Batman had The Joker.
Larry Bird had Magic Johnson.
And the Big 12 itself once featured several tradition-rich rivalries.
Yet after Rounds 1 and 2 of conference realignment completely transformed the league, the Big 12 no longer is flush with those rivalries.
Texas lost its Thanksgiving showdown with Texas A&M.
Irresistible Oklahoma lost immovable Nebraska.
And Kansas lost the Border War with Missouri.
Other once budding rivalries – like Kansas State-Nebraska and Texas Tech-Texas A&M – fostered during the Big 12 era were also destroyed. Even Big 12 newcomer West Virginia had to join the conference at the expense of eliminating its Backyard Brawl with Pittsburgh.
Sure, the Big 12 retained the Red River Showdown, one of the most iconic competitions in all of sport. And Bedlam has become one of the most thrilling games in college football since the turn of the millennium with the rise of Oklahoma State.
But in the wake of realignment, only four rivalries left standing within the league actually award trophies: Oklahoma-Texas (Golden Hat), Bedlam (Bedlam Bell) Kansas State-Kansas (Governor’s Cup) and Texas-Texas Tech (Chancellor's Spurs). That pales in comparison to the Big Ten, which puts 13 trophies on the line every year.
Meanwhile, Big 12 fans have been robbed of watching their schools play for bragging rights. And the league has been stripped of opportunities to stage high-profile games, that otherwise could have left impressions on college football’s new playoff selection committee.
“I think rivalries, they’re traditional, and also significant to people that pay to get into the stands,” said Kansas State coach Bill Snyder. “I don’t think you go out and say we’re going to create a rivalry.”
But that’s the challenge the Big 12 faces as it banks full steam into the One True Champion era. And as Snyder pointed out, rivalries are more easily annihilated than cultivated.
“I think new rivalries just need to be developed, new traditions need to be developed,” said Texas Tech Kliff Kingsbury. “That’s part of change, when conferences change. I think we’ll get there.”
But who, how and when?
A good rivalry starts with a good name and that’s exactly what Kansas State and Iowa State have in Farmageddon, whose 98th meeting will be staged Saturday in the Big 12’s first conference meeting of 2014.
Yet even Snyder this week shot down the notion that the Wildcats have a rivalry with the Cyclones.
“It hasn’t developed that way in my eyes; I don’t think so,” said Snyder, who has lost to Iowa State just three times since taking over at Kansas State in 1989.
Snyder gave more credence to the Sunflower Showdown with the Jayhawks because of the instate connection. And Kansas coach Charlie Weis stated the Jayhawks are fine without Missouri because they still have Kansas State.
“We're not hurting for a rivalry game,” Weis said. “We've got one about 90 miles down the road.”
But Kansas State has beaten Kansas by an average margin of 32 points a game the last five years as the Jayhawks – and the Sunflower Showdown with it – have floated off into obscurity, leaving remnants of the Big 12 North without a noteworthy game.
“What can you do about it, what should you do about it? I don’t have the answer for that,” Snyder said. “Maybe you create new rivalries with the current environment and arrangement as it is, but that too will change over a period of time.”
Change has reunited old Southwestern Conference foes again, which could be where the future of marquee Big 12 rivalries lies. Between them , Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor have played 486 games all-time.
The Longhorns have replaced Texas A&M by rotating TCU and Texas Tech in their Thanksgiving game. Baylor and Texas Tech have been holding their annual shootout in Arlington, Texas. And the Horned Frogs and Bears have generated heat lately with coaches Gary Patterson and Art Briles feuding after last season’s dramatic 41-38 affair.
“I think people are always going to want to see Texas-Texas A&M, Texas Tech-Texas A&M, because intrastate games are so fun for the fans,” Kingsbury said. “But things will be developed in time within this conference.”
Maybe so. But a supporting solution would be rekindling those longtime rivalries that now fall outside the conference. That would be especially beneficial to West Virginia, which has virtually no long-term history or regional connection within the conference. Athletic director Oliver Luck, who has already added Penn State and Virginia Tech to future schedules, has expressed hope he’ll be able to revive the Backyard Brawl.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma and Nebraska already have an agreement in place to bring back the Battle of the Big Reds in 2021-22. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt has noted there’s mutual interest in scheduling a future date with Texas A&M. And someday, political pressure will force the Longhorns and Aggies to stop pouting in their corners.
But until time cures such ills, the Big 12 will have to make do with what it has. And wait for those rivalries to redevelop. And, to return.