Talking points were plentiful, positive and the least of Dan Beebe's concerns. As calendars prepared to flip from 2009 to 2010, the Big 12 Conference and its commissioner had their competitive ducks in a row.
The 12-school conference was a teenager producing prime-of-life success. Beebe, who had become the conference's Big Guy in September of 2007, had at his fingertips factoids that he could use to build a strong case that the Big 12 was college sports' strongest in terms of across-the-board, on-field success.
In mid-December of 2009, Texas was headed to the Bowl Championship Series championship game. The Longhorns were following Oklahoma, which had participated in college football's "super bowl" the previous year. UT and OU, the Red River Rivals, had produced recent national championships (the Sooners in 2000, the Longhorns in 2005).
During the new century's first decade, Big 12 football had perennially produced a national title contender - Texas was the fifth to play for the crystal football in seven seasons - and four Heisman Trophies. In 2008, Heisman history was made when OU quarterback Sam Bradford won the award and four of the top five vote-getters were from Big 12 schools.
In December of 2009, the Big 12 had made conference history by producing the nation's top two ranked men's basketball teams in Kansas and Texas. The Jayhawks had given the Big 12 its first national championship in men's basketball in '08 and the Conference had continued to burnish its national stature. Recruiting was attracting top talent as evidenced in unanimous national players of the year in 2007 (Kevin Durant of Texas) and 2009 (Blake Griffin of Oklahoma).
National media types who were paid to formulate such opinions as "which is the best conference" couldn't speak or type more than a few words before "Big 12" was mentioned.
Big 12 women's basketball was a ticket seller's dream, leading the nation in attendance and setting NCAA records. The departure of one superstar - Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, a scoring/rebounding machine who led the Sooners to the 2009 Final Four - was softened by the arrival of another, even brighter star. Baylor freshman Brittany Griner started her college career of November of '09. Her height (6-foot-8) was rare, but her talent was ground breaking. Griner could dunk, block shots, run the court, change the game.
The so-called minor sports (Olympic sports to the politically correct) were filling trophy cases. Texas A&M had won national championships in men's and women's outdoor track and field in June 2009 … just days after the Aggies' men's golf team had captured the national championship in dramatic fashion. In late November, Oklahoma State had won the NCAA men's cross country national title.
But below the surface of this success, there were fissures that threatened to blow with volcanic force. Ironically, the forces that brought together the 12 schools that created the Big 12 in February 1994 were nearly identical to what nearly ripped the Conference apart in the summer of 2010.
When the Supreme Court, in 1984, ruled that the NCAA's control of college football television was an anti-trust violation, the college landscape became the Wild West. By the mid-1990s, the Big Ten Conference had grown to 11 schools by adding Penn State, while the Southeastern Conference had become a 12-school league by adding South Carolina and Arkansas.
Arkansas' departure further weakened a Southwest Conference that was just recovering from a rash of NCAA sanctions in the 1980s. When Notre Dame signed a television deal with NBC and the Southeastern Conference signed up with CBS, the College Football Association disintegrated. The CFA had represented about 60 schools (mostly from the modern-day Bowl Championship Series conferences) in television negotiations.
The Big Eight Conference - Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State - was feeling vulnerable. The Big Eight had an above-average brand of football, but lacked the populace that draws TV viewers and ratings.
The SWC, with Arkansas' departure, was a one-state (Texas) conference. But it had top 10 markets in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston, with San Antonio a top 15 market. The SWC also had Texas and Texas A&M.
The original plan was for a 10-team league (sound familiar?) with Texas and Texas A&M joining the Big Eight schools. But the Texas Legislature demanded that Baylor and Texas Tech be included; thus, the Big 12 was born.
"It had to hit the ground running and in many ways it ran very well," Beebe said of the Big 12. "But in many ways it didn't get the chance to experience the natural growth that has benefitted other conferences."
In retrospect and with the advantage of hindsight, the Big 12 was a shotgun marriage, an arranged union that at times made the Capulets and the Montagues look like BFFLs. The Big Eight schools considered the Big 12 as an expansion of their old league, adding the four SWC teams. The four SWC teams considered it a completely new conference.
There was even a Christmas Eve rumor just a year into the union that Colorado was ready to flee to the Pac-10 … and that Texas might also be headed West.
From the first meetings of Big 12 administrators, the Conference quickly became a Texas vs. Nebraska, North vs. South hissing contest. Nebraska wound up in the North Division, Oklahoma in South - thus ending the yearly meeting of a storied rivalry. Nebraska wanted the Big 12 office in Kansas City; it wound up in Dallas. Nebraska backed Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick for commissioner; Steve Hatchell, the SWC boss, got the job. Nebraska also lost a battle over academic standards.
Those wounds never healed.
"From the very first day I met [Nebraska athletic director] Tom Osborne, he had concerns about the way the conference came together," said Beebe, who joined the Big 12 office in 2003 and became commissioner in September of 2007. "What Tom represented was a lot of angst about the Big 12, its formation and the things Nebraska was no longer able to do that they had done previously. … Even though that was 13, 14 years earlier, it still was obviously in his craw."
The Big 12 was like San Francisco in April of 1906. Both had been built along fault lines. In late 2009, tectonic plates located East and West of the Big 12 Conference were moving to create tremors that threatened to render the Big 12 a historical footnote.
Next: Threats From East And West