The Big 12 has considered everything from expansion, to splintering, to standing pat (but only after asking a bunch of schools to beg for an invite). If it isn’t in a constant state of uncertainty, then it’s in a constant state of squabbling about whether it’s in a constant state of uncertainty.
The most obvious solution for the league to maintain its status as a Power Five conference and its status quo as a Texas-heavy 10-team entity rests not in shifting memberships or a changing media rights landscape.
It is in a simple return to its roots.
Which, after Wednesday’s surprise retirement by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, means it may not be an overstatement to say the future of the league rests in the hands of two coaches who have never led a team at the Power Five level.
Lincoln Riley, 33, is now the Sooners’ head coach, promoted from offensive coordinator in a planned move by Stoops and the administration. He has never been a head coach on any level. In Austin, Tom Herman, 42, arrives with two successful years under his belt at Houston, but he’s facing a big rebuild of the Longhorns.
Neither man owes anything to anyone other than their players and their school, but the stakes for college football are considerable.
The league’s other members can have, and have had, great success. Everyone knows however that the league needs its national brands, Texas and Oklahoma, to serve as the glue for both membership and the collective ability to generate hundreds of millions in revenue. That’s just the reality of business – no matter how strong TCU or Oklahoma State or Baylor has been on the field.
For the past 18 years, Stoops did his part with the Sooners. He could never deliver another national title to match the one captured in 2000, but OU was prominent in title games and playoff bids on an almost annual basis. He won 10 or more games 14 times. The Sooners were everything they have always been, a heavyweight on the national stage.
Now Stoops is gone. And while Oklahoma is bullish on Riley as a guy perfectly prepared to keep the machine running, can point to a strong roster and excellent support staff in place and can rightfully remind everyone that Stoops got the job with no head coaching experience, there is just no telling.
Yes, Oklahoma tends to churn on and on, but so too did Texas under MackBrown … until all of a sudden it didn’t. The Longhorns haven’t recorded double-digit victories in a season since 2009 and are coming off three consecutive losing seasons under Charlie Strong.
Nothing is simple. Nothing is assured.
No one wants to consider the state of the Big 12 in a few years if neither of its signature programs are rolling. This is especially true if the college athletics business model is rocked by the combination of the media-rights bubble exploding and the effects of cord-cutting on conference-owned cable networks.
The Big 12 needs to be relevant. Maybe it’s winning playoff games or a title. At the very least it means being in big games with big audiences. It needs Oklahoma and Texas happy and content with the status quo – not susceptible to offers of more money and new opportunities elsewhere. As long as those programs believe in the league, then everyone will believe in the league and it will continue to exist.
The Big 12 needs to be strong top to bottom, of course, and there is nothing wrong with someone else winning, but having UT and OU in that late-season mix would be a boon.
Riley may just be the guy who can maintain the consistent excellence of Stoops. He is a self-made man. He grew up in a tiny town in West Texas, walked-on as a quarterback at Texas Tech, switched over to student assistant under Mike Leach and now, boom, he’s the youngest head coach in major college football.
Nothing was ever given to him until it was the keys to the kingdom.
Herman is no different. A small college player, his first coaching job came in 1998 working with the wide receivers at Texas Lutheran. By 2012, he was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, won a title in 2014 and arrived at Houston, where he went 22-4. Now he has the Eyes of Texas on him.
A 10-team Big 12 should be able to not just survive, but thrive. Familiarity breeds rivalries. Round-robin scheduling is how the sport is meant to be played. Besides, it is worth rooting for a conference that has avoided the trend of becoming a 14-team, watered-down, tradition-battered behemoth.
The Big 12 just produced record revenue for the second consecutive year and doled out around $28 million to each school. That’s the good news. The bad is that the SEC shared a little more than $40 million per school.
While geography and demographics mean the Big 12 will always lag behind the SEC and Big Ten, that doesn’t mean the money gap isn’t real. And thus, neither is the instability.
The Big 12 isn’t close to breaking apart or radically redesigning itself. At least not today. That doesn’t mean tomorrow isn’t coming. And that tomorrow sure would look more promising if Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman are able to unleash the considerable potential of the new programs they now run.