It’s like the Big Eight now,” says the narrator.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC?
Texas and Oklahoma are moving to the SEC because they want to be closer to their fellow states in the Southeast.
Are Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC now?
Yes, Texas and Oklahoma have joined the SEC.
Who is leaving the Big 12 Conference?
The Big 12 Conference is looking to expand to become a 16-team conference.