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Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer 426d

Fifteen month odyssey reveals more Big 12 issues

College Football, Texas Longhorns, Oklahoma Sooners, TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, West Virginia Mountaineers, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Iowa State Cyclones, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Kansas Jayhawks, Kansas State Wildcats, Houston Cougars, South Florida Bulls, Central Florida Knights, Cincinnati Bearcats, BYU Cougars, Connecticut Huskies

Fifteen months ago, Oklahoma president David Boren provided a two-word diagnosis: psychologically disadvantaged.

That's how Boren felt about the state of the Big 12 when he told Oklahoma's student newspaper that the league, smaller than the other Power 5 conferences, needed to explore ways to grow.

So began the Great Big 12 Runaround.

When it ended Monday afternoon in North Texas, after a truncated meeting of the Big 12's board, we all felt like shrinks who don't get paid for their services. The Big 12 isn't expanding. Talk about a circular conversation.

"I made one recommendation -- to bring this process to closure one way or the other," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Monday. "We shouldn't kick the can down the road."

Given the past 15 months, that might not be so easy. In that time, Boren talked and talked, and then he talked some more. He was pro-expansion, then lukewarm and, eventually, seemed to back away from the whole thing. In a perfect twist for this wandering process, Boren became chair of the Big 12 board this spring after Kansas State president Kirk Schulz left for Washington State.

"Someone suggested I've had a brain transplant," Boren said Monday. "Rumors to that effect are not true."

The Big 12 hired two consulting firms to explore how expansion could impact the league, particularly in the long-term. For a league that had lost four members since 2010 -- two of which, Texas A&M and Nebraska, have football teams currently ranked in the AP Top 10 -- and appears vulnerable to further pillaging when its grant of rights agreement expires in 2025, getting bigger made sense.

After the league's spring meetings in Arizona, expansion appeared somewhat likely. At the Big 12 board meeting a month later in Irving, Texas, the league announced that its football title game was returning in 2017 and that it wouldn't explore a conferencewide TV network. The Big 12 announced record revenue distribution, celebrated its solidarity and civility behind a well-respected commissioner in Bob Bowlsby. Expansion seemed dead, and we all seemingly could get on to other business.

But this is the Big 12, folks. Nothing can be wrapped up so neatly.

In July, the Big 12 announced that expansion was back on the table. Candidates surfaced and lobbying began, especially in Texas. The Big 12 eventually narrowed the pool to 12 schools. Of those, six -- Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida and Central Florida -- generated the most attention.

In the end, none received enough support from the Big 12 presidents. The Big 12 remains a 10-team league with a footprint, other than Texas, that covers a sparsely populated area of the country. It is still the only Power 5 league without its own television network. It is still a league that has seen its football recruiting suffer in recent years and could have benefited from members in new regions.

Were there any great candidates out there? No, not with the potential toxicity swirling around BYU. But think about some of the recent Power 5 expansion additions: Maryland, Rutgers, Colorado, Utah, TCU, West Virginia, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, even Louisville.

How many of those were or are considered home runs? None. But some have added value, including TCU, a conference nomad which quickly became one of the better Big 12 football programs. If the Big 12 really wanted to give this process its due, it should have looked for the next TCU, projecting 5-10 years out rather than talking in circles. And if the Big 12 is ultimately doomed in the long-term, adding members would have brought a short-term financial windfall, which could help current members who won't find soft landing spots if the conference dissolves.

In not expanding and, equally important, not extending its grant of rights, the Big 12 possibly signed its own death warrant Monday. It remains the most vulnerable league. The loss of one more heavyweight, Texas or Oklahoma, likely would TKO the conference. "A very bad strategic move," a source close to the process told ESPN.com. "Painfully incremental decision-making."

There's still a very valid and underplayed argument that the Big 12 is the best place for Texas and Oklahoma. If Texas went to the Big Ten or SEC, it would no longer be the biggest voice in the room, and it would have to change its behavior and its expectations. It would have to accept (gasp!) equal revenue sharing and no Longhorn Network. Oklahoma also could make a move but would likely have to accept being No. 3 or No. 4 instead of clearly in the top tandem.

Texas and OU seem happy for now, because, in the end, neither favored Big 12 expansion. How will they feel in eight or nine years?

Most expansion explorations are quick and stealthy. After the Big Ten's first expansion study in 2010 generated more buzz than commissioner Jim Delany anticipated, Delany didn't go public with his pursuit of Rutgers and Maryland and shocked everyone in November 2012. ACC commissioner John Swofford is the king of expansion guile, twice pillaging the Big East.

The Big 12, meanwhile, spent a lot of time and money to keep the status quo.

"It was a deliberate process, one that included a lot of people," Bowlsby said. "It was a lot more public than a lot of these other processes have been."

Meanwhile, there's an imprint in all of our couches, in the shape of a former Oklahoma governor and senator and current university president.

Psychologically disadvantaged? The Big 12's issues go much, much deeper.

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