How did Big 12 become so dysfunctional?

Oct 1 2011 - 4:48pm

KANSAS CITY, MO. -- With each public statement since becoming the Big 12's interim commissioner, Chuck Neinas has talked about improving trust.

Schools have expressed a lack of confidence in the conference, privately pointed fingers at each other, and on a day set aside ostensibly for pledging unity, couldn't get their stories straight.

The Big 12's dysfunctional label sticks and the frustrations have spilled out, with no voice stronger than Missouri's Gary Pinkel. He has called the instability "sad" and "embarrassing" and noting that what the Big 12 has endured doesn't happen in other conferences.

Pinkel is correct. No other conference has endured recent high-profile defections like the Big 12, which bid farewell to Nebraska and Colorado last year and likely will do so to Texas A&M.

None of the power leagues have been driven to the brink of extinction, and that has happened to the Big 12 twice in 15 months.

The Big 12 seems to have so many advantages -- top-level competition in every sport, historically significant programs, tremendous athletes, Hall of Fame coaches, top facilities, an ideal time zone for media rights. So, why is it the loose screw of college sports?

For the answer, look to the conference's origin, and before.

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The commissioner's office is a good place to start.

The Big 12 has had three on a full-time basis -- Steve Hatchell, Kevin Weiberg and Dan Beebe. In the league's 15-plus years, none drove the conference with the same authority as Jim Delany of the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference's Mike Slive.

Was that by design?

Those who were around at the league's origin don't believe the Big 12 was sculpted with diminished powers in the commissioner's office, even though the culture of the NCAA at the time suggested a move toward more control by school presidents in the wake of athletic scandals.

"There were differences that needed to be settled," Hatchell said, "but we all worked together on them."

That in itself was a problem for the old guard Big Eight, which believed it was tossing a life preserver to Southwest Conference schools Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor.

Big Eight commissioner Carl James was fond of telling his members that the conference growth was going to happen in the same manner as his conference. Colorado made the Big Six the Big Seven, Oklahoma State made it the Big Eight. Nothing about the conference changed except the numbers. The league constitution and its location would remain the same, James said.

But the Big 12 was a merger. Both subsets needed each other. Each was in a footprint that controlled about eight percent of the nation's TV markets.

The league started on a bitter note to Big Eight members when Hatchell was selected as commissioner over Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick and the office was moved from Kansas City to Dallas.

Bigger disputes awaited. Nebraska, college football's dominant program at the time, favored a recruiting structure that would permit an unlimited number of partial qualifiers. The Cornhuskers had the academic infrastructure to help those players. Texas believed that would damage the league's academic reputation, and the Longhorns won the argument. Only one partial qualifier per year would be permitted.

But the Cornhuskers sided with Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M on a revenue sharing plan that favored the bigger budget programs. In the Big 12, half of television income would be shared equally. The other half went into an appearance pot. The more your team was selected for a television appearance, the more the cash register rang.

In later years, commissioners couldn't seem to move the schools in the same direction. Weiberg attempted to create a Big 12 television network. But he couldn't get a consensus and left for the Big Ten, where he helped form that conference's network, which is the industry standard.

Weiberg then moved to the Pac-12, and helped that conference acquire the largest media deal in college sports.

After the Big 12 lost Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, Beebe suggested a grant of rights that would have helped bind the conference by having schools turn over media rights to the league. But Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M said no.

Now, the conference has returned to the issue, with Boren announcing a six-year grant of rights for the Big 12, although it's uncertain whether all the schools have agreed.

Neinas won't be shy about sharing his opinion.

"I might be there for the interim," he said, "but if you look at my record I'm not afraid to make decisions."

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No, Neinas is not a wallflower.

He was on one side of a great divide in college sports, one that helped create the conditions for the formation of the Big 12.

It also cost him a friend.

After Neinas spoke to Boren last week about the interim position, he called his old friend Wayne Duke.

But Neinas and Duke, whose families were close and whose kids used to play basketball together in the driveway of Duke's house in Overland Park, Kan., parted ways about the future of college sports about a quarter-century ago and neither has budged from their stance.

Neinas became executive director of the College Football Association, and that group's most notable achievement was serving as the catalyst for the 1984 Supreme Court decision that ended the NCAA's control of televised college football.

The court ruled schools could own their media rights, and that spurred a wave of conference realignment in the 1990s. The Southeastern Conference added South Carolina and Arkansas, split into divisions and played the first league championship game. Penn State joined the Big Ten, the Big East added football.

"It's all one grab of television homes," former Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen told author Keith Dunnavant in the book The Fifty-Year Seduction. "It's not like-mindedness. It's solely a television-driven activity."

For the first time, the formation of conferences wasn't about collegiality, schools in a geographic area that shared similar academic missions.

They became business decisions, which, as the schools left behind in the old Southwest Conference -- TCU, Rice, Houston and SMU -- learned were cold and heartless. It was in that environment the Big 12 was created.

Duke, who served as commissioner of the equal-sharing Big Ten for nearly two decades, insists conferences could never work as a group of unequal partners in influence and finance.

"I worked with Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Bob Knight, some of the strongest personalities in college sports and we had our differences," Duke said. "But they believed in equal partners."

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Disputes happen in every conference. But in the strongest leagues, at the end of the day schools come to an agreement for the best interest of the group.

For the Big 12 to do as Neinas and move in that direction, the Longhorn Network becomes his biggest challenge.

ESPN and Texas stunned the Big 12 and college sports world when they announced the $300 million enterprise.

When the conference agreed that each school could retain the rights to one football game for a school-network broadcast, the Longhorn Network lined up a second game.

It took an edict from the NCAA and Big 12 to keep broadcasts of high school football games off the network, but the network shows highlights. The idea of showing any high school content infuriated Pinkel and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said no changes are planned to the network.

"I think that the concerns expressed by not only the Big 12 but other institutions as well seem to be about the high school highlights," Neinas told radio hosts Jack Arute and Mike Leach. "And the NCAA kind of put a kibosh on doing high school games. Well, the question is, don't highlights do the same? So I think that'll be addressed."

After a second brush with death, a sense starting over may be what the Big 12 needs. Neinas, 79, will visit every campus soon, and what he's likely to hear is an idea that probably should have been expressed with more emphasis at the origin.

If it's good for the Big 12 it's good for the members.

Not the other way around.

 

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