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Big 12 problems trace to league's roots

08:06 PM CDT on Saturday, June 5, 2010

By BLAIR KERKHOFF / The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Since its formation, Big 12 football teams have won three national championships. Only the Southeastern Conference has more.

It has captured NCAA championships in 15 different sports, including men's and women's basketball and baseball. It's delivered nearly $1.3 billion in revenue to its members with the prospect of greater funding.

Somehow the Big 12 doesn't work?

To some members, yes, and that's why conference faces an uncertain future as it finishes its 14th year of competition.

In a sense, the uncertainty was predictable, and it goes back to the conference's roots.

"There were some rough edges going, I was probably one of the rough edges myself," Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said.

He was, and so were many others. Byrne was Nebraska's athletic director then. Two others, Texas' DeLoss Dodds and Oklahoma's Joe Castiglione, were athletic bosses then with Castiglione presiding at Missouri.

They were part of something different in modern college athletics, a new conference that brought together historically successful programs. Remember, during the mad conference scramble of the early 1990s, the SEC added two teams, Arkansas and South Carolina, to reach 12. The Big Ten added only Penn State, the ACC only Florida State.

Those moves were tweaks compared to the Big 12, which blew up the Southwest Conference and reinvented the Big Eight.

These schools came together not as conferences once did – to bind universities in close proximity that agreed on playing and eligibility rules – but for one real purpose.

The Big 12 formed to maximize its schools' collective television contract negotiating power, a pure business arrangement.

"The Big Eight had about seven percent of the nation's television markets and Texas had seven," said Steve Hatchell, the conference's first commissioner. "They couldn't survive separately in that environment."

Negotiating media contracts is the primary function of all conferences today, but the Big 12 was the first to become established for that purpose.

The guidelines and principles followed, and although it can be argued that the more established Big Ten and Pac-10 might be tempting alternatives to Big 12 schools under any circumstance, disagreements from the start prevented a strong sense of unity that commissioner Dan Beebe wanted to establish at the league's annual meetings in Kansas City this week.

As in any shotgun marriage, there were disagreements from the beginning.

"We got together, then we got to know each other," Castiglione said.

But trusting each other became difficult as some decisions seemed to be made along party lines.

Commissioner: Hatchell, the commissioner of the Southwest Conference, or Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick.

League office: Dallas or Kansas City.

When Hatchell and Dallas were the choices, some of the Big Eight old guard popped off. Former Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams suggested the new league be called the "Big Texas."

But some less visible decisions had greater impact.

Academic requirements pitted the national football kingpin at the time, Nebraska, against Texas. The Cornhuskers wanted to keep the Big Eight standard of accepting an unlimited number of partial qualifiers. Texas did not. The Longhorns won.

In the evolution of the Big 12, Nebraska peaked early then faded. Texas was down and has become a consistent national power.

But to the Cornhuskers, what hasn't changed are decisions involving football that favor Texas. On Friday, the Big 12 announced the football championship game will continue in Arlington, Texas, through 2013. Two months ago, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne was the only nay in an 11-1 decision for keeping the game at Cowboys Stadium in a vote of sentiment.

Osborne, the Cornhuskers' football coach when the league started, said his school gets along fine in the conference.

"We like the Big 12," he said at the meetings. "We aren't looking to leave."

But Nebraska and Missouri remain a strong part of the Big Ten expansion speculation swirl.

The Tigers have voiced other concerns about the Big 12. The revenue sharing formula didn't receive much public attention when the conference was formed. But with the two most financially healthy leagues, the Big Ten and SEC, sharing revenue equally among its members, Mizzou had joined others in criticizing the policy.

In the Big 12, half the television money is shared equally. The other half is based on appearances. The idea was to encourage teams to play competitive schedules that would be attractive to television networks.

"It's not discriminatory," Beebe said. "Any institution that raises its program to a level where it gets more TV exposure will have a chance to get more revenue."

But as the conference progressed, smaller budget schools believed the system favored the larger schools: Texas could play a weak opponent and the game was almost assured of broadcast. Iowa State's game against a similar opponent had no chance.

The system won't change, Beebe said.

"My focus is on growing the pie even larger," he said.

Castiglione shakes his head when he considers college sports without the Big 12.

"Six months ago this wasn't an issue for the Big 12 to talk about," he said. "It's bubbled up in other conferences and created a life of its own."

He can quote chapter and verse on how the Big 12 has been ideal for his school "and you can say the same for the 11 other institutions. I'm constantly reminded of why the Big 12 is strong, and what we've achieved over time is continued validation."

The Big 12 stands to benefit financially by staying together. No exact figures have been revealed, but there are whispers of future television contracts that could produce as much revenue per school as the current SEC take of $17.3 million each.

If that's not enough, Beebe warns those who relocate of the great unknown.

"Anybody would be risking a lot by going to another place where they'll be outsiders for a long time," Beebe said.

But clearly something's amiss when a report identifying six Big 12 schools – the Sooners, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Colorado – as Pac-10 expansion targets doesn't get knocked down.

Or that officials from Iowa State use the term "vulnerable" and Kansas State "uncomfortable" when describing some of the expansion scenarios.

Does the Big 12 survive?

If it doesn't, the seeds for dissolution can be traced back to a time before the first ball was put in play.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

• • •

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