The Big 12 fulfilled its promise and then some during the most recent decade.
Two national championships and five other trips to the BCS title game proved that the conference had earned its rightful position among the nation’s best in its first full decade of play.
How its teams did it was most interesting. The conference was transformed from its run-heavy roots from the Big Eight and Southwest conference beginnings into a cutting-edge passing league where high-powered aerial attacks captured the nation’s attention.
In 2000, the Big 12 had only five teams ranked among the top 54 teams in passing and none higher than 11th. By 2008, the conference had five teams ranked among the top eight passing teams in the nation and 10 among the nation’s top 38.
Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach deserves much of the credit for transforming the Big 12 from a ground-based conference to one where passing predominated. Leach helped convert Oklahoma when he arrived in 1999 as Bob Stoops’ offensive coordinator into the upcoming decade. After a season there, Leach continued his offensive mastery at Texas Tech, where he led the Red Raiders to a bowl game in every season of the decade before he was fired after the 2009 regular season.
That cost him a chance to become a coach who made it through his job during the entire decade. Only Stoops and Texas' Mack Brown remained at their jobs during the aughts -- understandable because of the enviable national programs both developed during the decade.
Stoops claimed six Big 12 titles and Brown won two championships to help account for a title tilt to the South Division as the decade progressed. In the first eight seasons of the conference, the Big 12 alternated between the South and North Division in titles. But since 2004, the Big 12’s title has been won by the South Division champion in every season.
The South has dominated in cross-division games, notching a 13-5 record in the most recent regular season. That continued a trend that has seen the South win the seasonal series against the North in seven of the last eight seasons.
Some of that has been because of the turnover at North programs. Nebraska went from playing for a national championship in 2001 under Frank Solich to seeing the former Cornhusker legend fired less than two seasons later. The Bill Callahan era represented a step backward from that, but Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers pointed back to national prominence after only two seasons.
Colorado claimed four North titles in a five-season span, but let Gary Barnett go after the last of those championship-game losses. The Buffaloes haven’t been back to the title game since.
And Bill Snyder, the last North coach to win a Big 12 championship, returned to prowl the sideline at Kansas State last season, restarting his career after a three-season sabbatical.
The conference’s star power was best shown in 2008 when Sam Bradford claimed the Heisman Trophy and the conference produced an unprecedented four of the top five Heisman finishers that season. Bradford was one of three Big 12 Heisman winners during the decade joining Eric Crouch in 2001 and Jason White in 2003.
The Big 12’s transition to an offensive juggernaut has helped capture the attention of the NFL. The conference notched a record seven first-round picks in the 2009 draft and likely will produce even more in the upcoming draft.
Kevin Weiberg resigned in 2007 to assume a position helping start the Big Ten’s cable television network. He was replaced by assistant Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who immediately inherited the challenge of trying to unify a conference where an uneven revenue sharing plan has been a point of controversy since the conference began. It remains the conference’s biggest trigger point -- as it has since the creation of the conference.
The conference has fallen behind the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten in its national exposure, lagging behind those conferences as they have settled their immediate television concerns.
That proposition will be Beebe’s biggest upcoming challenge into the current decade. A quick and equitable resolution will be a key factor in the Big 12’s potential for growth in upcoming years.