Whether or not you agree with the Big 12's latest expansion excursion, this time around, the ride (so far) has been less turbulent, less bombastic, less political, less entertaining ... less Texas.
The stars of last week's Big 12 spring soiree at the Arizona Biltmore were commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Navigate Research, the Chicago-based firm helping the league assess new membership and scheduling models. While math-challenged media types tried to compute different percentages and simulations, the strongest statement came from Bowlsby: "The fact is, if we do nothing, we'll be substantially behind a decade from now."
In terms of spring meeting sound bytes, Bowlsby's would have been drowned out by what former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said at an explosive Big 12 summit six years ago in Kansas City. As Nebraska pondered a departure, the Pac-10 prepared for a Big 12 raid and commissioner Dan Beebe tried to hold the league together, Dodds famously declared: "We didn't start this. But if we need to finish it, we'll finish it."
"A lot of Big 12 members were interested in the possibility of a Pac-10 membership offer at the time, but they were pretty much following the lead of Texas," said Kevin Weiberg, the former Big 12 commissioner who served as the Pac-10's deputy commissioner in 2010. "It was very much apparent that Texas was very influential."
Dodds' statement and others like it affirmed Texas' power in the realignment frenzy. Why did Nebraska leave for the Big Ten and Texas A&M for the SEC? Why did Larry Scott's master plan for the Pac-16 seemingly succeed, then fall apart? Why was the Big 12 twice saved from certain destruction? Why do Big 12 members continue to grumble, at least privately, about the league's revenue distribution model? The answers are all, at least in part, Texas.
Yet Texas has remained atypically quiet as another potential Big 12 watershed approaches. The school's public faces, president Gregory Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin, haven't said much. The loudest voice continues to come from Texas' chief rival, Oklahoma, whose president, David Boren, propelled the expansion push last spring by saying the Big 12 is "psychologically disadvantaged" until it becomes a 12-team league again. Boren recently took over as chair of the Big 12 board, which begins an important set of meetings May 31 in Irving, Texas.
Is Texas just another seat in the room, muzzled by challenges on the football field and with the Longhorn Network, as well as having a fairly new president, an interim athletic director and an embattled coach? Or is UT still a power player but one content to listen, absorb and study, rather than flex its muscles whenever possible? The second image seems to be coming into focus.
Those who observe Fenves, who has an engineering background, and Perrin, a longtime attorney, describe them as smart, intent listeners who process information before giving their opinions. They're not timid, but they tend to take a patient approach. As Perrin told reporters last week, "I’ve got an open mind on receiving information" on key conference issues. Perrin clearly isn't Dodds, a career AD considered at times to be the de facto Big 12 commissioner. He doesn't need to be.
"All I've heard is good things about their leadership," Beebe said. "They probably have more options than other institutions, so they’re instrumental in the conference. I think they’ll be receptive to ways it can be strengthened."
Texas is still in prime position to shape the Big 12's future. If Big 12 viability hinges on a league-wide network replacing the Longhorn Network, as many believe, Texas must be sold on a plan -- new league members, enhanced league revenue -- that ensures its interests are protected and its pockets are filled. It would take a lot for Texas to back away from LHN and the financial assurances it provides.
A potential Big 12 network has been in the works for some time; it was first seriously discussed in 2006, when Weiberg was commissioner. Back then, conference networks were a new and uncertain venture. Even the Big Ten Network faced initial distribution obstacles.
While Texas opposed the network then, other members were "just as reluctant," Weiberg recalled. There's more support around the league now, but getting Texas on board remains critical.
"There’s no question Texas is a very important institution to the Big 12, both in the overall stature of the athletic program but the academic power as well," Weiberg said. "It's the type of member any conference would like to have, so I think there will be a respect around how Texas feels about a lot of these issues."
The third round of potential Big 12 realignment carries a different tenor. Current members aren't looking to leave ("It's more an offensive undertaking than a defensive," Bowlsby said). Although there isn't necessarily consensus on how to proceed, league infighting has so far been limited. Bowlsby described the Big 12's most recent presidents' gathering as the most productive of his tenure.
"Having said that, they don't all agree on everything," he continued. "But to the extent they disagree, it's usually legitimate issues that pertain to their institution."
Asked if the Big 12 is a league in which some members resonate more than others, Bowlsby smiled and said, "You can probably figure those out."
Texas is still at the top of the list. Its voice might not be as audible these days, but as the Big 12 mulls its future, Texas will be among those having the final say.