This is the third of a four part series written by Big 12 Insider Wendell Barnhouse, examining the events of the past 18 months that brought us to the current configuration of 10 institutions in the Big 12 Conference.
Threats From East And West
By Wendell Barnhouse | email@example.com
The Big 12 Conference's spring meetings for 2010 were scheduled for the first week of June in Kansas City. Typically a low-key gathering of league administrators, this assembly at the Intercontinental Hotel promised high drama. It delivered and then some.
About a week before, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe did an interview with a radio station in Kansas City. This comment got the most attention: "I think we need to have a very frank conversation about where we're going and who's going to be on the plane when we take off."
The commissioner expanded on that theme during an extensive interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune.
"I want there to be a time - on our time schedule, not any other conference or entity's time schedule - where we say, Okay, here's who's committed to this conference, and we're going forward and we're going to continue to prepare for our negotiations with television next spring," Beebe said.
On Thursday, June 5, the meetings were moving toward critical mass. The athletic directors and school presidents were scheduled to hold joint meetings. That afternoon, Orangebloods.com, a Rivals.com site dedicated to UT sports, reported that the Pac-10 was prepared to expand to 16 teams by inviting six Big 12 schools - Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Colorado.
"That news pretty much ended that day's meetings," said Donnie Duncan, a former Big 12 associate commissioner and one of Beebe's advisors during the crisis.
Nearly 40 media representatives became frustrated and curious when Beebe cancelled a scheduled news conference. Reading the tea leaves, many believed that the Pac-10's offer was a game changer for the Big 12's future.
The Big 12 presidents met Friday morning. While not contentious, the gathering was tense. It was analogous to a 12-hand game of poker. Good friends Nebraska president Harvey Perlman and Texas president William Powers basically asked each other to put their cards on the table. Was Nebraska leaving for the Big Ten? Was Texas (and other schools) leaving for the Pac-10? To answer Beebe's challenge, who was committed to the Big 12 and who was not?
"Nebraska was leaving no matter what," Duncan believes.
When Beebe met with the media Friday afternoon, he had little news to divulge but did say that a "process has been set." Translation: On behalf of the Conference, Beebe had started collecting boarding passes. The Conference's member schools had one week to commit to remaining in the Big 12.
A year later, Beebe recalled the reasons for drawing a line in the sand.
"We couldn't just sit and wait and I felt we had to call the question," he said. "We headed into that meeting needing to know who was going to be around for the future. The membership could have said, 'Let's wait.' But the board of directors agreed that we need to have a date when we would know who was committed to the conference."
Perlman and Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, over the previous weeks, had laid the ground work for the school's potential move to the Big Ten Conference. They had met with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at a secret location to measure the interest and fit on both sides.
The Big Ten, though, was in no rush and wanted to follow its own timetable for expansion. After the Big 12 meetings on June 4, Nebraska faced a dilemma.
As he drove home to Lincoln, Perlman called Big Ten commissioner Delany. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Perlman told Delany, "This is not an ultimatum to you, but … if I don't have something definitive from the Big Ten, I'll have to commit to the Big 12."
Orangebloods.com dubbed the time as "The Big 12 Missile Crisis." To paraphrase the title of another political thriller, it was also "Ten Days in June." It was a time when a conference - and even the future alignment of college athletics - hung in the balance.
As the Big 12 teetered on the brink of extinction in June of 2010, it appeared that Baylor would be left standing when the game of musical chairs ended. Texas politics had played a role when the Big 12 was created in 1994 as the Legislature forced Texas Tech and Baylor to be included. Political maneuvering again played a role in June 2010.
Baylor's new president was no stranger to the heat of a political battle. After leading the investigation/prosecution of a sitting president, Ken Starr had the moxie needed to rally the forces to keep Baylor's best interests in play.
"We were energetic and comprehensive; we made it obvious that there was a clear and present danger, that we needed to rally together," Starr said recently. "We worked very hard to ensure that all of our Baylor alumni in the Legislature were fully informed. They were galvanized by that knowledge.
"It was crisis management, but this was unique because there were so many moving parts and there were so many elements of the drama."
The Pacific-10 Conference made the first move on Wednesday, June 9 when it issued an invitation to Colorado. The Boulder-based school had always felt more aligned with the Pac-10 - in 1994, CU's board of regents approved joining the Big 12 by just a 5-4 vote.
By issuing a single invitation (that was sure to be accepted) to Colorado, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott hoped to quell the groundswell to make sure that Baylor wasn't left out.
The first domino had tipped. Wednesday night, Donnie Duncan received a call from Beebe, who sensed that the Big 12 was crumbling. "He was very emotional," Duncan recalled. "He felt he had let the (conference office) staff down."
On Thursday June 10, Colorado accepted the Pac-10's invitation. Nebraska called a news conference for Friday June 11. The Huskers were about to join the Big Ten.
News of the Big 12's imminent demise was sizzling across the Internet. Beebe, though, planned to compete until there was no longer a reason to compete. Despite the media reports, Beebe didn't believe the game was over.
The weekend of June 12-13 determined the future and the fate of the Big 12. Beebe assembled his advisors at a DFW Airport hotel to prepare the last-ditch defense. Meanwhile, Scott and Pac-10 deputy commissioner Kevin Weiberg - the Big 12 commissioner who had preceded Beebe - began a Texas Tour to visit its three target schools.
The Pac-10 officials were warmly greeted in Lubbock but there was trouble ahead in Austin and College Station.
A group of Texas A&M regents, with former coach Gene Stallings being the most vocal, was angry over the perception that A&M was "following" wherever Texas led. If the Big 12 was to crumble, those regents were pushing for a move to the Southeastern Conference - with Oklahoma potentially becoming a partner to jump to the SEC.
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and women's athletic director Chris Plonsky were sensing the huge negative reaction/perception. Texas would be viewed as not only breaking up the Big 12 but also ending the 100-year rivalry with Texas A&M. There was also word that if A&M and Oklahoma didn't want to join the Pac-10, Scott was ready with substitute invitations. That increased the unsettled feelings for UT leaders.
Also, Texas had advanced its idea of a Longhorn network. Scott wanted all of his member schools to assign all their television rights to the Pac-10 - he was envisioning starting a conference network that would serve his expanded league.
Plus, out of the public eye, the Texas Legislature was flexing its considerable muscles.
State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, called a meeting for Wednesday, June 16, "to discuss matters pertaining to higher education, including collegiate athletics. Invited testimony only." Officials from Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech plus other schools in the state as well as collegiate conference officials were scheduled to give "invited testimony only."
"Chairman Branch and House Speaker Joe Strauss and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst understood that this was an enormous public policy issue that would impact the welfare of hundreds of student-athletes," Starr said.
While Scott and Weiberg were touring the state, Beebe and his advisors were preparing to play what they believed was their ace in the hole. He was communicating with ABC/ESPN television officials about the future of a 10-team Big 12, a conference without Nebraska and Colorado and without a championship football game.
Beebe needed to know if losing Nebraska, Colorado and the championship game would result in reduced money in the conference's current deal with ABC/ESPN. A reduction in revenue would certainly be the final excuse needed for teams interested in leaving for greener conferences. However, if ABC/ESPN agreed to leave the contract unchanged, the continuing 10 schools would get larger shares without splitting TV revenue 12 ways.
Also that weekend, administrators from five Big 12 schools were meeting in Kansas City. If the Big 12 dissolved, Baylor, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State were in danger of being cast adrift with unattractive options for new conference homes. The five schools sent word they would forfeit their exit fee penalties from Nebraska and Colorado with that money going to bolstering revenue shares for Texas and Texas A&M.
Joel Lulla, the Big 12's television strategist, arrived at DFW Sunday morning. The major players in the TV drama convened at a DFW airport hotel. ESPN representatives were in one room, FOX reps were in another and Beebe's advisors were in the "war room."
"On Saturday ESPN had agreed to not reduce our money," Lulla said. "We were trying to stabilize our TV deals. Dan talked with both ESPN and FOX about the kind of deal the Pac-10 recently signed. He wanted to tear up both existing deals and work out a joint deal with ESPN and FOX. ESPN resisted that.
"When we got ESPN to agree to not cut our right fees - they probably could have reduced our deal by $75 million to $100 million over the final six years of our deal- that put us in a better position because we were getting the same money and having to distribute it to two fewer schools.
"For ESPN, on a business level, it made a lot of sense. Also, they had already budgeted the money so they weren't going to lose any money."
As Beebe gathered information and assurances from the Big 12's television partners, he was providing updates to Big 12 schools "that had multiple options." By late Sunday afternoon, Beebe started to feel like the tide was turning.
"I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen anyone cooler under pressure than Dan," Lulla said. "The tension in that room was unbelievable. ESPN was reporting that the move of five Big 12 schools to the Pac-10 was 'imminent." But we knew the tide was turning. We were kind of laughing at what we thought was bad information. We didn't think we were being played by Texas because we were getting a lot of encouraging signs from Austin."
By Sunday evening, the word from Austin was that Texas was leaning toward standing pat Beebe officially got the good word from Texas president William Powers Monday afternoon.
"I cannot remember a single event in intercollegiate athletics where the focus came on one individual so unfairly," Duncan said. "I've never seen one person subjugated to having an image portrayed that was 180 degrees from who the man is.
"Dan stayed ahead of the game. And he won the game."
Next: Looking To The Future