Interesting Article on the Big 12 Formation
It's hard to keep a secret around the state Capitol, especially when legislative talk turns from taxes to football.
So, in early 1994, when the buzz began that Texas and Texas A&M were preparing to leave the Southwest Conference, David Sibley went straight to a man he knew wouldn't deceive him.
Sibley, then a Republican state senator from Waco, buttonholed William Cunningham, the University of Texas chancellor, at a reception. He asked him point blank if the rumors that the Longhorns and Aggies were planning to desert the SWC were true. Cunningham asked Sibley where he had heard that. He questioned the sources of the rumors. He tried to change the subject.
What he didn't do was deny it. To Sibley, that was proof enough that something was up — something that wasn't going to sit well with state politicos with allegiances to either the six soon-to-be snubbed SWC universities or the communities served by those schools. Or, as was the case with Baylor graduate Sibley, to both. It was time, as one state politician with a vested interest in the matter later recalled, "to turn loose the dogs of war."
The pack included Dobermans, a veritable who's who of Baylor and Texas Tech alumni. Ann Richards, then governor, and Bob Bullock, then lieutenant governor, were Baylor grads. Sibley held a high-ranking position on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Tech unleashed its own influential alums: John Montford, president pro tempore of the Senate; Robert Junell, destined to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Speaker of the House Pete Laney.
Sibley threatened a cut in funding for UT and A&M if they bolted on their own. Junell collared UT president Robert Berdahl and spelled out what was at stake.
"As I recall, it wasn't a very veiled threat to cut budgets if Tech was left behind," Berdahl recalls.
Laney doesn't recall any hints of reprisal. "We'd be a whole lot easier to get along with if our teams were in there, but I don't think there were any threats," Laney said. "We (the legislators) are temporary. We'll be replaced sooner or later."
Bullock, who died in 1999, took the lead in galvanizing the Tech and Baylor factions. He called Bernard Rappaport, a Waco businessman then serving on the UT Board of Regents. Rappaport confirmed that UT's absorption into the Big Eight was imminent.
Bullock went to work.
It was Monday, Feb. 20, 1994 — Presidents' Day, a state holiday. Bullock began rounding up his troops. He called Cunningham and requested an immediate meeting. William Mobley, A&M's chancellor, and Dean Gage, A&M's interim president, were in Temple on a facilities tour when Bullock reached them by phone. Bullock wanted to talk — now. Mobley and Gage replied that they couldn't fit it into their schedules.
Bullock bristled. "I would think that if the Lieutenant Governor requested a meeting you would show him the courtesy," Bullock said angrily. Then he slammed down the phone. Minutes later, the phone rang. Mobley and Gage had suddenly found time to talk.
The plot revealed
The group convened in Bullock's office in a state building next to the Capitol. On hand were Bullock, Cunningham, Sibley, Montford, Mobley, Gage and Bill Clayton, a former house speaker who now sat on A&M's board of regents.
Cunningham told Bullock that, indeed, UT was on the verge of joining the Big Eight. By then, Bullock and the others were prepared to act — prepared to wield the monolithic clout that stems from rural politics and lengthy tenure — to buy Baylor and Tech passage out of the doomed SWC.
The four other SWC schools — SMU, TCU, Rice and Houston, all based in metropolitan communities — found few advocates for their interests.
The fate of the three private schools in the group — SMU, TCU and Rice — was of little concern to the decision-makers in Austin.
Even among the four breakaway schools, unity was difficult to attain. One sticking point for a four-way exodus from the SWC was A&M, which still clung to aspirations of joining recently departed SWC member Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference.
According to witnesses — and also Clayton's testimony in the 1996 misappropriation of funds trial of former A&M regents chairman Ross Margraves — Clayton balked at the idea of the Aggies joining the Big Eight.
"No, you're wrong about that" Bullock told him. "You need to come with us to the Big Eight."
It so happened that A&M needed two votes from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which governs construction projects at state colleges, to proceed with the construction of its $33.4 million basketball and convocation facility, which became Reed Arena.
"Don't worry about it," Bullock told Clayton. "I'll get them for you tomorrow."
On Feb. 24 — just four days after Bullock's round of emergency phone calls — the Big Eight officially absorbed UT, A&M, Baylor and Tech, and a new league was formed, using a name the Big Eight had curiously trademarked years earlier: The Big 12.
That Capitol intrigue ended a revolt that had been in the works since the late 1980s, when UT and A&M officials first considered leaving the SWC.
First, the Longhorns looked west, to the Pac-10. Berdahl found it appealing that seven of the 10 schools in the Pac-10 were members of the American Association of Universities, a group comprised of the nation's top 62 research universities.
Distance was the main drawback. The University of Arizona, located in Tucson, was the nearest Pac-10 school to Austin — and still 788 miles away. Eight of the 10 schools were in the Pacific Time Zone, meaning a two-hour time gap with most of Texas.
"Texas wanted desperately the academic patina that the Pac 10 yielded," recalls Berdahl, who went on to serve as chancellor at Pac-10 member California-Berkeley. "To be associated with UCLA, Stanford and Cal in academics was very desirable."
Still, expansion in the Pac-10 depended on unanimous approval of the member schools. And Stanford, which had long battled UT in athletics as well as academics, objected. For UT, the way west never materialized.
The Longhorns next turned to the Big Ten.
Having added Penn State in 1990, the Big Ten was now made of universities that, in the view of UT officials, matched UT's profile — large state schools with strong academic reputations. Berdahl liked the fact that 10 conference members belonged to the American Association of Universities.
Yet, distance remained a disadvantage. Iowa, the closest Big Ten school to Austin, was 856 miles away — but the appeal of having 10 of 12 schools in the same time zone was seen as a plus.
But after adding Penn State in 1990, Big Ten officials had put a four-year moratorium on expansion. Although admitting interest, Big Ten bosses ultimately rejected UT's overtures.
That left the SEC as a possible relocation target for the Longhorns — until Berdahl let it be known that UT wasn't interested because of the league's undistinguished academic profile. Only two of 12 schools in the SEC were American Association of Universities members and UT officials saw admissions standards to SEC schools as too lenient.
"We were quite interested in raising academic standards," Berdahl says. "And the Southeastern Conference had absolutely no interest in that."
A&M, meanwhile, had no qualms about flirting with the SEC. From the late 1980s on, administrators from A&M and LSU had several informal conversations about the Aggies joining the SEC. After talks with Miami broke down in 1990, the SEC's courtship with A&M grew more serious.
LSU athletic director Joe Dean telephoned his A&M counterpart John David Crow to discuss A&M's candidacy.
"Joe was going to sponsor us, do what was needed to be done," Crow said. "They would have liked to have had us."
At the NCAA Convention in Dallas in January 1993, Dean reportedly met with Dodds and Crow to discuss a possible two-school move. Dean later told reporters that he believed UT was "headed north" — to the Big Eight or Big Ten — while A&M was the "most logical addition to the SEC."
In response to reports of the meeting, a representative of A&M president William Mobley told reporters there had been no offer and "Dr. Mobley is firmly committed to the Southwest Conference."
But in August 1993, A&M regents chairman Margraves flew to LSU for his son's graduation, taking time to meet with LSU chancellor William Davis to discuss the possible migration of A&M — and Houston — into the SEC. Margraves later said he came away from the trip favoring a move.
The right fit
Despite the repeated wooing from both sides, however, the relationship was never consummated. A&M administrators, apparently fearful of a backlash if the school made the first move solo, held back. UT wasn't interested and a suitable partner from the SWC couldn't be found. The SEC, meanwhile, backed off on expansion.
"I don't think the powers that be wanted us to move alone, leave the Southwest Conference and its tradition," Crow said.
Mobley, now a professor of management at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says A&M's actions resulted from a strategic analysis of the SWC's future commissioned by the league's presidents after Arkansas departed.
"It was a complex decision, a matrix of academic, economic and political factors for all schools and conferences," Mobley said.
He added that those factors included academics and compliance, television money, scheduling and travel, existing natural rivalries and "support and political implications among various stakeholders including the Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature, Former Students, the Athletic Department, faculty, students, media, etc."
Almost by default the attentions of UT and A&M turned to the one major football conference that was geographically nearest and competitively dearest — the Big Eight.
It helped that UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds and Oklahoma athletic director Donnie Duncan were old friends. Dodds had once served as AD at Kansas State. And, of course, the Longhorns and Sooners were longtime rivals from annual October football showdowns in Dallas.
Acutely aware of how the fast-moving world of television negotiations was changing the face of conference affiliations, Dodds and Duncan had, since the late 1980s, chatted informally about the possibility of UT joining the Big Eight.
For a multitude of reasons, that move made the most sense. All of the Big Eight schools were in the Central Time Zone. The most distant school from Austin was Iowa State, 840 miles away. Like the SWC, the Big Eight was looking to improve revenues and in need of additional markets to increase its bargaining power for TV rights.
Still, the Big Eight wanted to expand to 10 teams, not nine, so each school could play a round-robin schedule in football and still have two non-conference games. UT needed an expansion partner and the obvious choice was A&M.
Both schools offered large alumni bases, rich tradition and solid academic reputations. Both excelled in a variety of sports other than football and basketball.
Within a week of the meeting of political heavyweights, the expansion twins became quadruplets with the forced acceptance of Baylor and Tech into what amounted to a merger deal. Almost immediately, the deal paid off.
On March 10, the Big 12 signed a five-year, $100 million deal with ABC and Liberty Sports to carry the league's football games.
Denial, then denied
Even as the fortunate four were cashing in, the forgotten four were reaching for their wallets — and having that chill-bump sensation of finding nothing.
"It was a bomb," then TCU AD Frank Windegger said, "dropped square on top of us."
Even when the administrators at TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston received advance confirmation from those involved, some still refused to believe it.
In February 1994, days before the league dissolved, SMU AD Forrest Gregg privately asked Dodds if the move was imminent. Dodds said yes.
Gregg told SMU president A. Kenneth Pye of the conversation. Pye responded that it couldn't be happening, because the other league presidents hadn't said anything about it. Two days later, it came true.
"We were in Dallas, with a long and illustrious tradition, and we thought that would work," Gregg said.
SMU wasn't alone in discovering that what it offered in positives was set off by what it promised in negatives.
SMU, TCU and Rice were private schools, and big conferences desire schools backed by state coffers. Houston, TCU and SMU still bore the stain of NCAA probation.
All thought they could deliver big television markets to a league in search of the same, but the Big 12 members felt that UT and A&M could deliver Dallas and Houston.
There were brief discussions about keeping the Southwest Conference alive, but nobody could agree on whom to invite. And the TV money was quickly drying up.
"There was a lot of indecision," said Steve Hatchell, who served as the last SWC commissioner then assumed the same duties with the Big 12. "Those four were not in the habit of looking around to find a place for themselves. The picture changed totally."
SMU, TCU and Rice headed to the Western Athletic Conference, a geographically widespread league that boasted one football national champion (BYU, in 1984) but modest accomplishments elsewhere.
Houston, believing its future was to the east — the school had once coveted an invitation to the SEC — cast its lot with a new league formed from the nucleus of the old Metro Conference, called Conference USA.
Baylor and Tech — one a private school, one a school that had to pull out the stops just to be admitted into the SWC 26 years earlier and neither in major television markets — were simply happy to be included in the Big 12.
"As luck and fate would have it, Texas Tech had some very powerful members of the legislature," said former Tech AD Bob Bockrath. "Candidly, if not for the influence, it'd be the Big 10 — that's taken, so some other name. I don't think Texas and A&M saw Tech and Baylor as equal partners."
Former Baylor AD **** Ellis said: "It was a battle of the haves and have-nots. Baylor, we kind of snuck in. I'm sure there's resentment from SMU, TCU and Rice."
While the forgotten four stewed about being jilted, the honeymoon that followed the marriage of the fortunate four and the Big Eight was short.
Officials of the new league were quickly saddled with two contentious issues: initial eligibility for athletes and arrangements for a football championship game.
The SWC expatriates wanted entrance requirements that were stiffer than those mandated by the NCAA. Nebraska, sustained through the years by more lenient standards, objected.
Suddenly, the process of forming the Big 12 became a clash of priorities and a dispute over how priorities shape integrity.
Cornhuskers fans howled about UT arrogance. UT supporters saw Nebraska's reluctance as a cynical, self-serving way to keep the Cornhuskers on top.
"Nebraska and Texas were jockeying for position," said Bill Byrne, the A&M AD who then held that position at Nebraska. "Nebraska was the 800-pound gorilla in the Big Eight. Texas was the 800-pound gorilla in the Southwest Conference."
In December of 1995, 10 months before the first Big 12 football game, the league's school presidents agreed to allow each Big 12 school to admit two male and two female partial qualifiers each season. Still, Nebraska officials wanted to delay implementation. League presidents voted 11-1 to put the rules into immediate effect.
That was the second major defeat for Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers had dominated Big Eight football — they won back-to-back national titles in that league's final two seasons — and they opposed the idea of a title game, fearing one upset could ruin a season.
In the summer of 1995, league presidents, warmed by the prospect of a title game providing another $10 million in revenue, voted 11-1 to put in a championship game.
Nebraska officials also blamed UT for the league's choice of Dallas as the site for league headquarters, a decision that dislodged the conference from its old Big Eight base in Kansas City. Adding to the early acrimony was the league's choice of Hatchell as the Big 12's first commissioner, another decision driven by Texas schools, Nebraska officials charged.
It was fitting that the first Big 12 championship game, held in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 1996, matched No. 3 Nebraska against 20-point underdog UT.
Even the ticket offices got into it.
In a conference call to set up the will-call ticket windows, a Big 12 official asked Nebraska's representatives what they needed. "Two tables and three chairs," came the reply.
He posed the same question to UT officials.
"Two tables and four chairs," said UT's ticket manager, earning a round of high-fives from his staff.
The underdog Longhorns, using a bold pass play on fourth and inches at their own 28-yard line in the final minutes, had the final say on the field, too, winning 37-27.
Nearly a decade later, Berdahl, an academician not normally given to moods of vengeance, can't contain himself when he recalls those early growing pains of the Big 12.
"It was," he says, "a real sweet victory."