May 25, 2024

Big 12 enters new era of uncertainty without Oklahoma, Texas — but the vibes are immaculate, at least

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One year ago in the desert, the Big 12 and Pac-12 commissioners darted from room to room at their annual spring meetings, weaving and bobbing among inquisitive reporters (and each other) at a posh resort as rumors of expansion and the health of their leagues dominated the chatter in their halls.

The venue at the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch this week was the same, but times have changed. The Pac-12 is no more, and the Big 12 is still breathing, the last fighter standing following a vicious battle that hit its high point last summer when the rival commissioners threatened to poach each other’s conferences. Fittingly, perhaps, the posh resort was undergoing massive renovations this week as the Big 12 conducted its annual meetings without the Pac-12 sharing the same building. As backhoes moved dirt at a nearby courtyard, and the sounds of banging hammers and whirring saws filled the makeshift hotel lobby, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was downright giddy about his conference’s future as he exited a three-day marathon of meetings.

“I like the energy, I like the vibe, I love the direction,” Yormark said. “Everyone’s excited. We’re like a mature start-up. We’re 28 years in the making, and when you compare us to some of the other conferences that have been around for 90-plus years, we’re just getting started.”

The Big 12’s new era begins July 1 with the additions of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah on the same day Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC. Oklahoma and Texas’ impending departures loomed large this week. The loudest voices in the room were absent, and in that void were new voices leading the charge. Several athletic directors and coaches described the meetings as one of the more productive and amiable spring get-togethers in the conference’s history.

Still, there are challenges. The Big 12 survived the realignment war and is positioned to remain one of four power conferences, but its 16 programs will start on the bottom rung of the ladder. That much was determined by the College Football Playoff leadership when they determined earlier this year that the Big 12 will receive fewer revenue shares than the Big Ten, SEC, and ACC starting in 2026. The conference is set to earn a 15% share of CFP revenue ($12 million per team annually), well below the Big Ten and SEC (29%) and just below the ACC (17%).

“I certainly wasn’t happy with the distribution,” Yormark said. “I guess you could say in some respects I was satisfied. It was fine, but certainly not happy about it. I don’t think our [athletics directors] or coaches are (happy) either, but we’re going to continue to invest for the right reasons. We’re going to continue to build football. It’s at the core of what we do, and I’m excited about our future.”

Yormark asked for a look-in provision in the CFP contract in 2028, which would allow for a re-evaluation of the contract’s economics.

“Listen, I’m a believer that if you create value, you need to be rewarded,” Yormark said. “When you look at the first 10 years of the CFP, we didn’t perform probably as well as we would have liked. That’s OK. History might not repeat itself, and that’s why we have that look-in — and I made a point to get that in there — because I’m betting on the Big 12 and betting on our future. Hopefully, between now and ’28, we can perform at the level we’ll be really proud of and then we can exercise that look-in based on our performance.”

The Big 12 has appeared in six of 10 CFP fields and was 1-6 in those games, the worst record among the power conferences. TCU owns the lone win, a thriller against Michigan in the 2022 semifinals, but the Horned Frogs also suffered a record-breaking 65-7 loss to Georgia in the national championship game. Oklahoma and Texas depart the Big 12 with a combined 0-5 record in the CFP.

In this new era, Colorado is the only Big 12 program with a national title in the modern era (1990). Coaches don’t believe the conference will suffer without Oklahoma and Texas, which combined to win four of the last seven conference titles.

“There’s great parity in the Big 12,” said Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, who won the Big 12 title in 2022. “And I think everybody’s excited about that. Texas won it last year, but prior to that, neither Texas nor Oklahoma had been in the Big 12 Championship Game the last few years. We have really good football teams here.”

Off the field, the collegiate athletics model faces significant challenges. The NCAA and the power conferences are in active discussions to settle a massive antitrust lawsuit concerning revenue sharing with players. Athletic directors are preparing for a new pay-for-play model that many administrators believe could be instituted as soon as the fall of 2025.

Meanwhile, players already have tremendous power to move from school to school, with unlimited transfers now possible after legal challenges from the states of Virginia and Tennessee forced the NCAA to relax rules in the spring. The recruiting calendar also continues to shift (we aren’t that far off from three signing days in college football). And the CFP may expand to 14 teams after a one-year trial with 12 teams. Yormark favors a 14-team model with greater access but prefers the CFP brain trust wait until early 2025 to decide. The current proposal being floated by leaders would provide three automatic bids to the Big Ten and SEC and two bids to the ACC and Big 12, with one spot reserved for the highest-ranked Group of Six team.

“I’m going to continue to bet on the Big 12 that we’re going to take some of those at-large spots,” Yormark said.

Oh, and the power conferences also want to expand the 68-team NCAA Tournament to as many as 80 teams. Big 12 coaches, Yormark said, are on board with expansion.

The constantly shifting landscape spurred the Big Ten and SEC into action in February when the conferences partnered to form an advisory group to study the future of college sports and present solutions to the NCAA. One might view the Big Ten and SEC’s partnership as another power play in the wake of massive conference realignment. Some believe the Big Ten and SEC might break away from the NCAA, create its own playoff and rake in bigger paydays as other conferences wither on the vine.

Yormark is not so cynical.

“I think that’s overstated,” Yormark said. “I mean, we are very collegial with the conference commissioners. We spent a lot of time together around CFP. We spent a lot of time talking strategically about the direction of collegiate athletics and what’s in the best interest for everyone. I mean, does the SEC and the Big Ten break away from that from time to time and strategize together? I’m sure they do. But I will tell you, the chemistry and the culture amongst the four commissioners are extremely positive. Even though I’m relatively new in my job, I would venture to say it’s the best it’s ever been. I really believe that.”