Big 12

By Lynn Ashby                                                            28 June 2010

We must discuss the Big 12 or, if you’re a Latin major, the Big XII. Cynics call it the Dirty Dozen, and note the athletic conference now has only10 members. How can it be called the Big 12 when the conference almost called it quits? Colorado left for the bigger TV bucks in the Pac-10. Nebraska did the same for the Southeastern Conference. UT, A&M, OU and OSU were being wooed by every conference including the Yalta and parent-teacher. (Incidentally, as every Texan knows, when we speak of college athletics or sports or teams, we’re really talking football TV money.)

The Big 12 is only 14 years old, but it sprang from the ashes of the Southwest Conference (SWC), which had been around for 82 years. Arkansas left for the SEC in 1992, and by 1994 the heavyweights in the conference were UT, A&M and Tech, which had big crowds and big bucks. (The current UT athletic budget is $167 million a year, $7 million more than last year and the largest athletic budget of any university in the nation.)

Rice, UH, Baylor, SMU and TCU were weaklings. The conference was uneven, the games lopsided, and it was not just a Texas secret. On Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice Stadium, President John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge to Americans to send a man to the moon, asked, “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” True story.

The SWC produced seven national football champions. The Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the nation’s outstanding offensive player, was won by five SWC stars. (Did you know that the Heisman is named after John Heisman who coached at Rice?) Five SWC linemen won the Outland Trophy.

The three strongest members of the SWC – UT, A&M and Tech — merged with the Big Six to the north. Baylor, the only non-public university in the new conference, was included because the Texas governor, Ann Richards, and the powerful lite guv, Bob Bullock, were both Bears. Baylor became everybody’s homecoming game, but the school should stop piggy-backing on its big brothers and start filling the stadium. Perhaps the Baptists should add a nice cocktail lounge and wet bars. Today the Big 12 is staying together because its commissioner, Dan Beebe, promised – but couldn’t guarantee – the major teams would receive a bigger, richer TV contract. If Beebe can’t deliver in a couple of years, watch for another divorce.

Two former SWC members are being mentioned to bring the 10 to 12. One of the names being tossed around is UH, mostly by UH. In a remarkable bit of timing, the Cougars just announced a $160 million building program for its football and basketball teams. Good luck in raising that kind of money in this kind of economy. UH has a new, dynamic president/chancellor, Renu Khator, who announced shortly after her confirmation that she wanted a better football team. Maybe an East Indian can succeed in putting fans’ fannies in the seats when no one else can.

The Coogs have only themselves to blame for not being in the club. Located in a city larger than any Big 12 member’s home – Ames, Iowa, anyone? – UH can’t half fill its stadium. As a yardstick, UT football brings in $87.6 million year, more than any other school and far ahead of Baylor, at the bottom of the conference, with $11.9 million. UH brings in $4 million.

TCU is also being mentioned as a new member. It has been playing some good football and baseball lately, but for decades the Horned Frogs were so bad even Baylor beat them. Can UT & Co. rely on continued success in Cow Town?

Much of this conference-changing is guided towards a national football playoff. True, the title student-athlete is an oxymoron (ESPN? How do you spell that?), but who is really for a collegiate Super Bowl? Not the college presidents, not the coaches, not the beat-up players. The pushers are sports columnists, sports radio talk-show hosts, advertisers, networks. There is big money in a national play-off, and the last of the pushers’ priorities is the young men who have been in pads and out of class since August.

University football teams used to play 10 games and then a few of them played in bowls. Today the season can mean 14 games or more, and any team that finishes the season gets in a bowl. A national playoff would mean games into March, ending just in time for spring practice. And don’t use the reasoning that all the other college sports have national champions. If you can’t tell the difference between the blood, missing teeth, broken bones and exhaustion in football and the pitfalls of basketball or tennis, leave this conversation.

This brings us to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It has just released a report saying lavish spending on college athletics is straining the schools’ finances and should be controlled. Big 12 members, for example, spend nine times as much on their athletes as on other students. No one has heard of this 22-member blue ribbon commission and its report will be ignored.

Finally, this one is worth re-telling: A major relic of the old SWC is Rice Stadium, which was built with 47,000 seats – expandable to 70,000 — because, back then, Rice could fill them. George R. Brown of Brown & Root got the contract to build the new stadium and broke ground in February of ’50. He vowed to have the new stadium ready for the first game the following September. Problems slowed down construction, so a reporter went out to check on the project. There was George Brown himself shoveling and mixing and sweating. When the reporter asked, “Mr. Brown, do you really think you’ll have this stadium ready in time?”

Said Brown, without looking up, “It’s a night game.”

Ashby cheers at ashby2@comcast.net

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