ARLINGTON, TX — It’s been 12 months of upheaval, which led to plenty of hurt feelings and distrust in the Big 12 Conference boardrooms.
Improbably, incredibly, the conference born just over a quarter-century ago from an amalgamation of two defunct leagues, the conference torn asunder by years of angst and major defections a decade apart, the conference that nearly died twice, flirted with expansion once and finally pulled it off, the conference that somehow achieved stability thanks to the almighty dollar, is entering yet another new era.
That era officially begins this week as Big 12 Media Days unfold at AT&T Stadium.
While much of Wednesday and Thursday’s conversation will center around the league’s 10 members and the upcoming football season, here’s a primer for six of the larger issues facing the Big 12 heading into the new commissioner’s “state of the conference” address.
1. Make Yormark
Bob Bowlsby’s legacy as Big 12 commissioner for the last decade or so is secure. He helped negotiate the current TV deal that pays each member school north of $40 million. He facilitated TCU and West Virginia joining when membership had sunk to eight and everyone wanted to join the Pac-12. And now, with Oklahoma and Texas on their way out, Bowlsby helped the Big 12 fulfill its manifest destiny and finally expand with BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston. All bring large TV markets, and three bring fertile recruiting grounds. Now Bowlsby might take a break from trout fishing in Canada to come to DFW just long enough to drop the mic.
Enter Brett YormarkBowlsby’s replacement and the man tasked with applying his background in stadium management and the entertainment industry to fortifying the new-look Big 12.
Yormark comes from Jay Z’s Roc Nation, where he supposedly negotiated million-dollar deals for breakfast. Yormark will meet the press on Wednesday morning, and he’ll be assisted on the dais by the Baylor president Linda Livingstone, who was on the three-person committee that identified commissioner candidates and eventually hired Yormark. Yormark won’t have all the answers in his first official day on the job, and it’s unlikely Livingstone can reveal much about the Big 12’s conversations with the Pac-12 schools who might be interested in life after USC and UCLA’s Big Ten defection.
How soon can OU and Texas leave for the SEC? What’s the next move for the Big 12, whose media rights contracts expire in 2025? Are all members united under the existing banner, or maybe some have wandering eyes to join a league elsewhere? The league has a lot to ponder in the coming months.
2. New coaches
Three Big 12 football teams have new men at the top — two of them are first-time head coaches — and all three bring a brand new look and culture shift.
Oklahoma, of course, brought back Brent Venablesthe former Bob Stoops lieutenant who became the nation’s best defensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney at Clemson and now finally gets his shot. Venables waited at his lake house while Joe Castiglione and Joe Harroz sat on the tarmac in South Carolina as they negotiated the resources that Venables said he needed to copy the Clemson model and implement a player-first culture in Norman. Oh, and the primary objective obviously shifts from offense under Lincoln Riley to defend.
TCU replaced Gary Patterson — a defensive whiz and college football’s second-longest tenured head man — with Sonny Dykes. Dykes comes to Forth Worth from Dallas, where he previously coached rival SMU. Dykes has an offensive reputation, which is quite a shift from the Gary Patterson School of College Football.
And Texas Tech replaced the Oklahoman Matt Wells with Joey McGuire, a long-time Texas high school coach who has begun making inroads back to Lone Star State talent that previous Tech coaches could never fully exploit. McGuire’s never been a head coach in college, but his forte is offense — and that fits right into the established culture at Tech.
Bowlsby talked specifically about Castiglione when he described a lack of trust with the OU athletic director (and, presumably, Texas brass) in meetings over the past year. Bowlsby singled out Joe C. because he felt they had developed a close personal relationship.
But last July — just after the 2021 Big 12 Media Days — word leaked out that the Sooners and Longhorns wanted to pledge allegiance to the Southeastern Conference. The schools and the SEC both soon confirmed the reports. This will be their first public function together, so expect some hard-hitting questions from the media gallery.
The Big 12’s grant of rights handcuff those schools’ media revenue to the Big 12 through ’25, although once everyone lawyers up, that can be negotiated to an earlier date — if everyone is agreeable to OU and Texas leaving ahead of schedule.
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4. No new guys (yet)
What might convince Yormark and the Big 12 board of directors that a clean (2024) break is best for all parties is how the new members do out of the gate.
BYU, Cincy, UCF and UH all bring a solid pedigree to their new league.
BYU, backed by the Mormon Church (a la Notre Dame and the Catholic Church) has a passionate international following and has been respectable at both football and men’s basketball for decades.
The Bearcats, well-endowed with good basketball tradition, are coming off an historic football season Luke Fickell in which they became the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff — and it was no fluke.
UCF has seven 10-win seasons since 2007, including a 13-0 record in 2017. They also went 9-4 last year, and Knights basketball has made great strides under Johnny Dawkins.
And Houston has been good in football, with five 10-win seasons since 2006, a couple of 13-1 seasons in 2011 and 2015 and a 12-2 campaign last year under Dana Holgorsen. Also, Cougar basketball is better under Kelvin Sampson than it’s been in years, including a run to the Final Four two years ago and a 32-win season last year.
Players and coaches from those schools won’t be in Arlington in any official capacity this week, as they have their own 2022 business to tend to. But if all four can keep up their end of the competition scale this year and continue to grow fan interest in their large population hubs, then maybe the Big 12 will be OK with letting OU and Texas leave early for the SEC.
5. Business unusual
This era of college football is changing faster than we can keep up — and the changes, it seems, are never small.
NIL is now one year in (remember Spencer Rattler’s big autograph event in Chicago?), and no one has a handle on it yet. The transfer portal and NCAA one-time eligibility exemption have rearranged the very fabric of how coaches used to build rosters.
And of course, conference realignment — which is driven by television dollars, which are fueled by fan interest, which cynics warn us is draining thanks to all this unprecedented seismic activity — careens down the college football highway like some ironic, out-of-control tractor trailer rig loaded with pallet after pallet of uncertainty.
There won’t be any answers to come out of Jerry World this week, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of opinions.
6. Hunting Bears
After Matt Rhule rebuilt Baylor from the ashes of the Art Briles era Dave Aranda’s first season replacing Rhule was a COVID-shortened 2-7 disappointment. Now, in Year 3, Aranda is coming off the Bears’ first Big 12 championship since going back-to-back in 2013 and 2014.
Baylor was a deserving champion last year, beating Oklahoma State literally by inches in the title game. But the Bears won’t surprise anyone this year. Can Baylor win as the front-runner?
Or does Mike Gundy and OSU have the roster to begin what could be a long reign atop the new Big 12?
Is Texas back in Year 2 under Steve Sarkisian? (Not yet.) Can Iowa State or Kansas State reload and challenge? (Probably not.) Do Texas Tech or TCU take off under new coaches? (Not this year.) Or does Oklahoma reclaim the crown as an underdog? (Possibly.)
Again, those answers won’t be known this week, or any time over the next four months. But it’ll be fun to ask the questions.