Zemek: The Big 12's Place In A Changed World

Posted May 22, 2012

Zemek: The Big 12's New Place In A Changed College Football World

So many changes have occurred in the larger college sports landscape over the past two years, ever since the Big Ten got the party started late in the spring of 2010 by plucking Nebraska from the Big 12. Yet, with last Friday's announcement of an SEC-Big 12 made-for-TV postseason event, it has become clear that the face of college football is only just beginning to experience large-scale transformations that will radically remake the whole of collegiate athletics.

The coming weeks demand conversations about the ways in which this sport – and the athletic-industrial complex – must be reformed. For now, however, let's take a breath and document some of the many twists and turns that have led us to this point. The path of human events shows that we're living in the Wild West, a realm ungoverned and unregulated by any credible figure or entity. As a result, multiple schools and conferences who either tried to do the right thing, or did what they did for honorable reasons, have been left behind. Qualities found in a pure meritocracy have been hard to locate. Absurdities have multiplied with each passing day. Yes, this process could indeed lead collegiate athletics to a better place in due time, but there's simply no reason for some schools and conferences to pay an unfair price while others benefit in undeserved ways.

In the past two years, the combination of realignment and, more recently, the end of the 16-season (or, if you prefer, "four-rotation") BCS era have given rise to dozens of injustices. Boise State, always seeking to improve itself and do exactly what SEC fans have wanted to school to do, has always been one step behind, thanks to forces far beyond its control or influence.

The University of Idaho, and quite possibly New Mexico State University as well, have been maneuvered into positions of homelessness. The ACC conducted the second cutthroat raid of the Big East in eight years. The dislocations and reshufflings in Conference USA have destabilized mid-major basketball conferences as well as Division I-A football conferences.

Those are just some of the realities that have defined this changed world in college sports since early June of 2010. Yet, at this point in time, there's no bigger story to chronicle than the confounding rise of the Big 12 Conference… not just from its deathbed to a place of stability, but from a deathbed to a place of moneymaking prominence alongside the SEC.

The league whose new TV deal easily eclipsed the ACC's package and made Florida State administrators take notice has now added to its coffers with its freshly-created postseason event. The notion that Notre Dame could join the Big 12 – absolutely laughable for so long – is now a possibility that has to be taken seriously. That statement, in so many ways, captures the extent to which the Big 12 has undergone the happiest of 180-degree turns. That turn hasn't come about because the league did anything right in a broadly recognizable or commonly accepted sense.

Three realities undergird the story of the Big 12's resurrection. They're all substantially unpalatable from the perspective of anyone who believes that good work should be rewarded and bad work punished in the marketplace.

The first reality is that the ACC's raid of the Big East – something the Big 12 did not bring about in any way, shape or form – made the Big 12's new life possible. If Pittsburgh and Syracuse didn't leave the Big East, TCU wouldn't have left. If TCU hadn't left, the Big 12 wouldn't have improved its football brand. If TCU hadn't left, West Virginia might still have had a reason to stay in the Big East, but if that statement seems shaky to you, fine – it can safely be said that if Pittsburgh, Syracuse and TCU had all stayed, West Virginia would not have left the Big East for the Big 12. This domino chain of if-then statements underscores one very simple point: A main part of the Big 12's resuscitation was and is fundamentally a gift that fell in its lap, as opposed to being a product of its cleverness or administrative skill.

The second reality behind the Big 12's unexpected death-to-dominance trajectory – far more absurd on a scale of 1 to 10 – is that The Longhorn Network, the very nuisance that imperiled the Big 12's existence at one point, ultimately kept it alive as a legitimate power conference in college football. Yes, LHN caused Texas A&M to want to leave (and then do the deed with help from a willing SEC), but LHN was also seen by the presidents of Pac-12 Conference schools as an impediment to the television rights the conference wanted. LHN's desire to televise high school games clearly – and justifiably – made its Big 12 neighbors angry (especially those in Norman, Okla.), but Texas's unwillingness to accept the same playing field as everyone else is also the reason the Pac-12 presidents said "no thanks." Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott wanted a deal to be arranged, but the league's university presidents had no interest in giving Texas any special leverage.

Should Pac-12 presidents be blamed for faulted for saying "no" to a Pac-16? Hardly – it's not fair to arrive at such a verdict, especially within a landscape that has changed and is changing so rapidly, without any ground rules or guidelines from independent arbiters or authority figures. However, the current (likely) undercutting of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the trans-national flights of Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East have shown just how little weight the notion of "academic standards" really carries in a larger context. The sense here is that the Pac-12 was really trying to do the right thing when it turned down a Pac-16. It didn't want to drag down its academics, and in the spirit of fair play, it didn't want to cede special leverage to an incoming member (Texas), the school with the best academic profile of the four schools (Texas, OU, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech) that would have created a Pac-16.

Nothing about Texas and The Longhorn Network represented an affirmation or validation of meritocratic principles. The network is without credibility in any real sense – it is not seen as a purveyor of straightforward news coverage or objective sports analysis, given the internal requirements imposed on LHN employees and on-air talent; fans don't take it seriously; customers have not purchased it the way Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds expected. Yet, LHN – laughingstock though it is – certainly played a large role in keeping the Big 12 alive… because Pac-12 presidents didn't want to live with it. Ultimately, the Pac-12 has been hurt by the Big 12's resurrection. It could have been the Pac-12 (or Pac-16) that negotiated this deal with the SEC for a new Jan. 1 game. That the Pac-12 presidents have – in retrospect – not been rewarded for exercising restraint on the Texas/LHN issue is a further reflection of the pervasive, ugly reality of college sports: namely, doing the reasonable thing doesn't pay dividends. Only ruthless, cutthroat behavior – often ethically dubious and generally set against the good of the larger public commons – is rewarded on the balance sheet.

The third reality to absorb in the Big 12's rise is that, in the days before Bob Bowlsby becomes the permanent commissioner of the league, interim boss Chuck Neinas has already done the work Bowlsby was hired to do. Neinas has already engineered a total transformation of the league's place in the college sports ecosystem. He's already handled television negotiations that made the ACC and John Swofford look impotent by comparison. Now, he's teamed with the most powerful conference commissioner – the SEC's Mike Slive – to achieve several goals with a single stroke.

By co-creating the SEC-Big 12 postseason event with Slive, Neinas has displaced the Fiesta Bowl as a Jan. 1 prime-time event, which helps the Big 12 because it ensures that the league's champion won't be stuck with Connecticut (as was the case in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl game). The SEC-Big 12 game on New Year's Day also brings Notre Dame into the mix, as referred to above. It gives the Big 12 immense bargaining power with schools (Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Louisville, BYU) who might want to join. The Big 12 doesn't need those schools, but now, those schools need the Big 12 more than ever before. The Big 12 was, under former commissioner Dan Beebe, the conference everyone wanted to leave or at least thought about leaving. It was the unstable place no sane school president or athletic director would have wanted to join. Now, several schools are begging to climb aboard.

All this with an interim commissioner doing the heavy lifting.

It's true that the history of sports offers multiple examples of interim coaches leading teams to championships. Pat Riley took over the Los Angeles Lakers (1981-'82 season) and the Miami Heat (2005-'06) in the middle of a season and rode each of those squads to the winner's circle. Steve Fisher coached Michigan to the 1989 NCAA basketball national championship after Bill Frieder was fired by athletic director Bo Schembechler just before the NCAA tournament began. Jack McKeon was brought aboard as the Florida Marlins' manager in the midst of the 2003 season; he led the team to a World Series championship. Interim employees can do great things for their respective organizations. However, the negotiating table and the playing field are two different realms.

What's happening with the Big 12 is similar to what has taken place within the Arizona State and Southern Methodist athletic programs over the past few months. At ASU and SMU, athletic directors were replaced after making supremely consequential decisions. (ASU's Lisa Love hired a new head football coach, while SMU's Steve Orsini hired a new head basketball coach and a head-coach-in-waiting.) The Big 12 is bringing in Bob Bowlsby as its new commissioner, but only after Chuck Neinas successfully executed the backroom power plays that have dramatically altered the Big 12's standing in collegiate athletics.

Yes, the Big 12 deserves credit for tabbing Neinas as its interim leader – that much can't be denied. However, there's something distinctly disturbing about the notion of an "interim" commissioner, a person who is ostensibly thought of as a temporary placeholder or short-term caretaker for an organization, becoming a foremost collaborator and power broker with Mike Slive and the SEC. The whole notion of an "interim leader" isn't inherently negative, but it generally does conjure the image of a leader thrust into undesirable situations marked by instability, weakness, or declining fortunes. Interim leaders are generally thought of as crisis managers, people who steer organizations through stormy waters and shepherd communities through periods of danger.

It stands to reason that a permanent (long-term) leader, the person who is hired or elected to be the public face and the most prominent guide of an organization, should map that organization's path. A long-term leader establishes a vision and a plan for a conference. Jim Delany has done this for the Big Ten, Scott for the Pac-12, Slive for the SEC, and – though with inferior results – Swofford for the ACC and John Marinatto for the Big East. Why is it that the Big 12 has gone from life support to kingmaker territory under a man (albeit a highly skilled one) who will wind up holding power for under a year, a man who will not lead the Big 12 into the threshold season of 2014, when the BCS arrangement ends and the nature of collegiate athletics changes forever? The Big 12 and the Big East have both been beset by substantial crises of leadership over the past two years, with Dan Beebe and John Marinatto performing as poorly as one could possibly imagine. Yet, the Big 12 is now rolling in dough while the big East descends into deeper chaos and misery. It's certainly a stretch to view such a reality as outrageous or unacceptable or offensive, but it's quite reasonable to view said reality as opposed to meritocratic notions.

The Southeastern Conference's role in creating this new Jan. 1 game is one of the few merit-based components of college football's changing landscape and the new calculus affecting the sport's postseason. The SEC has delivered a quality on-field product and has therefore earned the benefits it continues to rake in. The Big 12 – while also offering a quality on-field product (not as good as the SEC, but still better than most conferences thanks to the primacy of Oklahoma and Texas) – proved to be comically inept at maintaining consensus or continuity among its membership under Dan Beebe. That the league has now risen to the top of the heap in college sports, simply because it plays really good football, is in a sense a triumph for meritocracy, but the past two years of events lend credence to the idea that none of the Beebe era's mishaps ever mattered, primarily because Texas was too imposing to be accepted in the Pac-12 or any other conference.

It would be fine if the Boise States, Idahos and Louisvilles of the world – plus the mid-major basketball conferences (and teams) affected by realignment – mismanaged their way into adversity. The word "fine" is used in the sense that if institutions experienced hardships because of their own unwise and irresponsible choices, they could only blame themselves for their predicaments. If schools and conferences encountered misery by their own hands in a fair and genuinely open market, no one would have a right or a place to complain.

The fact – and it is a fact – that various schools and conferences are falling in college sports' pecking order without doing much of anything to merit failure is precisely what proves how unfair the current playing field is in collegiate athletics. The fact that other schools and conferences have enjoyed prosperity without doing things to merit that prosperity only affirms the absence of credible, streamlined, uniform governance throughout the athletic-industrial complex.

Neinas said on Friday, after the announcement of the SEC-Big 12 postseason game, that "We may not be Facebook, but the Big 12 would get a strong 'buy' rating on Wall Street." Neinas, by invoking Wall Street, unwittingly captured the reality of college athletics right now: This is indeed a world in which profits are rarely the result of moral or ethical decisions, and in which meaningful regulation (not regulation for regulation's sake) is painfully absent.

Making a buck should never be seen as a problem… as long as that buck is honest, made through real work, in the service or creation of a valuable product. So much of what has transpired in college sports over the past two years has not created honest dollars; accordingly, it has not produced outcomes that various schools and conferences can view as merited, deserved results of an authentic market economy.