Ten years ago this month, the Big 12 conference was considered one of the premier college football conferences in America. Despite LSU winning the BCS National Championship a couple months prior, the conference had played in the Title Game in three of the previous five years, which included Texas’ legendary win over USC at the Rose Bowl. In college basketball, we would be just a few days removed from Kansas beating Memphis in an all-time classic with Mario Chalmers hitting the game-tying shot that sent the game to overtime. Mario’s Miracle will never be forgotten by even casual college basketball fans.
In many cases, 2008 would mark the end of the glory era for the Big 12. Sure, the conference would also play in the next two BCS National Title games (Florida vs. Oklahoma, Texas vs. Alabama), but the Big 12 representative lost each game. The Big 12 didn’t have a Final Four team again until four years later (Kansas, 2012). And of course, then the conference realignment floodgates opened.
In June of 2010, Nebraska jumped ship for the Big Ten Conference. When Colorado heard of Nebraska’s plans to join the Big Ten in 2011, the Buffaloes expedited their departure from the Big 12 a year early, to begin play in the Pac-12 in 2011-12. These were two of the staples of the conference who dated back to the Big Eight days, Nebraska since 1907 and Colorado since 1947. Rumors then flew that Texas, Texas Tech, and the two Oklahoma schools would be bolting for the Pac-12, but a last-minute negotiation by commissioner Dan Beebe proved successful, retaining those teams for the time being.
However, the game of musical chairs didn’t end there. Part of the deal Beebe made with Texas allowed the Longhorn Network to be formed. That was possibly the final straw for Texas A&M, which announced the following August it would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. The Big 12 worked to bring in TCU and West Virginia, and then by early November, Missouri had worked out a deal to join the SEC as well.
Are you exhausted just reading that? Then think back to the chaos that was over those 18-24 months.
The “new” Big 12 then had to secure TV partnerships, along with having a feeling out period between the new group of university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and more. Many were weary of each other, rightfully so, wondering who might be next to try and leave or backstab others in the room. Then there was the change in recruiting landscape, where programs had to change their approach with the SEC infiltrating Texas on a more consistent basis and creating more competition for top players that used to be locks to play Big 12 conference football.
On the field and the court, the Big 12 had its issues (yes, I’m just talking about the two revenue sports that define a conference’s image). There was the inaugural College Football Playoff debacle where TCU and/or Baylor (depending on your viewpoint) got hosed over being co-champions and not having a conference championship game. Between 2009 and 2015, the Big 12 had one Final Four team. The Big 12 also did not have a conference network, which was viewed as a necessity and the sign of a healthy and prosperous conference.
Well over the past year, the tide has started to change. With Kansas’ appearance in the Final Four, the Big 12 became the only conference in America to have a participant in the College Football Playoff and the Final Four in 2017-18. The Oklahoma Sooners gave the Georgia Bulldogs all they could handle (and frankly, should’ve won the game) in the National Semifinal game, while Kansas just beat Duke in the Regional Final and now faces fellow No. 1 seed Villanova on Saturday night in San Antonio.
On top of that, the football programs are all recruiting as well as many of them have in years. Texas and Oklahoma both had top ten classes at the same time, the first time that’s happened since 2010, per 247Sports. The conference had 60% of its members ranked in the top 35 in the country in recruiting rankings. That includes Baylor, who is coming off a 1-win season behind coach Matt Rhule, who was rumored for the Indianapolis Colts job. TCU has become a consistent top 20 program both on the field and in recruiting.
On the hardwood, the Big 12 put four teams in the Sweet 16, more than any other conference, had three in the Elite 8, and now one in the Final Four. This is the icing on the cake of a regular season that saw, by far, the most depth of any conference in America.
I compare the past few years for the Big 12 to those awkward teenage years. Figuring out who you are physically and emotionally with the growing pains, awkward outfits, acne, and more, but coming through on the other side better than ever. That’s where the Big 12 conference finds itself.
The conference network obsessions that took over college sports is now a thing of the past, as cord cutters have severely damaged traditional broadcasters, no longer making conference networks all that attractive. Plus, most realized they couldn’t produce enough original content, while still turning a profit, to make it worth it. There are only so many Swimming and Diving reruns people want to watch. The SEC Network does well, but adding radio shows on TV (Paul Finebaum) is a relatively cheap way to produce original content. The Big Ten Network has also had solid success. But the Pac-12 Network is irrelevant, as is the Longhorn Network. We’ll see what the ACC Network brings to the table.
Despite not having a network, the Big 12 saw its television revenues rise 18% for 2017. When you add on tier three rights, the Big 12 is neck-and-neck with the SEC, and trailing just the Big Ten, in revenue per university. Plus, with new media entering the picture for sports broadcasting rights, the landscape is about to change drastically over the next 5-10 years, and the Big 12 is in a good position to try to capitalize on one of them, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon or someone else.
But with the Big 12 getting itself back into the National Championship picture in football and basketball, while seeing successes monetarily and on the recruiting trail, this conference is back to being with the cream of the crop in collegiate athletics. That’s right where it was 10 years ago. Several important people and groups tried to kill the conference off, but it withstood the assault and has come out the other side looking as strong as it has in a decade.
Let the good times roll.