In 2021, the Big 12 received a perceived death knell with Oklahoma and Texas announcing that they were heading to the SEC, leaving the conference to fend for itself in future television negotiations.
Fortunately, Bob Bowlsby refused to let the Big 12 go belly-up and added four more programs, giving them some stability in a time of vulnerability.
Financially speaking, there’s no way to spin the Sooners and Longhorns leaving in a positive light. Sure, the Big 12 will pay each team $31.7 million when the new deal with ESPN and FOX kicks in in 2024, but that number is significantly less than it would’ve been had OU and Texas been a part of the deal.
However, there’s an argument that there are aspects of their exit that helped the Big 12 reach the heights that they did last week, solidifying themselves as one of the top three conferences in America.
When Oklahoma and Texas announced their departure from the Big 12 (following a leak from Texas A&M), it was the summer of 2021. Bob Bowlsby had just wrapped another successful Big 12 Media Days and even made a comment about conference realignment not being a concern the week prior to the report.
“And so a lot of the motivation for realignment is no longer there,” Bowlsby said on July 14, 2021. “Is that to say it couldn’t happen? No, it could possibly happen for other reasons. But it doesn’t appear to me that the motivation is there at this point in time. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’s not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”
Just one week later, the report surfaced that Oklahoma and Texas had reached out to the SEC about joining the conference, and from then on, there were plenty of sleepless nights for Bowlsby and his staff.
However, the timing of their departure is key in all of this. With the report coming on July 21, 2021, and their acceptance into the SEC just eight days later, the Big 12 was the first conference to have to deal with realignment in this cycle, which has turned out to be the most impactful wave we’ve ever seen. With it being the first conference to look for answers, it had the best options to regain stability (more on this in a bit).
In the Big 12’s most vulnerable moment, the Pac-12 was totally content with sitting on its hands, as it had no reason to worry about expansion (yet). In the direct aftermath of the Sooners and Longhorns leaving, the remaining Big 12 schools could’ve seemingly been swayed to join a more stable conference, but that was never the case. The “Hateful Eight” stuck together and waited for backup.
With Oklahoma and Texas gone, Bob Bowlsby needed to pivot and quickly. The Big 12 needed to expand its membership, and in doing so, still increase its value. Sure, schools like SMU and Memphis would love to jump into the conference, but did they bring something the Big 12 didn’t already have?
So, carefully, Bowlsby and his team went to work to find expansion candidates that would not only keep the conference afloat but help it thrive in the future. BYU was a home run, with a global following and a brand that has stood the test of time, but who else could add that kind of value?
Well, as it turns out, there were three more options out there that made a ton of sense, and quite frankly, had the Big 12 feeling very good about itself just months after receiving the bad news about OU and UT.
As it turns out, the top three programs from the American Athletic Conference were the perfect fit for what the Big 12 needed. Adding Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, along with BYU, gave the conference 12 teams, and added four teams that have had major success in recent years. All four teams have had at least one 11-win season in the last five years, and Cincinnati is the only “Group of Five” team to ever make the College Football Playoff.
By September 2021, the Big 12 had added four schools for the future, allowing the conference to take a breath after a brush with disaster. Little did they know, locking those four schools up would prove vital over the next 24 months.
The New Sherriff in Town
In April of 2022, Bob Bowlsby announced that he was stepping down as the Commissioner of the Big 12 after spending a decade in charge of the conference. While there are plenty of naysayers out there when it comes to the role that Bowlsby played in Big 12 history, he saw the conference through two waves of conference realignment, both of which saw major teams the Big 12 for greener pastures. Still, the conference was in great shape when he officially left in August of 2022.
His replacement, Brett Yormark, was a relative mystery when stepping into college athletics for the first time, but from the moment he declared the Big 12 was “open for business,” it became clear that Yormark was the right man for the job.
As summer turned to fall in 2022, Yormark made the ever-so-important decision to open up the negotiating process for a television deal early. With the conference losing OU and Texas, but immediately gaining four new schools, the time was right for the conference to move into its next Grant of Rights. And so, in October of 2022, the conference locked in a six-year, $2.28 billion agreement with ESPN and FOX, giving it long-term stability that was second only to the Big Ten and SEC.
Of all the great ideas and initiatives that Brett Yormark has brought to the Big 12 in his first year on the job, getting that deal signed has had the biggest impact of them all. In fact, that might be the most impactful media rights that the Big 12 has ever signed. Not only did it signify that the conference could stand on its own without Oklahoma and Texas, but it essentially locked the Pac-12 out of signing anything legitimate. While it likely wasn’t with the intent of starving the Pac-12 out, Yormark’s move to jump ahead in line and sign a deal did exactly that.
The New-Look League
So, the conference lost Oklahoma and Texas, who’ve been in the Big 12 since it started back in 1996. Oklahoma was a member of the Big Eight (1920-1995) before that. Yet, I would say that the conference feels closer knit now than it has in years.
When the biggest brands in the Big 12 announced they were leaving, the schools that remained galvanized, becoming “The Hateful Eight” to the public, but also become more cohesive than they’d been in years past. Without having to work the Longhorn Network into every conversation, the remaining schools were able to come up with a plan that they all seemed to agree on and added four new members, who are more than excited to be here.
Now, in the last week, the conference has grown again.
How resilient is the Big 12, you ask? Well, it’s doubled in size since Oklahoma and Texas announced their departure, and is arguably in the best position that it’s ever been in.
With Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah set to join the conference in 2024, the Big 12 will now have 16 members, the most its ever had, and unlike the Big Ten, will maintain its geographical integrity.
Sure, the conference has outliers in West Virginia, Cincinnati, and UCF. However, the Moutaineers have been a part of the conference for years and now have two schools in closer proximity than they’ve had in over a decade. The rest of the conference is clustered in the heart of the country, with Utah and Arizona providing the western border while the rest of the conference is in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Iowa.
With a nucleus of teams that have been around since the beginning, and a healthy dose of newcomers, the Big 12 is as exciting a league as there is right now in college football, and if things had worked out any differently on the timeline, it might look a lot different.
Did Oklahoma and Texas take the Big 12’s well-being into consideration when they decided to leave for the SEC? No. It was a business decision that will change the financial trajectory of their universities for the forseeable future, and anyone in their position likely would’ve made the same move.
Had Oklahoma and Texas decided to hang around any longer, the Pac-12 may’ve scooped up BYU already with USC and UCLA leaving. Unintentionally, the Sooners and Longhorns put the Big 12 in a spot to be agressive in conference realignment.
Do I expect their former partners to thank them or take it easy on the in their final year in the conference? Not at all. The Big 12 would love nothing more than to send two schools out with mediocre seasons.
Perhaps a better way of saying it is, the Big 12’s reaction to Oklahoma and Texas’ departure is what has set them up for future success. The Sooners and Longhorns didn’t vote in any of the new additions, nor will they have anything to do with the mark that Brett Yormark leaves on the conference, past being cordial on their way out.
The galvinization of Big 12 schools and fanbases happened in direct reaction to them leaving, as a collective disdain for their former member schools almost willed the remaining schools to succeed. It was that coalition of programs that stuck it out in tough times until more help could arrive.
Now, two years later, the conference has doubled in size, going from the “Hateful Eight” to the “Scorned Sixteen,” and whether or not Oklahoma and Texas meant to, they played a part in that.