Grief is difficult. It takes time to process.
Even while doing the work, moving through the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance doesn’t happen immediately.
So it’s worth keeping that in mind as the eight Big 12 programs the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners are poised to leave behind make it clear that they’re “pissed” at the Longhorns after the news of interest in joining the SEC surfaced.
At least those member institutions have moved past the first stage when directing their ire at the longtime perceived conference bully — the administrators of those programs have already had to reach the acceptance stage, considering the consequences of the pending loss of the two member institutions that brought in most of the league’s revenue.
And somehow those same institutions only expressed “disappointment” with Oklahoma.
Quite a striking difference.
The act of spurning longtime conference members and forging new alliances is nothing new in college athletics. Framing any current decisions as somehow more selfish than any previous decisions or a departure from long-held traditions preciously ignores the reality of college sports as a big business. Every university has pursued its own self interest for decades upon decades. Failing to do so is an outright dereliction of duty by university administrators.
These are not philanthropic endeavors, as much as the soon-to-be-remaining members of the Big 12 would like them to remain so and even though Texas has carried many members of the conference for years. Texas has no responsibility to schools that aren’t in its system to serve as the benefactor of conference entitlement programs — nothing in the University of Texas at Austin charter requires it to serve as a charitable entity for the benefit of other in-state or out-of-state programs.
A full perspective on the league’s current dynamics deserves a deep look at the merger of programs from the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight and how frustrations with Texas contributed to the last round of realignment. If these issues aren’t as old as college athletics, they were created first by declining attendance in the SWC and then by the explosion of money from television contracts.
By the mid-1970s, the SWC was already in trouble, as Texas Monthly pointed out at the time — attendance for games at SMU, TCU, and Rice were all in sharp decline.
“We’re subsidizing the conference,” a Texas official said.
As the Longhorns appeared in six consecutive Cotton Bowls, for instance, the school kept a total of $600,000 for itself and handed over $1,500,000 to the SWC for distribution to the other schools. Texas continued subsidizing the conference until it dissolved two decades later.
In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that individual universities, and not the NCAA, owned the television rights for their school’s sports. Six years later, Notre Dame pulled out of the College Football Association and negotiated its own deal with NBC. The same year, Arkansas left the Southwest Conference for the SEC.
The former SWC powerhouse hasn’t won a single conference championship in football since then, but does anyone still hold a grudge against the Razorbacks for making a move in the school’s own perceived self interest and destroying the rivalry with the Longhorns?
As the remaining SWC schools considered their national footprint through the perspective of marketing the conference’s television rights nationally, it no longer made sense to remain only in the geographic footprint of the state of Texas.
Unsurprisingly, the Longhorns were the major prize as the school considered its options.
“Texas is the pretty girl that everybody wanted to date,” as former University of Texas president and chancellor Bill Cunningham put it, a reality that remains to this day, even after a decade of struggles across multiple sports.
Even a year before Arkansas left the league, Texas considered overtures from the Big Ten, the Pac-10, and the SEC. Not much has changed in the last 30 years in that regard, either.
The influx of television money increased the power of the television partners, who increasingly had a say in which schools did or did not make the cut for conference realignment decisions.
The smallest SWC schools didn’t make it into the Big 12. Rice, an academically-focused private school that couldn’t make money at the gate, didn’t make it. Houston, a commuter school that couldn’t make money at the gate, didn’t make it. SMU, a private school wrecked by the death penalty in football, didn’t make it. And TCU, another small private school that hadn’t won an SWC title in football since 1959, didn’t make it.
Did Texas have an obligation to serve as a caretaker for those schools, to continue to funnel money to them just because the institutions happened to be in the same state and have a longtime conference affiliation?
When it became clear that a wide geographic footprint provided a benefit in selling television rights, those four schools became charity cases no longer fit to drain revenue from the institutions that ended up forming the Big 12.
Baylor made it into the conference thanks in no small part to its political influence in the state at the time as Baylor alums Ann Richards and Bob Bullock held the positions of governor and lieutenant governor. Lucky timing.
So for the Bears, the program’s transition from the SWC into the Big 12 was never about merit as much as having highly-placed advocates.
For nearly 30 years, through a high-profile rape scandal and the school continually treating LGBTQ students in a despicable manner with little to no accountability for either, Baylor was able to hold on, earning hundreds of millions in conference revenue payments mostly because the right people were in charge at the right moment.
Even at the height of its ill-gotten football success, Baylor was still denied entrance into the College Football Playoffs in 2014. Call that corrupt. Call it wrong. But most of all, call it reality.
But even that reality gets ahead of the actual history — in every realignment decision, there are winners and losers. Since that seminal Supreme Court decision in 1984, there hasn’t been much movement in the profiles of the winners and the profiles of the losers. In a defined by college football, there’s a certain inelasticity for programs like Baylor or Iowa State or TCU.
Schools like Texas Tech, among others, have long been dead weight to Texas, the program always forced to make the most difficult decisions, continually used as a scapegoat, and yet somehow expected to provide for lesser institutions. Prior to the formation of the Big 12, for instance, the Pac-10 understandably didn’t want to absorb the Red Raiders when the Longhorns considered that move.
As the SWC pondered its dissolution, Big Eight schools considered their own options, including some of them splitting off to the Big Ten. Once again, history has repeated itself multiple times with the same contours — each school acting in its own self interest.
Even Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder didn’t have lofty goals in 1990 — he simply wanted the lower-tier schools in the Big Eight and the SWC to combine to secure a contract with a bowl game. Without Snyder, the Wildcats might have landed in such a league. Even with him, the school in Manhattan has been, at best, an overachiever with little value added and few prospects moving forward.
To a large extent, these realities are immutable, and not at all created because Texas is the big, bad villain. Snyder changed the fortunes of Kansas State on the football field, but now that he’s retired, the continued benefits of his success are marginal, at best.
In the early 90s, ESPN already played a large role in the burgeoning television market, dictating which members of the Big Eight and which members of the SWC it wanted. When the Big 12 announced its formation, in part at the behest of the Worldwide Leader, it ushered in an era of television rights reigning supreme.
For all the fans of Big 12 programs going through the aforementioned stages of grief, let’s make this clear once again — for the last 30 years, the television carriers have made the value determinations, not individual institutions. The individual institutions are reactionary to those valuations. It’s not the fault of Texas that Disney doesn’t value Iowa State or Texas Tech. Those valuations are an indication that even at their best, Iowa State and Texas Tech do not really matter. They do not move the needle when it comes to decisions that now number in the billions of dollars.
So, in case it wasn’t already clear, the Big 12 was, like many conference alignments, a marriage of convenience, a compromise of sorts dependent on pressure from politicians that kept Texas and Texas A&M from making the moves the individual schools desired in an ideal situation. The schools that really mattered became married to marginal schools making the cut less by merit than that political pressure and ESPN’s belief that they belonged, even if they just barely belonged.
After all, Snyder knew the margins were small for schools like Kansas State.
Operating from a position of power, Texas wanted certain concessions to form the Big 12, like a distribution of television money based on appearances and every school keeping its gate receipts, the latter of which, especially egregiously, did not happen in the Big Eight.
For the intentionally or unintentionally naive, this is how power operates — despite the lying, disingenuous machinations of the NCAA, college sports has always been a business and it’s bad business to give up revenue an individual school actually earns just to placate the schools with limited to no other options intent on getting by through the redistribution of funds they had or have no hope of earning on their own.
Other schools, operating from a position with much less power, had to accept those compromises because the alternatives were worse, though Nebraska perhaps suffered the most with its limited ability to take Prop 48 players who did not meet NCAA eligibility requirements.
“Nebraska came in with a great program and a great history and I think they were offended all along,” former Texas A&M head coach RC Slocum said. “Tom Osborne told me that at the time that they resented the way they were treated at some time in the conference. They were like a little stepchild from the north.”
Tough luck, that, no longer operating as a pseudo-junior college using partial qualifiers as the preferred and, in retrospect, only route to success. For a school with no recruiting footprint, success always happened on the margins, margins that Nebraska controlled in the Big Eight to its advantage.
So as much as Nebraska wanted to blame Texas for its eventual departure from the Big 12, the school’s leaders made a decision to compromise on the sketchy area the Cornhuskers used to maintain its status as a national power. Unsurprisingly, a move to the Big Ten hasn’t helped to solve those problems or brought back the school’s ability to take partial qualifiers.
At least the checks haven’t stopped cashing and Texas is no longer the scapegoat for the failures in Lincoln.
Colorado made a similar decision to move to a better cultural fit in the Pac-12. Was that an overall benefit for the Buffaloes, a program that hasn’t been particularly competitive there? The Pac-12 doesn’t distribute as much money as the Big 12 and the move hasn’t produced a return to the football program’s heights in the 1990s.
Call it, objectively, a net loss in revenue and success, though perhaps the intrinsic value of culture fit makes up the difference. Just try funding the Colorado athletic department with the value of cultural fit.
If there’s an argument against the decision by Texas to maintain an unequal distribution of revenue, it’s losing members of the Big 12 that it couldn’t replace like Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M.
At the same time, those programs were always precarious cultural fits in a conference cobbled together by compromise. And Texas eventually made concessions to ease some of those tensions, including full revenue sharing for first-tier and second-tier media rights.
Missouri and Texas A&M left anyway, with the former frustrated by Texas keeping its third-tier media rights and forming the Longhorn Network. Most likely, the Longhorn Network was a convenient excuse for Missouri doing what it wanted in the first place.
Somehow, though, some of the programs that benefited the most from those full revenue-sharing agreements believe that the Longhorns should have given up $300 million over 20 years for its third-tier rights. Those programs continued to vilify Texas despite cashing the checks only enabled by sharing a conference with the Longhorns.
Texas was subsidizing a new conference.
Industry consultants estimate that roughly 50 percent of the current television contract is because of the Longhorns and the Sooners. So that means, just through rough calculations, that of the $20 million or so distributed to the other eight Big 12 members every year, they are, at best, only worth $12.5 million. Again, these are rough calculations, but by those calculations, almost 40 percent of the yearly television revenue for those schools is an entitlement enabled by Texas and Oklahoma.
Somehow, though, those demands for charity, for altruistic largesse from Texas, the program that has always had all the options, only extended to the Horns. Oklahoma isn’t the one being vilified here.
Now those same programs that made hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue thanks to the presence of Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, the programs that demanded concessions while providing little value added, are upset that the actual revenue makers are leaving and their prospects moving forward are limited.
The Pac-12 may not come calling for the programs it rejected in previous iterations and was only interested in taking a decade ago because of Texas and Oklahoma. Iowa State and Kansas might have a shot at the Big Ten, but the television partners will ultimately make the final call on whether they’ll add to or decrease the overall revenue. Perhaps the ACC dials up West Virginia, a late addition to the Big 12 that seems to have a higher level of understanding of how things work.
As the remaining institutions of the Big 12 ponder uncertain futures, those programs now get to see what the end game might look like — a return to the reality they’ve largely managed to avoid for decades thanks to tenuous relationships with the two programs that actually provided the value from which they benefited.
When the real money is actually on the line, subsidies for a fake semblance of equality aren’t worth anything for schools with actual options. In fact, the acts of conference welfare, the charity of equal revenue distribution to unequal partners, actually become detrimental.
And when that revenue is imperiled, the schools like Texas, that always served as the fulcrum in providing that largesse, become the villain, as always, for pursuing their own self interest instead of serving as the providers of perpetual charity.
The reality is that Baylor’s national championship in men’s basketball and success in women’s basketball doesn’t matter to television partners. Matt Campbell and the rise of Iowa State football doesn’t move the needle. Texas isn’t set to make the move to the SEC because it just won the Director’s Cup.
Still, the mechanisms of departure for Texas come under scrutiny from the programs in danger of being left behind. Politicians that usually engage in cynical discourse about free markets attempt to use their power to dictate the decisions of the programs that actually matter.
In this case, none of that whingeing is going to make a difference. There aren’t any politicians set to save these subsidized programs. Their value wasn’t set by Texas in the first place — it was set by Disney and FOX and CBS, as it has been for decades now.
And in the end, the spurned fans can’t spend those welfare payments made to their institutions on their own therapy, so there’s nothing else to do except to offer good luck for those working through these extreme levels of grief. Maybe some other charity or social entitlement will provide some relief.
Here’s a song in the meantime.
The bottom line is this — Texas is just doing what every other Big 12 school would do if they could, and now won’t have to deal with the dead weight vilifying the program at every turn while demanding that the Longhorns subsidize their worthlessness, as determined by Mickey Mouse.
All that noise right now, that sound and fury? It signifies nothing.
Good riddance, good luck, and good bye.