Multiple Issues Slow Big 12 Decisions on Expansion

Why can't the Big 12 conference decide on a plan of action regarding expansion? It's simple – but it's rooted in complexity.

As the Big 12 meetings unfold this week in Irving, Tex., the issue of expansion is dominating talks. While other items, such as votes on transfer rules, reports on concussions and student-athlete safety are also on the agenda, the 800-pound elephant in the room is that of the league's future as it pertains to adding members. Also in there is the potential addition of the conference championship game.

None of this is news, but that's the point. Studies, information-gathering and lobbying worthy of Cold War-era propaganda have emanated from the various schools and league sources over the past year or two, but none of that has moved the conference much closer to making a decision. And, if current trends are read correctly, no final decisions will come from this set of meetings either. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who has to feel like Billy Crystal rounding up cattle in City Slickers, has said more than once that he believes this major issue must be decided on by “this fall”, but he has no pull in that process. It's all up to league presidents to act – or not – in making this crucial call.

So what's the hold up? Studies have been performed. Big 12 presidents and athletic directors have conducted numerous formal and informal communications with their peers at potential new member schools. Television networks have weighed in – heavily – with their input. Outside consultants have been brought in, and surely paid handsomely, for their work. Just that brief list, though, highlights the big sticking point: There are so many factors involved in the decision, and so many different ways in which each affects one or more schools, that it's proving nearly impossible to reach a consensus, or even a majority decision on the big overall.

You've seen the issues listed ad infinitum over the past many months, so there's no need to go into detail on each. But a simple list of items that fold into the expansion decision, each with its own sub-list of issues and problems, could easily be expanded into a multi-volume work that would exceed the page count of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. School suitability, TV markets, acceptability to broadcast partners, the Longhorn Network, the full round robin schedule, travel and time zone issues, interim presidents, state politics and personalities have all combined to make a decision seem as remote as landing a manned space mission on one of the planets of Alpha Centauri.

West Virginia fans are seeing a similar dynamic play out right now in their State Capitol, where the Legislature has been unable to pass a budget despite a looming deadline that will shut down state government operations. Without going into that debate or taking a side (or sides), it's exactly the same scenario. Each party or group has one or more items that it will not yield on, and when any proposal is made that violates that position, it gets voted down. While no formal votes have been taken by the Big 12 presidents yet, it seems pretty clear that to date there's not enough support either way to make a definitive decision on expansion, a league network or a championship game.

To be sure, the Big 12 should not be criticized for gathering as much information as possible. While some questions might be raised about the amount of money being spent on multiple external consultants, this is a big decision. No one can fault the presidents or ADs for moving cautiously. However, at some point, a decision does need to be made.

How can that happen? Two ways. First, components of the overall choices can be split out into separate tasks and addressed individually. That's already been done in regards to a potential football conference championship game, as that decision doesn't have to be tied up into the expansion decision. While it does have its own sub-issues, including the potential modification of the round-robin schedule, that is an item that should be able to stand on its own. Past that, though, it's difficult to see how the issue of adding teams or a league network can be pared down into component parts. Agreement, or at least a strong majority of such, must occur on all of the factors that go into expansion at the same time.

That leaves the second – a willingness to negotiate and move away from entrenched positions. Can the Big 12 leadership do that? So far, there seems to be more interest in leaks or outright statements that promote a certain position, or at least attempt to establish a position of strength, than in reaching consensus. Again, it's easy to understand why this happens. Those who have achieved a University presidency or an Athletics Directorship aren't weak of mind or opinion. They are used to making tough decisions from their positions of power. But in doing so at their own schools, they don't have to come to an agreement with nine or nineteen other like-minded individuals. That's the biggest sticking point right now, and unless there is some give and take the Big 12 will, through inaction, stay put at its current membership level.

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