Ever since Big 12 Conference board of directors announced they were going to examine expansion candidates, the University of Houston has been considered one of the favorites to join the league.
The fact that Tom Herman’s Cougars are one of the hottest football brands in the Lone Star State with a new $128 million stadium, a preseason top-15 ranking and a 2016 recruiting class that finished with the highest ranking ever from the Group of 5 certainly helps Houston’s case for inclusion. But not everybody is excited about the possibility of the Cougars joining the Big 12.
Former Houston head coach and current Kansas State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel told reporters at the Wildcats’ football media day he didn’t like the idea of Houston joining the Big 12 because of the recruiting ramifications it might have on current conference teams.
“I think that would be really bad for everybody,” Dimel, who compiled an 8-26 record in three seasons as the Cougars’ coach, told The Wichita Eagle. “You can recruit Houston. If they get into the Big 12, they will be tough to beat in recruiting. I can’t believe anybody would want Houston.”
Dimel isn’t the only one that thinks that way. ESPN.com interviewed more than 10 Big 12 coaches, and the idea of having to recruit against UofH as a conference equal is something league coaches don’t like.
“If you put them in the Big 12, your trump card is deleted,” a West Virginia assistant said. “Schools recruiting against Houston can always use the ‘We’re in a Power 5 conference and they’re in the Group of 5’ strategy. Even if the kid doesn’t understand the difference, generally somebody in their life understands the difference.
“But that’s all gone if Houston gets in the Big 12. I can’t imagine any coach in this league would want to battle against that. They’re already tough enough to beat without a major-conference affiliation.”
A Kansas assistant agreed and said recruiting against another conference school in a major metropolitan area like Houston and in one of the league’s deepest talent pools would pose “a major threat” for current member schools because it’s “where the Big 12 schools gets a lot of their talent from.” He’s right. In the past four signing classes, the 10 Big 12 schools combined have averaged 28 signings per recruiting cycle from the Houston metro area and conference schools already have seven 2017 commits with signing day still more than five full months away.
“The advantage they have is location,” an Oklahoma State assistant said. “I think it does give them a leg up on the local talent, but like the coaches at TCU will tell you, you'd think they'd have a leg up on most of the Metroplex talent, but you can still go in there and pluck away some guys. It's a battle, but you can do it if. I think for places like Oklahoma State, it would make it a lot tougher to recruit in Houston, just because the distance between Stillwater and Houston, and now they'd have a Big 12 option in their backyard.”
But as an Oklahoma assistant said, Houston could also quickly become a “thorn in the side” of conference teams outside of their home city if it lands in the Big 12. Conference coaches believe Houston’s ability to have success in other parts of the state, places like the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and East Texas, multiply greatly if the Cougars are added to the league.
“They can sell, ‘You're not far from home’ and ‘Your parents are going to see you play all these games,’” a Texas Tech assistant said. “They'll be able to compete in Dallas, East Texas and in the Golden Triangle for sure. It'd be really competitive. It'll be a lot like us battling TCU and Baylor. It'll just add another person to the table there when it’s already crowded enough. It’s actually overcrowded.”
Big 12 coaches say it’s overcrowded because of the influence of the SEC on the Texas recruiting talent pool. Ever since Texas A&M entered the league, more and more SEC schools have made the Lone Star State a focus. Competing with the SEC schools and current Big 12 schools is already tough enough, but adding another Big 12 school to the equation complicates things even more.
“With the Big 12, our biggest nemesis is the SEC and the SEC coming into basically Texas and plucking away a lot of good football players, some of the best football players,” the OSU assistant said. “… So if you add another Big 12 school in a major metroplex like Houston, it would pose an issue just because they have another choice now. On even footing, you could still have some success against Houston, but it's another choice and we're already getting beat up by the SEC.”
Some schools will get beat up more than others. Every coach interviewed said the Texas schools in the Big 12 -- Baylor, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech -- would likely be impacted the least by Houston’s inclusion in the conference because they can still sell recruits on playing games close to home. Coaches also believe Oklahoma wouldn’t get dinged too much because of the Sooners’ storied history, recent success and deep recruiting ties within the Lone Star State. The rest of the league, though, would definitely be impacted.
“I would think this would hurt the KUs, K-States and Iowa States of the world,” another OU assistant said. “There's a pecking order to everything, especially in recruiting. This is where the SEC comes into play again. You used to see Texas gets the best, and they'd battle us for those kids in Texas. Then the rest of the league would go head-to-head on the twos and threes. Now the SEC is taking those kids, and Texas and us are going more national because of that competition. If Houston has that Big 12 flag on their sleeve, it's going to make a difference. Some of those other Big 12 schools might also have to go more national since they would be left recruiting threes and fours in Texas.”
But Big 12 coaches also say they won’t be quick to roll over if Houston joins and becomes a nemesis on the recruiting trail. While the Cougars have plenty of positives to sell prospects, a number of Big 12 coaches say Houston has a long way to go in many areas to catch up with their schools and they wouldn’t be shy about pointing that out to prospects.
“They're doing a great job of being in the spotlight, being visible and would be tough to compete against if they were in the Big 12,” the Texas Tech assistant said. “But Houston has a lot of things to overcome that recruiters can use to their advantage and they know recruits will respond to.
“Compared to the rest of the Big 12, they’re pretty far behind on things like facilities. I also think type of enrollment and fan base are big things that you could recruit against them with. You go to Iowa State on the road, and it's just different than Houston. If they're not hot in that city, they're not going to have a crowd, and even when they are, they’re not as important as other things. Last year, they played a Thursday night game against Memphis, and they were really, really good and both teams were top teams, but the Texans played the Colts that same night. Where do you think the majority of the season ticket holders went? Those are all things Big 12 schools could sell against when battling Houston.”