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Brice Cherry: When backed in corner, Big 12 finally showed needed fight

Brice Cherry: When backed in corner, Big 12 finally showed needed fight

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Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to reporters at the conference's media days in July, only days before the news broke that Oklahoma and Texas were looking to jump to the SEC.

Finally, at long last, the Big 12’s members found their backbone. They stiffened their upper lips and started aggressively fighting back.

Too bad it took losing an arm (or, rather, two) for that to happen.

On Friday, the conference’s presidents (minus those from Oklahoma and Texas, naturally) voted to unanimously accept BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF for membership into the league. Of course, the Sooners and Longhorns forced the Big 12 into that Hail Mary when they bolted for the exit some six weeks ago.

Six weeks. Can you believe it? A lot has happened since then.

Just ask Bob Bowlsby. Or Mack Rhoades.

Trust me, we did. Prior to Baylor’s game with Texas Southern on Saturday, the Big 12 commissioner and Baylor’s athletic director faced the press and answered a myriad of questions about the conference’s latest acquisitions.

Truth be told, they kind of resembled marathon runners who had just crossed the finish line. They looked exhausted. Emotionally spent. Most of all, relieved.

Rhoades called it a “kick in the gut” when Texas and Oklahoma first expressed that they intended to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. He said that it took about two weeks just to get his bearings and wrap his head around the surprise jump by the Longhorns and Sooners. He speculated that the athletic directors of the other seven remaining schools felt the same way.

“I think it was probably a two-week process of us trying to process everything, and come to the realization that we’re really, really strong together,” Rhoades said. “Let’s figure out how we become stronger moving forward.”

Bowlsby seems to be everyone’s favorite punching bag of a commissioner, but give the Big 12’s leadership a little bit of credit. They finally figured out they have a brand worth saving.

At certain points in the past six weeks, it felt as though the conference may crumble. Was Kansas headed to the Big Ten or could it join the basketball powers of the ACC? Was Oklahoma State going to the Pac-12? Could the American Athletic Conference poach some of the remaining Big 12 schools? Every new day brought a new theory, and Bowlsby characterized it as the media “running wild” with the rumor mill.

Maybe, but that’s easier to say after the Pac-12 opted to pass on expansion. We might be having a very different conversation right now otherwise.

All that said, the Big 12 ultimately moved with impressive swiftness in bringing aboard Brigham Young and the Americans. (I’d call them the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but I’m sure that would offend someone.) It helped that the conference had essentially vetted all these schools back in 2016, when they chose to stick with the 10 they had. It also helped that OU and Texas weren’t involved in the discussions this time around. (Bowlsby confirmed this on Saturday.)

So, why these four? Why not Boise State or SMU or Memphis? Well, of course in today’s world of college football, it all starts with your big screen (or even your little, mobile screen).

“You looked at TV market,” said Rhoades, who served on the conference’s four-person subcommittee on expansion along with Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, Kansas chancellor Doug Girod and Iowa State president Wendy Withersteen. “Now, TV market, for me, speaks to potential. We looked at reality, TV audience. Who’s actually watching their games? It was really favorable for the four of them.”

Rhoades also pointed to “football relevance” as a major talking point in the committee’s discussions. He said that Cincy, UCF, BYU and Houston all scored high in that regard, fashioning winning seasons over an extended period of time across multiple head coaches.

And while football drives the revenue bus — Rhoades estimated that 80-85% of a school’s athletic revenue is football-driven — the committee saved a seat for the hoops kids, too. They asked themselves, can any of these guys put the ball in the basket? Turns out they can. (Remember, Houston met Baylor in the Final Four last season.)

“Men’s basketball was really an important part of the conversation as well,” Rhoades said. “I think Big 12 basketball is the best in the country, and adding these four only helps it and elevates it.”

So, will the four newbies save the Big 12? Best case scenario, they retain their Power 5 status and put multiple teams in the College Football Playoff every season. Worst case scenario, the conference is granted a stay of execution.

Personally, I like the new league. It sets up as a competitive (if slightly less lucrative) conference in a variety of sports, and opens up the Big 12 to several new markets. Or, to use Rhoades’ words, it “expands our footprint.” No longer will the Sooners be the only ones with keys to the Big 12’s football trophy room. Everyone gets their own keychain now. (OK, everyone but Kansas.)

And, get this — there may be some more names landing on the lease agreement down the road. Bowlsby didn’t rule out future Big 12 expansion. In fact, the commissioner meandered down college football’s future evolutionary path, hypothetically envisioning a world with 20 to 24-team conferences and a College Football Association governing the sport, rather than the NCAA.

“In the next four years, there’s going to be lots of change. We’ll look for targets of opportunity,” Bowlsby said.

If I get a vote (I don’t), can we add Memphis and Tulane to the mix? Of course, I’m a selfish sportswriter who covers the Big 12, and I’m always considering my gut feelings. And my gut likes ribs and gumbo.

In all seriousness, Boise State stands out as the most attractive college football program not already associated with a Power 5 conference. (Interestingly enough, Boise’s athletic director is Jeremiah Dickey, a former assistant to Rhoades at Baylor.) If there is another round of expansion coming in 2025, the Big 12 should take a long look at the Broncos.

“I think the additions (Friday) help us to be well-positioned,” Bowlsby said. “It gives immediate, additional strength to the continuing members, and I think it puts us in the best position to manage the transition of OU and Texas leaving. But if there are opportunities down the road or clear indications that strategic additions might be necessary, we’re going to do that.”

Back in July, only days before the OU-Texas bomb detonated, Bowslby casually mentioned at Big 12 media days that he used to be a college wrestler. I honestly had no idea. Captain of the chess club I would have bought. Spelling bee champion, sure. I could see that, too. But who knew Bob had that much fight in him?

For the Big 12’s sake, it’s good that it’s finally coming out.

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