Ever since its members overwhelmingly shot down the notion of implementing a conference network, the Big 12, for almost a decade now, has been riding a roller coaster.
Twice, the league almost dissolved. And it’s been whittled down to 10 members, while losing its championship game along the way.
As a result, the perception of the Big 12 has gradually suffered, and not just in the eyes of those from the outside, either. Oklahoma president David Boren, one of the Big 12’s most influential power brokers, has resorted to calling the conference “disadvantaged.”
Later this week, the Big 12’s presidents, chancellors and athletic directors will congregate at the conference office in Irving, Texas, to kick off what figures to be a defining three months. League leaders are set to meet again in May.
These won’t be the usual routine discussions about rules and budgets. Instead, these talks could set the course for the future of the Big 12, and, perhaps, whether the conference ultimately has a future at all.
And in the end, it could boil down to an old Western standoff, pitting the Big 12’s two founding members against one another.
On one side, Boren has made his aims clear. He wants a conference championship game. He wants to expand back to 12 members. And, above all, he wants a conference network.
"I'd like to plant the seeds for a resolution," Boren told reporters last week after an Oklahoma regents meeting. "I hope that resolution will not be a shootout. I hope that resolution will be one where everyone reaches a common goal as to what we're going to do.”
Boren no longer seems interested in incremental action, either. He wants all three, together and soon.
"What I hope we'll do is do a lot of talking about it and hope that we get some kind of a timetable laid out in front of us, during which time we'll act," he said. "Let's hope this is going to be in the next few months to a year or whatever.”
That will partly hinge on whether Boren can begin drumming up support for his cause -- so far, only West Virginia president Gordon Gee has publicly supported the notion of expansion.
But mostly, it will come down to Texas, and just how far the Big 12’s other flagship program is willing to meet Boren behind closed doors.
So far in the realignment era of the Big 12, Oklahoma has been the one to blink first.
In 2011, the Sooners attempted to pressure Texas into relinquishing the Longhorn Network by flirting with the Pac-12. Texas, however, called Oklahoma’s bluff. The Sooners, who didn’t have a firm invite from the Pac-12 unless the Longhorns came along too, were forced to accept Texas’ status quo.
This time around, though, Oklahoma might not be bluffing.
Boren hasn’t exactly come out and said that he’ll take the Sooners to another conference if he doesn’t get his way.
But he sure has insinuated as much.
“I think if -- if -- we can get the Big 12 on the right track, if this comprehensive plan could be adopted, then I would rather stay in the Big 12,” Boren told the Tulsa World last month. “I think that would be to our advantage. But it’s something that we really need to have happen. Certainly, my first choice, if we can get the right things done in the Big 12, the right steps taken, especially these three, then I think we ought to stay in the Big 12.
“If it just doesn’t happen, then I try to think long-term.”
Boren understands that Oklahoma has leverage the other Big 12 schools don’t. If the Big 12 ever dissolved, the Sooners have the tradition and the following that would assuredly land them a spot in another Power 5 conference. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case for the rest of the Big 12. Texas, of course, would have a landing spot, too. But the Longhorns most likely wouldn’t be able to take the Longhorn Network with them to the Pac-12, Big Ten or SEC, which already have conference networks in place.
That is leverage Boren clearly won't be afraid to use to push his agenda.
What is unclear is how the Texas brass will react.
DeLoss Dodds and Bill Powers, who played hardball with Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12, are no longer around. Instead, the Longhorns have a new president in Gregory Fenves and a new athletic director in Mike Perrin.
Would they be open to compromising with Boren and whatever supporting contingent he is able to cobble together?
The answer to that could begin to materialize as soon as this week.
"I'm not out to embarrass Texas," Boren said. "I'm not out to make them financially worse off. This isn't any kind of motivation to do anything to Texas that makes them worse off. I just think we've got to think about ways to transition away from that, that will keep them whole and be fair with them.”
One myth percolating about the Big 12 is that it’s destined to dissolve, no matter what steps the league takes. But the truth is this: As long as Texas and Oklahoma are committed to making the Big 12 last, the conference will continue to exist.
This week, we’ll begin to find out just how willing the two schools that first dreamed up the Big 12 are to making it work.