In the small town of McPherson, KS, on the corner of Ash St. and Kansas Ave. beams the “Globe Refiners” mural. This giant painting was made in homage to the AAU basketball team owned by the Lario Oil and Gas Company in the 1930s. While the AAU power would lose to the Universal Pictures Universals at the 1936 US Olympic tryouts by a heartbreaking score of 43-44, the Refiners would contribute six members to the 1936 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, the first team to win the Olympic gold medal. The mural in McPherson, along with a sculpture that stands outside the McPherson Community building, speak not only to the rich basketball heritage of the quant 14,000 person city, but exists as a microcosm of the larger truth that Kansas is a basketball state and the still epicenter of the new Big 12. When news broke last July that Texas and OU would be abandoning the Big 12, there was rightful speculation that it would mark the tipping point for mass conference reorganization and what will likely end up being the rise of super conferences. In the grand scheme of conference realignment we are currently living in an interesting phase as we are looking backwards at the signs that lead to this moment, currently reeling from changes and rumors of changes, but still unable to predict the future landscape. We are forced to just wait for the final storm to arrive and hope it settles itself sooner than later.
The movement of the Big 12 giants is not unique to history nor unique to the Big 12 itself. The Southwest Conference (SWC) was one of the staple athletic conferences having been established in 1914. Historically, the conference was made up of the Texas schools (Rice, SMU, Texas A&M University, Texas Christian, Baylor, UT, and Texas Tech) and the University of Arkansas. As NCAA scandal weaved its way through the SWC in the 80s keeping an ever present black mark on the conference coupled with a decline in football bowl game wins, Arkansas did at the time the unthinkable and announced its departure for the SEC. That decision would become the proverbial beginning of the end for the Southwestern Conference. The decision in 1990 by Arkansas opened the floodgates as other conferences began to act as opportunists and the remaining SWC schools would respond in desperation as their conference was falling apart. The Big Eight would extend their loving arms to Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Tech and rebrand as the Big 12, while SMU, TCU, and Rice would join the WAC. When July 2021 came around it was with Churchill in mind, eerily similar comparisons were drawn to the SWC causing talking heads, fearful fans, and uncomfortable AD’s to think that the Big 12 would now be doomed to repeat history. It seemed that Texas and OU, the lifeblood of the conference especially in terms of football, were doing more than picking up their toys to play in someone else’s sandbox, they were taking a bulldozer to the the whole playground on their way out. So how is it that one year later the conference has gone from assured collapse to “there is no doubt the Big 12 is open for business?”
I’m terrible at poker. Which has its benefits because I always get invited to play since I’m a sure thing. Everything I’ve ever learned about betting, which isn’t much, has come from watching kitchen table cards, the movies, or reading casino.org. Seeing as how I have no aspiration to gamble that’s all the effort I’ve really ever wanted to put in, but I do know that in blackjack, there is a key betting maneuver called doubling-down. The advantage that doubling-down gives you is that you have the opportunity to double your bet in the middle of your hand. The best time to do this is when your cards total 11, but you never want to double-down when the dealer is showing an ace. What the Big 12 saw in the midst of their restructure was that they had 11 in their hands with basketball. Every team east of Tobacco Road has to go through Kansas and the Big 12. With the previous two national championships being owned by KU and Baylor, the conference was able to double-down with the additions of current power Houston and perennial tournament goers BYU and Cincinnati. The conference will rack up tournament wins for the foreseeable future and that’s even if they don’t continue to grow. What the Big 12 also recognized was that neither Texas nor OU were aces. While the loss of UT money and branding will be a hit, the Longhorns view themselves like the state of Texas views itself, as it’s own empire, and the Big 12 is now able to shed an overrated institution that has seen its two money sports live in mediocrity for the past decade, and dump the silly Longhorn Network with it. The conference will feel the loss of OU much more than Texas as it’s made 4 College Football Playoffs, but with the Bix 12 effectively playing with house money in basketball they were able to parlay some crazy bets in football without anyone realizing how much they are about to haul in.
When the College Football Playoff began its inaugural tournament in 2014-2015 the Big 12 didn’t have a conference championship game which was a major factor in neither 11-1 Baylor nor 11-1 TCU getting into the tournament. This led to the Big 12, along with the ACC, developing legislation to allow them to have a championship game. Although Oklahoma has dominated through the introduction of the Big 12 Championship game, the teams that are joining the conference along with a few Big 12 staples are primed to usher in a new era: 2015-2016 Houston 12-1, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 UCF 12-0, 2020-2021 Cincinnati 8-0 and Texas A&M 8-1, 2021-2022 Baylor 11-2 and dethroning OU as Big 12 kings, and of course 2021-2022 Cincinnati making history going 13-0 and becoming the first Group of Five team to appear in the CFP. In the midst of that, don’t forget that Houston and UCF both dumped SEC teams for bowl wins last season. Stacking up all the bowl games from 2021-2022 under the new alignment which means giving Texas and OU to the SEC while Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, and BYU count towards the Big 12, the Big 12 went 6-4 and the SEC 6-7. What’s even more interesting though is that head to head the New Big 12 overwhelmed the New SEC going 5-2. Of course to the winner goes the spoils in terms of the National Championship, but the Big 12 conference seems to know where the advantage lies and it’s with them, not the house.
There’s no indication of a football championship murals coming to Kansas anytime soon, but while the Big 12’s basketball prowess continues to spread all the way to Waco and Lubbock and Morgantown, and soon to be Houston and Provo, you can’t sleep on football. Basketball is a sure thing, but there’s no reason to hedge a bet on the Big 12 becoming a major player in NCAAF and the CFP too. Even though I’m no Johnny Moss or Stu Unger I know who my money is on and that’s because I know who has the ace up their sleeve.