BREAKING DOWN BIG 12's POSSIBLE ALL-OR-NOTHING GAMBLE
Possible expansion by the Big 12 - probably by four if this happens - appears to have life-or-death consequences.
Based on numerous conversations with college athletics sources inside and outside the Big 12, expansion right now would either be:
A short-sighted money grab from Tier 1 & 2 TV partners - ESPN and Fox - that would put the Big 12 into the Witness Protection Program as the American Athletic Conference's evil twin, thus killing off the league when Texas and Oklahoma bolt to other Power 5 leagues in 2024.
The business-savvy, progressive stroke of genius that secures the league's future through strength in numbers, ultimately leading to a conference network, better positioning its members to win championships and narrowing the Big 12's TV revenue gap behind the Big Ten and SEC.
The announcement Monday by the Big 12's presidents and chancellors to have league commissioner Bob Bowlsby "actively evaluate" two to four candidates for expansion was such a flip from a previous stance of not wanting to expand just to expand it even surprised some of the league's athletic directors.
The names I've been hearing the most are BYU, Cincinnati and Houston, whose athletic director - Hunter Yurachek - put out this humble brag ... er ... statement Wednesday:
Despite K-State's Bill Snyder indicating Tuesday he thinks there are two former Big 12 members who want back in, current Power 5 members appear to be off the table - yes, that includes Arizona and Arizona State - avoiding what could have been a reverse-revenge-P5-on-P5-raid. Or something like that.
More on expansion candidates in a second.
Despite record revenue distribution this year of $30 million per school (No. 3 in P5 behind the RICH uncles - B10 and SEC), the Big 12 is seen as the unstable, crazy uncle of the Power 5 - one craps roll away from losing everything.
So here we are - back in realignment speculation hell - wondering if the Big 12 knows what on earth it's doing, or really might be one craps roll away from losing everything over - what else - a quick pile of TV revenue.
Here are the three biggest reasons the Big 12 Board of Directors may suddenly be ready to make an all-in realignment gamble, sources close to the situation told HornsDigest.com Wednesday:
#1 ... There is a provision in the Big 12 Tier 1 & 2 TV contracts through 2025 that says ESPN and Fox agree to pay equal shares of revenue - per school - for up to six schools added to the league. That's a BIG reason I'm hearing if expansion happens, it's more likely four schools, rather than two.
"There's a contractual obligation to pay that additional amount - pro rata - that we're already receiving if there is an expansion," said Oklahoma president David Boren, the current chair of the Big 12 Board of Directors. "It's already covered in our contracts - does not require additional negotiation of the contracts."
Bowlsby announced Monday the Big 12 this year is distributing - for the first time - more than $30 million in revenue per school. I'm told - on average - $20 million of that is TV revenue (but has gotten as high as $25 million).
So, under those terms, if four schools had already been added this year, the Big 12 would receive an additional $80 million to $100 million from its TV partners and wouldn't need to share all of that money with its new schools, who would likely be phased into increasing revenue shares.
TCU and West Virginia were added to the Big 12 in 2011. But this is the first year they are both receiving full revenue shares.
In other words, the current 10 members would be getting a significant, short-term, TV revenue increase, especially if one or more expansion candidates would be willing to buy their way into the Big 12 by foregoing any revenue share for one or more years.
One high-ranking official at a Big 12 school said, "Sounds short-sighted to me, considering the TV contracts are through 2025. Expansion isn't a get-rich-quick scheme, it's forever - or is supposed to be, ideally."
Bowlsby said the Big 12 isn't concerned about antagonizing the league's TV partners, knowing their Tier 1 & 2 contracts have to be renegotiated in eight years.
"I don't think we have to make apologies for activating around stipulations that we both agreed to," Bowlsby said.
#2 ... Reports of the ACC launching a network with ESPN in 2019 as well as an agreement with Notre Dame that if the Irish decide to join a conference at any point the next 20 years, it would join the ACC.
The sense is now the ACC could be positioning itself to end up financially better off - down the road - than the Big 12, which is currently third among the P5 in TV revenue behind the Big Ten and SEC.
Boren downplayed potential expansion as a way to create more markets and content for a Big 12 network.
And even though a network would be difficult to form right now because of all the third-tier TV deals currently in place at different schools (the biggest being Texas' 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN for LHN through 2030), expansion could help lead to a conference network eventually.
#3 ... Rumblings that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has spoken with University of Houston officials
All sides appear to be dismissing that there's anything to this.
But the bottom line is, if Scott can't capture his Moby Dick - Texas - which he nearly pulled off in 2010, he'd probably love to pick up Tom Herman and the Cougars in one of the country's top TV markets to pump life into his underperforming Pac-12 Networks. (Sources close to the situation tell HD the Pac-12 is paying out less than $2 million per school in third-tier TV money - by far - the worst among the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12. Did you know? Longhorn Network has wider distribution than the Pac-12 regional networks.)
Houston would also get the Pac-12 into TV and recruit-rich Texas and into the Central time zone, where most college football fans could see Scott's teams play before bedtime on a regular basis.
There's a lot of legislative/political muscle in Texas from Houston right now that would like to see UH in the Big 12. Even Texas billionaire Red McCombs has said publicly he supports UH to the Big 12.
It was made clear to me Wednesday University of Texas leadership would not - repeat, would not - stand in the way of Houston's Big 12 candidacy and would even support it.
Hard to believe any athletics officials at Texas, Texas Tech or TCU would be excited about turning Tom Herman and his Cougars loose in one of the nation's most talent-rich regions with Big 12/Power 5 cache to use in recruiting. Especially after UH just became the best performing college football program in the state thanks to a 13-1 season in 2015 capped by a rout of Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Herman, a former UT grad assistant entering his second year at Houston, has already made recruiting Houston kids into a battle cry, vowing to build a perennial power with local high school talent. The hashtag - #HTownTakeover - can be seen all over his Tweets. It's modeled after the Miami Hurricanes' rise in the 1980s under Howard Schnellenberger, who took a moribund program to the 1983 national championship by convincing kids from talent-rich Miami to stay home and win big.
So even if there's the slight possibility athletic department officials from Texas, Texas Tech or TCU might possibly oppose the notion of all that, there might be some tongue-biting going on because of the political pressure being applied in-state to help Houston's Big 12 bid.
OK, BACK TO THE QUESTION OF WHO WOULD THE BIG 12 ADD?
Boren sounded like a financial planner picking growth stocks when he said the league was looking for potential partners with strong fan and TV broadcast appeal that also valued "academic standards" and were "institutions of integrity."
Yeah, yeah, that criteria is fine and good when you're adding the usual "sure thing" school to a Power 5 league.
Realignment has always been about TV revenue generated by football.
The best bets for expansion have always been established football programs under successful coaches. Gary Patterson is a HUGE reason why TCU has found it's bearings in the Big 12.
And I'm told there's a possibility any expansion could be football-only as opposed to all sports.
So before we even get to all that highfalutin' stuff about academic profile, we need to know if any of these lights-up, 2 AMers at the end of the bar (most college football fans' words - not mine) can even play a lick of football so as to one day create fan and TV broadcast appeal.
* HOUSTON - has won in football under Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin, Tony Levine and now Herman. Looks like a good bet now - but how long would Herman stay?
* BYU - I mean a ton of football tradition thanks to LaVell Edwards. But the reason why BYU is currently considered a strong program - Bronco Mendenhall - got tired of waiting to see if BYU would join a P5 conference and is now at Virginia.
Talk about timing. So a gamble on BYU being a successful Big 12 member now rests with someone named Kilani Sitake. Who's in?
* CINCINNATI - Love me some Tommy Tuberville, one of the best interviews in college football. Smooth, funny, confident, charming. He basically told Bearcats' school officials he could help them get into a Power 5 conference.
Well, here we are, and Coach Tubs went 9-4 and 9-4 with Butch Jones' players. Then, as a favorite to win the American Athletic Conference last season, Tubs limped in at 7-6. Love Tubs. Great talker.
But he was just 21-17 in three seasons at Tech, including a 5-7 clunker in 2011, and might be fighting a case of Lost Legacy, a silent-but-deadly-and-often-very-expensive killer of once-prominent coaching careers. Just keepin it real. Still love ya Tubs.
* MEMPHIS - has FedEx promising to sponsor the Big 12 football title game if the Tigers get into the Big 12.
But the reason Memphis just went 10-3 and 9-4 is Justin Fuente, who now walks the sidelines for Virginia Tech. Your gamble on Memphis is now based on coach Mike Norvell.
Quick, name Norvell's last coaching stop. ... (Jeopardy music) ... Buzzer sounds ... "Sorry, we were looking for, 'Who was the Arizona State offensive coordinator the last four years?"
* CENTRAL FLORIDA - won a BCS bowl game in the Fiesta over Baylor in the 2013 season under George O'Leary. The Knights are now counting on promising-but-unproven coach Scott Frost to put heart paddles to a program that went 0-12 last year. Not a typo - 0-12.
* SOUTH FLORIDA - I was told USF has no shot. UCF has a shot. Not USF. So let's move on.
* UCONN - Bob Diaco is 8-17 in two seasons. He followed three miserable seasons under Paul Pasqualoni, who since coaching Syracuse more than a decade ago, has become college football's version of Schleprock. So maybe we give Diaco a little more time before slapping the bust label on him.
* COLORADO STATE - Beautiful new football stadium, and the Rams enjoyed a rebirth under Jim McElwain (10-3 in 2014). But he gone. Mike Bobo, entering his second year as a head coach, went 7-6 in Year 1.
* AIR FORCE - God bless America and the men and women who serve and protect us based out in Colorado Springs, where Troy Calhoun has proven to be one of the country's most under-appreciated coaches.
Calhoun's offense is more than just the triple option, and it's given teams fits in his 10 years while going 67-50. Falcons currently have a school-record, 12-game, home win streak.
* TULANE - The football has been so bad for so long, new coach Willie Fritz might already qualify for hazard pay.
By my count, only three of those potential candidates have a football coach who has proven he can win consistently - Houston, Cincinnati and Air Force. And only two of those have won consistently - recently - Houston and Air Force.
If the Big 12 decides to expand by four just picture the Big 12 Board in the role of highly agitated Navy commanding officer Stinger in the movie "Top Gun" when Stinger tells fighter pilots Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) - despite all their transgressions, including a history of high speed passes over five air control towers and one admiral's daughter - he's got to send them to "Top Gun" (the Navy's elite Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif.).
Picture Boren and the Big 12 Board telling its new members they are in.
"I got another problem here. I gotta send somebody from this squadron to Miramar. I gotta do something here, I … I still can't believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot! You characters are getting to join the Big 12."
The difference between the Big 12 Board and Stinger is if Maverick and Goose screwed up again, Stinger vowed they'd be flying a cargo plane full of "rubber dog (bleep) out of Hong Kong!"
If the Big 12 screws up, the league probably falls apart in 2024.
But who knows? Maybe BYU's Kilani Sitake is the next David Shaw, who followed Jim Harbaugh at Stanford without any drop-off.
Or maybe he's the next John L. Smith.
Maybe Coach Tubs would re-energize Cincinnati in his second stint in the Big 12. Or maybe he'll just continue to give radio interviews better than he coaches.
Maybe Herman would want to stay at Houston. Maybe not.
Maybe the Big 12 remains status quo and keeps falling millions behind the Big Ten and SEC.
Or maybe the Big 12 remains status quo, and the rest of the Power 5 comes to its financial senses realizes the most money to be made is by collectively bargaining its TV rights NFL-style in eight years.
Cut back to an 11-game schedule, get rid of league title games, have a 16-team playoff like FCS, give four of those spots to non-P5 schools, avoiding anti-trust claims while giving Cinderella a chance to win it all.
You can promise the Big Ten and SEC they'd make even more TV revenue under this model, because you'd be selling off Thursday and Friday night games, creating a College Football Channel, a CFB Red Zone Channel, DIRECTV games, pay-per-view games, etc.
There's enough time to get Congress on board and lobby that school athletic departments should remain tax-exempt, because of anticipated cost increases for things like student-athlete health insurance, head-injury lawsuits and, yes, an image-and-likeness stipend for student-athletes.
Where have you heard all that before?!?!?
SO MANY IRONIES
Consultants to the Big 12 told the league back in 2011 that schools such as Cincinnati and UConn didn't move the needle enough to add.
Now, consultants are using a school such as Louisville (which the Big 12 passed on in 2011 despite the desperate pleas of Boren, a former U.S. senator, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - as an example of a growth stock school that can increase in value.
Anyone think there are four Louisville starter kits out there? Or that the Big 12 could go 4-for-4 in finding them?
Boren said: "We're looking at those schools that not only have arrived competitively, but have a huge potential to improve their competitive capabilities, too, by becoming members of our conference."
Boren seemed to be referring to TCU when he said, "Some of the schools we had high expectations for when they came into the conference have exceeded their expectations in terms of their competitiveness after they have been a member of this conference."
Added Bowlsby said, "I would say that we are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow - that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end."
Good luck to the Power 5's crazy uncle - whether it makes the all-in call - or not.
TAYLOR: A FEW MORE THOUGHTS AFTER TALKING TO STRONG
I had the chance to sit with Charlie Strong for an hour and a half media session at Tuesday's Big 12 Media Days. Here are some of my takeaways from speaking with the head coach.
- Strong seems to be a huge fan of Shane Buechele. It's one thing if a coach is asked about a guy and he responds in a positive manner, but it's entirely different to go on for quite a few minutes about one guy. Strong talked more about Buechele than any other player, let alone any other quarterback. It was hard to walk away without thinking Buechele will become an early starter for Texas this season.
- I asked Coach Strong what guys in the 2016 class has the most upside, in his opinion. He was quick to mention Brandon Jones and the young d-linemen.
"Brandon Jones is very, very talented. Those big guys up front from (Jordan) Elliott, to Daniels, to Christmas, those guys are big guys, too, that really look good. And you get a Pat Hudson on campus.
"But just looking out there and seeing this team. It's a different team. You'll be shocked when you walk out there now. You walk out there now and you're like, 'Oh, it looks like something.'"
- Strong has gotten a bad rap for not being a "media-friendly" head coach. Texas had one of the best college football CEO coaches in Mack Brown.
Brown was the best in shaking hands and kissing babies, yet Strong was never going to be that guy. However, Strong is an entirely different coach when there aren't too many cameras or reporters in his face.
He was asked many times about being on the hot seat and made light of the situation every time.
A lot of fans do not see this side of Strong but I think it's important to mention that he is not always the shy type of coach he often times appears to be in the national spotlight. He can cut up with the best of 'em.