Oklahoma is debating whether staying in the Big 12 or pursuing a move to the Pac-12 makes sense for the long-term stability of the school’s athletic interests, including weighing the idea of leaving the footprint of neighboring states that makes travel easier for the Sooners’ passionate fan base.
A source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com that the Sooners were perfectly happy in the Big 12, even after Nebraska left for the Big Ten, thanks to the conference’s new 13-year television deal with Fox worth $90 million annually and three remaining years on an existing contract with ESPN/ABC that was paying out $65 million a year. The money was split among 10 teams instead of 12, thanks to the loss of the Cornhuskers and Colorado, which ended up in the Pac-12.
However, Texas A&M’s announcement to leave the Big 12 next summer started the process of Oklahoma reconsidering its situation, the source said.
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Texas A&M’s letter to the Big 12 said that it would leave the conference on June 30, 2012, provided it receives an invitation to join another conference, the source said. The Southeastern Conference has not yet voted to extend an offer to the Aggies, meaning they could, conceivably, remain in the Big 12. But that is unlikely.
Oklahoma president David Boren created a stir Friday when he said that the Sooners had interest from other conferences. But a source with knowledge said there is a lot of internal discussion about whether going to a 16-team super conference in football is the right decision for Oklahoma’s program.
The 10 remaining Big 12 schools were committed to remaining together until emotions became involved, the source said — pointing to Texas A&M’s stated frustrations with Texas’ Longhorn Network, which is run in partnership with ESPN. The source said the Oklahoma executive board became anxious about the school’s athletics stability after the Aggies announced their intention to leave.
A source within the Pac-12, who has knowledge of the conferece’s decision-making process, said the league doesn’t feel it needs to expand beyond its current structure. And another source questioned whether the Pac-12 would expand to 16 without both Oklahoma and Texas — especially the Longhorns. The Pac-12 signed a lucrative television contract worth $3 billion over 12 years with ESPN and Fox earlier this year, making the conference less likely to need to beg schools to join it.
One casualty of Texas and Oklahoma splitting up would be the Red River Rivalry, which dates back 111 years. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that “I don’t think it’s necessary” to keep playing.
“No one wants to hear that,” Stoops said. “But life changes. If it changes, you have to change with it, to whatever degree.”
But Stoops said it’s possible that conference realignment could affect the series the same way the inception of the Big 12 effectively ended OU’s annual rivalry with Nebraska.
“If it works, great, I love the game,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.
I’m not lobbying for anything. I’ll stick to whatever president [David] Boren and [athletic director] Joe Castiglione feel is best for the university. I’m all in.”
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A Pac-12 source reacted to Stoops’ comments Tuesday, saying, “Why is 16 inevitable? If we’re going to 16 there better be enough money. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk at all that we’re going to add more.”
The potential move toward a 16-team football conference is met with skepticism from some who have dealt with a large conference in the past.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson was atop the league when it had 16 football members from 1996 to ’98, playing three seasons before it dissolved once eight schools left to form the Mountain West. The WAC went to four “pods” to deal with scheduling.
“The two prerequisites for a 16-team league to survive is you have to have everyone committed going into it,” Benson said. “You can’t have any schools having any reservations. I’ve always believed that a 20-team league might be easier to manage. In a 20-team league you could have two 10-team divisions, everyone play nine games and then have a true champion. It would eliminate the imbalance in scheduling.
“Can a 16-team league work? It can work if all 16 schools want it to work,” Benson said. “The failure of the WAC was that there wasn’t enough money to keep some of the schools from feeling that there wasn’t equity in the league — enough to keep BYU and Utah happy. It imploded from within.”
The Big East is currently a 16-team basketball league, but it has only eight FBS-playing members.
If the Big 12 were to lose one to four members to various conferences, the Big East would likely swoop in to pick apart what is left. A source with knowledge of the situation said the Big East order would be Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State if it were to decide to go to 20 overall teams. TCU joins the league in all sports in 2012.
If the Big East added three more schools, in addition to TCU (which is set to join the conference next fall), it would have 12 football-playing schools.
“I can’t figure out why bigger is better,” former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “I don’t see it. Fewer conferences means more losers with so many teams in one league. It would be so hard to operate. I ask myself the same question since I was in the room with so many of these people: Where would the money come from that these schools would make more money going to 16?
“People have said to me that we were big, and we were, but we had no choice,” Tranghese said of expanding to 16 schools under his watch after the ACC grabbed Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. “These other conferences would have a choice. They’re electing to [possibly expand to 16 teams]. I haven’t figured out why. I don’t know why they want to get bigger but it seems like it’s headed in that direction.”
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Andy Katz on Twitter: @ESPNAndyKatz
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