In 1991, Arkansas began a chain of events that reshaped college sports, when it left the Southwest Conference for the Southeastern Conference. This only added to the instability of the Southwest Conference, which was ailing from Southern Methodist’s football program getting the ‘death penalty’ in 1987, as well as numerous scandals from improper recruiting and benefits. Three years later, seeing the writing on the wall, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech joined the Big 8, forming the Big 12 conference, thus condemning the Southwest Conference to dissolution. Arkansas left in 1991 because it felt out of place and marginalized by being the only SWC school not in Texas, and realizing how badly things were going, jumped out at the first chance, like a rat off of a sinking ship.
I am fascinated by the story of the Southwest Conference because it went from being one of the greatest conferences in collegiate sports to dissolving in less than a decade. I am also fascinated by it because in the last couple of years, we have nearly seen the Big 12 fall apart twice in the last two years, and the schools there have shown that they will not history repeat itself, at least in the Big 12.
Last year, Colorado left for the Pac-10, now Pac-12, and Nebraska left for the Big Ten. There was talk of the Big 12 being partitioned between the Pac-10 and the SEC, effectively creating two “mega-conferences” of 16 teams each. The ripple effects of other conferences expanding to match would, according to one analyst I heard, signal the beginning of the end for NCAA itself. The doomsday scenario, however, completely fell apart when the Big 12 secured Texas, which effectively held any other schools interested in leaving in check. It appeared as though the crisis had abated.
However, just as Arkansas felt marginalized in 1991, Texas A&M felt marginalized in 2011. The deal to keep Texas in the Big 12, which permitted Texas to create its own network, along with the unbalanced revenue agreements, and the element of pride from taking the crap Texas fans had thrown at them for decades, finally all came together and pushed A&M over the line: they wanted out of the Big 12. They applied to, and were accepted by, the SEC.
Just as the Big 8 had come calling when the Southwest Conference was on the brink for Texas and its friends, the Pac-12 came calling this time, and it appeared as though the Big 12 was doomed again, and had negotiations between Texas and the Pac-12 gone well, it would have been. Fortunately for the Big 12, they didn’t go well, the Pac-12 decided it wouldn’t expand, and Texas led the effort to solidify and bind the Big 12 together, which came just as Oklahoma thought about leaving.
Oklahoma demanded equal revenue sharing and the removal of Dan Beebe, the Big 12 commissioner, and both requests were granted. All the universities agreed to surrender Tier I and II television rights for many years, effectively binding the schools together, and holding the conference in place for a significant period of time. This was enough to ensure the conference’s viability to the point that when Missouri thought about leaving, they committed to the 2012 season, although they have not committed beyond that. It also provided enough of an incentive to get Texas Christian University to renege on their agreement to join the Big East and join the Big 12 instead.
I think the lesson here is that none of the schools panicked either time things hit the fan, and worked together to try to hold the conference together. The Big 12 is arguably the strongest conference right now, because none of the schools there can bring television rights with them if they leave for another conference, or would have to negotiate for them at least. The only conference that is as strong is the ACC, which recently increased their exit fee to $20 million, something I expect the Big 12 to match sometime soon.
Another great lesson here is that even when a conference is doing great on the national stage, it doesn’t mean everyone is happy. This serves as a warning that rewarding big schools only annoys and belittles the small schools, because it is a constant reminder of the caste system that is in place. Texas and Oklahoma, which were making more money, had the intelligence to relinquish their additional funds for the sake of the conference.
Another great lesson is that if a school is in a conference, the conference should be extra careful before granting any school special rights, in this case their own network. I recognize that Texas is the cornerstone of the Big 12, but the Longhorn Network nearly sunk the Big 12, and I think Texas can see that now. Texas, which apparently resisted the idea of becoming a football independent school if the conference dissolved, will continue to use their network, but they seem content to keep it smaller scale, and not trying to force Big 12 content on it, which is the best option for all parties.
Meanwhile, the Big East is ailing, and struggling to survive. They should look at what the Big 12 did: they brought in a new school to fill the gap, and worked together. If the other major conferences can do what the Big 12 did, then there won’t be none of this realignment crap for a long time.