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A Requiem for Big 12 Football

Take it from someone who was there at the beginning: Big 12 members saw the conference not as an identity but as a host organism for their ambitions

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In the fall of 1996, I enrolled at the University of Texas for two reasons. The first was a Longhorns backfield that featured Ricky Williams. The second was the Big 12, a brand-new conference that started play that season. One of those things bent the arc of college football. The other was the Big 12.

But in ’96, that wasn’t obvious. After dropping my stuff in my dorm room, I bought a Big 12 T-shirt. I’m serious. As was my style at the time, the T-shirt was white. It was one or two sizes too large. The back of the shirt was covered with the unfamiliar logos of UT’s new conference pals. I made a note to find out why the Iowa State Cyclones were represented by a cardinal.

Texas Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams in 1998
Photo by Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

That fall, I wore the T-shirt all over campus. And I wore it with a mid-’90s, pre-internet pride of purchase. It was like the frat boys wearing University of South Carolina “Cocks” hats. Look at me, I was saying, with a hormonal smile. I’m a member of a megaconference.

Twenty-five years later, the most absurd thing about that shirt is the idea of Big 12 pride. Imagine that. Before Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving for the SEC this summer, the Big 12 was college football’s easiest punch line. The conference was described as “psychologically disadvantaged” by one of its own university presidents. During one of the many Big 12 defections, a source told a reporter the conference was “looking inward,” as if describing to People how a celebrity was holding up after a divorce.

It’s hard to write a requiem for Big 12 football. The conference has little common culture. It has no Big 12 TV network. No trolling chant like “S-E-C!” Big 12 members saw the conference not as an identity but as a host organism for their ambitions. The Big 12 excelled at the spread offense and failing to appease the Longhorns.

The best Big 12 writing takes the form of a why-our-team-left or what-do-the-survivors-do-now. As someone whose college fandom started with the birth of the conference, history has picked me to write a highly caveated appreciation. “I just want the Big 12, the conference that I played in, to still be in existence when it’s all said and done,” Heisman winner Robert Griffin III said on College GameDay last week. I wouldn’t go that far. I just want the Big 12 to be made fun of properly.

Texas Tech Adrian Ervin...
Texas Tech’s Adrian Ervin jumps over two K-State defenders in the first Big 12 football game, in 1996
Photo by Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

On August 31, 1996, Kansas State played Texas Tech in the first Big 12 football game. It was symbolic. Fans had only a vague sense of why the teams were playing each other. “Our recruiting will be better, according to the alumni packet I got,” a Red Raiders fan told a reporter. That could have been the Big 12’s motto: It just means moreaccording to the alumni packet I got.

The Big 12 specialized in future promises: of recruits, of TV money, of a shortcut to the playoff. The conference was designed that way. In the mid-’90s, the College Football Association, which negotiated schools’ TV contracts en masse, was in decline. The SEC and Notre Dame scored big deals on their own. Each conference faced a humbling test: How much are our TV rights—and, by extension, we—worth?

At the time, the Big Eight, a Midwestern conference that included Nebraska and Oklahoma, had a problem because its “markets” were on the small side. The Southwest Conference, a one-state league with Texas and Texas A&M, had a problem because it was the Southwest Conference. So the Big Eight would annex Texas, A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor (the last was negotiable). It would lay claim to 17 percent of American televisions. The new megaconference would solve the problems of both leagues, if also destroy them in the process.

Colorado V Texas A&M
Texas A&M players line up after a game in 1996
Getty Images

As founding principles go, that was as far as the Big 12 ever got. “This merger came about because separately the two entities couldn’t create the television contracts they needed,” Steve Hatchell, the Big 12’s first commissioner, admitted at the time. The new conference “could help bring stability to college sports,” another official said. That wound up being one of the funniest predictions of all time.

At the outset, Big 12 schools felt they were among college football’s winners, its elect. “The Big 12 will command a vast geographic sweep,” the Associated Press announced, “reaching from the Alamo to Pikes Peak, from the Gateway Arch along the Mississippi to the gently rolling Flint Hills of Kansas, from Iowa’s lush cornfields to the baking plains of West Texas.”

Like a startup flush with VC money, the Big 12 had a taste for grandiosity. An early logo was composed of Roman numerals, which Hatchell thought sent a “subliminal message.” Of an empire, perhaps: The Big Eight had been squatting on the copyright for “Big 14.”

Texas V Nebraska
Texas scores during the first Big 12 championship game, in 1996

The Big 12 was so perfectly built for the future that it didn’t need the past. “Really, what we’re talking about is a brand new conference,” Joe Castiglione, then Missouri’s athletic director, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Big Eight name was junked. The two-division structure meant Nebraska and Oklahoma, which had played each other for 71 straight years, no longer played every season.

It was worth asking: What was the Big 12 offering in lieu of history? “Tradition is not a concern,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said before the founding. “It’s business.” That could be the Big 12’s other motto.

In the fall of ’96, everyone seemed so new, at least to us Longhorns fans. That October, when the Oklahoma State Cowboys came to Austin, I wondered why they insisted on spelling the school’s full name in tiny type across the front of their jerseys. Three weeks later, I sat in falling snow at Folsom Field, surrounded by Colorado fans chanting, “Fuck ’em up, fuck ’em up, go CU!” As an idea, the Big 12 seemed incredibly cool.

At the start of that season, six of the 12 teams were ranked in the AP Top 25. Nebraska was ranked no. 1. If the initial TV deal meant Texas schools took an uneven cut of the money, well, surely that could be worked out down the line. K-State president Jon Wefald said of the Big 12: “It is certainly the equal of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten and”—note the emphasis—“clearly the equal of the Southeastern Conference.” ESPN’s Lee Corso proclaimed: “It could go down as the greatest conference in the history of college football.”

Texas QB Vince Young, 2005 Big 12 Championship
Vince Young in 2005
Photo by John Biever/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Today, when that honor is applied to the SEC, you hear people say that Big 12 football sucks. That’s close to libel. Big 12 football doesn’t suck—not exactly, anyway. And it certainly didn’t suck at the beginning.

Starting in 1998, the Bowl Championship Series paired two teams to play for the national title. Big 12 teams appeared in five of the first eight games, winning two championships. Not bad, even if the list includes the 2001 Cornhuskers. In 25 years, Big 12 players won the Heisman Trophy seven times.

These days, the best way to insult the Big 12 is to point to its comical lack of NFL draft picks. (This spring, the SEC had 65 to the Big 12’s 22.) Fair enough. But … did everybody forget about Vince Young? Did they forget Adrian Peterson? Adrian Peterson as a freshman?

If you have a hazy memory of what Big 12 football was like, it may be helpful to see a list. Big 12 Heisman winners include Ricky Williams, Sam Bradford, RGIII, Baker Mayfield, and Kyler Murray. The deeper and maybe richer non-Heisman strata includes: Young, Peterson, Patrick Mahomes, Ndamukong Suh, Von Miller, Jamaal Charles, Dez Bryant, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Crabtree, Ryan Tannehill, Seneca Wallace, Mark Simoneau (look him up), Michael Bishop, Grant Wistrom, and two Roy Williamses.

Kansas State at Baylor
Robert Griffin III in 2010
Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Would it have been nice to have more depth, especially in recent years? Sure. But in 25 years of Big 12 football, I never felt it lacked bad-ass football players.

Part of the fun of being a Big 12 fan was the way schools churned out specific types. Oklahoma State wide receivers imposed their will on your defenders. Pint-sized Kansas State running backs (Darren Sproles, Deuce Vaughn) ran under their legs.

One of the Big 12’s great embarrassments was that it didn’t always have enough members to hold a conference title game. When it did, the game was wonderfully topsy-turvy. In the first one, Nebraska lost to Texas, a 20-point underdog. (I listened to Brent Musburger’s warbling call from my dorm room.) Two years later, Texas A&M beat undefeated K-State. (Now hipper and more worldly, I watched from an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. I might have worn the T-shirt.) In 2003, Kansas State beat no. 1 Oklahoma. Four years later, Oklahoma beat no. 1 Missouri.

The idea of an underdog screwing up everything is perhaps what pushed Big 12 teams with little history closest to true, glorious hate. In 2009, Nebraska looked like it had beaten undefeated Texas in the title game. But officials put one second back on the clock, and the Longhorns kicked the winning field goal. Bo Pelini, who was Nebraska’s head coach, offered a conspiracy theory in which it was a Big 12 official, not a replay official, who “reached over and hit the button.” Pelini offered that theory last month.

Kansas State v Oklahoma
Kansas State fans celebrate during the 2003 Big 12 championship game
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It was through X’s and O’s that the Big 12 nearly cobbled together a common culture. The culture was the spread offense. Texas schools helped the conference access a supply of high school quarterbacks. When used properly (RGIII, Missouri’s Chase Daniel, Kansas’s Todd Reesing), those quarterbacks helped make their teams incredibly good. Or, in the case of Mayfield and Murray, kept them that way.

Sometimes, I had the feeling that high-scoring football was more fun than good. In 2016, only two Big 12 teams finished in the top 50 nationally in team defense. But the kind of football the Big 12 was playing turned out to be influential. After Alabama beat Texas in the 2010 national championship game—the last appearance for a Big 12 team—Mack Brown installed more pro-style, QB-under-center sets like the Crimson Tide’s. Within a few years, Nick Saban had installed a passing attack more like the Longhorns’.

The kind of spread concepts that took root in the Big 12 didn’t just influence college football. They were used in the NFL, too. In 2018, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark noted, “Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley watched the Super Bowl, and he saw a Big 12 football game.” By at least one measure, the Big 12 had scoreboard.

Akron v Oklahoma
Baker Mayfield in 2015

I’m not that interested in who killed the Big 12. Partly because the unequal TV revenue is coming from inside Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. I’m more interested in how the conference’s defections, which began in 2010, were nearly identical. In the Big 12, the way to break up was to say, “It’s not me. It’s you.”

The Big 12’s period of decline has been grueling but also pretty entertaining. A lot of hate was thrown around by teams that weren’t going to play each other much longer. “I’m not going to say anything bad about the Big 12,” Missouri governor Jay Nixon promised in 2009. Then he insulted the academics at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

The next summer, the Pac-10 tried to steal six Big 12 schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. Five schools, led by Texas, ultimately decided to stay.

Two schools actually left. Colorado accepted the Pac-10’s invitation; Nebraska announced it was going to the Big Ten. “Some of the schools that were urging us to stay,” said Nebraska AD and former coach Tom Osborne, “we found some of them had talked to not only one other conference or two but even three.”

The remaining Big 12 schools kept their lesser, “Tier 3” media rights. It was a sign of Texas’s singular place within the conference, and ESPN’s voracious desire to win the cable wars, that ESPN paid Texas $300 million to create the Longhorn Network in 2011. “Fox was ascendant in the Pac-12,” former ESPN president John Skipper explained recently. “We didn’t want to see Texas go to the Pac-12.”

Texas Tech University vs Oklahoma State University
Michael Crabtree in 2008
Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

In the fall of 2011, Texas A&M and Missouri announced they were going to the SEC. The next year, the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia. Texas and Oklahoma signed on to a 13-year “grant of rights,” a mutually-assured-destruction pact that kept the conference intact. Until Texas and OU decided to leave.

For a decade, Big 12 officials have led the NCAA in everything-is-fine quotes. Some personal favorites: “The lava is cooling.” “We’re tweaking, fine-tuning, if you will.” “We’re back at a point where we can have [the Big 12’s] personality shine through.” The conference freshened up its Roman numerals.

If the Big 12 was created for a television deal, I’m not sure how much TV ever did for the conference. Today, ESPN and Fox both show Big 12 football games. Instead of doubling the conference’s exposure, the arrangement has the odd effect of cutting it in half. (If you’ve never heard Dave Lapham call a game, you don’t know what hell feels like.)

The Big 12 was undone by TV, too. In May, ESPN and Fox refused to open early negotiations for new deals, which signaled Texas and Oklahoma’s departure for the SEC. Later, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a letter accusing ESPN of treachery—the equivalent of a robot turning on its creator.

Big 12 Championship - Oklahoma v Missouri
Missouri fans before the Big 12 championship game in 2007
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For most of 25 years, I loved Big 12 football. I was bummed when Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri left the conference. Whatever enticements lie ahead in the SEC, I’m kinda sad about Texas and OU leaving, too. A lot of years, Iowa State and Kansas State and Texas Tech and Baylor did nothing except beat the traditional “powers.”

But it’s clear the departing schools used the Big 12 as they always had. The Big 12 offered enough money and prestige until someone else could offer more. The Big 12 was a starter megaconference.

Last week, the eight remaining schools suffered two more slights. The Pac-12 declined to rescue any of them. They were excluded from an alliance formed by the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC. Perhaps the eight remaining teams would hold the conference together, the thinking went, forcing Texas and Oklahoma to pay $150 million in exit fees.

You could say that, in its death throes, the Big 12 finally found a common purpose. I’ve heard that one before. The Big 12 is a bunch of schools that barely wanted to be together who are now stuck with each other. There’s a T-shirt for that, too.