The Big Eight Conference died at the ripe old age of 89 years. It had still been a strong conference when it was laid to rest in 1996. It had multi national champions in it as well as historical blue blood programs Nebraska and Oklahoma. If fact, while Oklahoma was struggling through the John Blake era, Nebraska was a national title contender in `96 and a national champion in 1997. The Big 8 didn’t die because it had become irrelevant, it perished because the landscape of college athletics was evolving.
When the Big 12 Conference replaced the Big 8 in 1996 it was widely believed that the modern era of college sports had arrived. It turns it, that era may not make it to it’s 30th birthday. Not because of relevance, finances, or a lack of blue blood programs, but because once again the landscape is changing and the conference has suffered through some stubbornness and poor management.
When the Big 12 thought it could survive with just ten teams, and avoided expansion in 2016, it pretty much dealt itself a fatal blow. Oklahoma remained the bell cow of the conference that it was to the Big 8 for the majority of its existence and everyone made a lot of money. Yet, a poor television contract, not natural rival for West Virginia, and a Texas football program that entered a period of irrelevance but yet still desired to steer the ship caused an unraveling that may not be able to be stopped.
Don’t get me wrong, the Big 12 could still succeed. Even in The Year of Covid each school took in roughly $34.5 million from the conference. In the 13 years prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic the conference schools saw an increase in revenue each year. With the pandemic winding down and stadiums anticipating full capacity once again for the 2021-2022 seasons Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby estimates that each school will yield over $40 million for the first time in the history of the conference.
Financially the conference is strong but fundamentally it faces serious challenges. Texas is going to continue to run other institutions the wrong way while it tries to get back to a place where it can carry its weight on the football field. Oklahoma is going to continue to get hosed with terrible kickoff times for its top games. Officiating will continue to rival the Pac 12 for the worst in college athletics. The Big 12 home office will remain apathetic to the issues at hand while it counts its cash. Yet, it could all still work it everyone agreed to make it so. However, it appears as if Oklahoma and Texas have had enough and aren’t willing to do so.
Rivals will raise an eyebrow in snark at the comment that Oklahoma has been the bell cow of the conference but 14 championships over the last 21 seasons, with strong potential of a 15th coming in 2021, prove the description to be accurate. One could legitimately question the relevance of the Big 12 football without the Sooners. It’s not bias, it’s not rhetoric, it’s fact. Yet the Sooners seem to be done and finally looking towards greener pastures.
On the heels of Wednesday’s news that the OU and UT are more than just flirting with the S.E.C. the rest of the Big 12 is scrambling for clarification and, ultimately, a survival plan. If the conference is going to make a last ditch effort to keep the two marquee athletic programs appeased it will need to be a really good one. While the conference is still functional, competitive, and profitable in it’s current format, the only way that I can see it surviving and moving forward from this is to immediately make plans to expand to better leverage the next round of television contracts. Anything short of that and the Big 12 will be buried in a grave next to the Big 8 because there’s no chance of survival without Oklahoma and Texas.
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