More than two decades ago, the leaders at Texas and Oklahoma foresaw the college landscape shifting. Looking to build a more viable and stable league with greater television capability, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and his Oklahoma counterpart Donnie Duncan convened to map out what would ultimately become the Big 12.
As the Red River rivals prepare to meet for the 111th time this weekend in Dallas, the conference the two forged together is on the brink.
The Big 12 is the smallest Power 5 league, the only one without a conference network and, as its own board chair termed it, "psychologically disadvantaged."
Going into a critical Oct. 17 meeting of league presidents and chancellors, the overriding question that could determine the fate of the conference figures to be this: Can Oklahoma and Texas still save the Big 12?
And do they even want to?
"Absolutely they can save the Big 12, without question," said one conference insider. "But they've also had plenty of opportunities to lay the cards down that way.
"And have yet to indicate that."
The Big 12's exploration of expansion this year has jump-started the discussion of a grant of rights extension way ahead of schedule, as the rights don't expire for another nine years.
When ESPN agreed to give the ACC a conference network this summer, the ACC reciprocated by agreeing to extend its rights for another decade through 2036. Could the Big 12 follow a similar path?
Even though the conference has yet to even vote on expansion -- which may or may not happen Oct. 17, depending on whom you ask -- neither Oklahoma nor Texas has intimated it has any intention of signing a rights extension in concert with an expansion move -- with a Big 12 official terming it an apparent "non-starter."
That has left the other eight schools in the Big 12 feeling a bit insecure about their future affiliation, with another conference source stating the obvious: "The Big 12 can't survive without Texas and Oklahoma."
One league official likened the budding situation to a pair of star players nearing their free agency. Instead of inking extensions with their current team, they seem intent on "testing the free agency waters." And when the rights near their expiration, the Sooners and Longhorns could be, as yet another official put it, "floating around like bees."
In spite of the uncertainty, a pair of industry insiders that don't work in the Big 12 see a more bullish future for the conference.
"I really see it as them protecting themselves until the dust settles a little more," said one insider. "I don't think it's because they're entirely dissatisfied being in the Big 12."
This season has done nothing to quell the internal anxiety about the Big 12's viability, as the conference was collectively clocked on the field during its out-of-conference slate, rapidly reducing its playoff aspirations to an improbability.
But as the same insider pointed out, the dust could settle before the rights deal expires in a manner that could make the Big 12 seem more tenable for Oklahoma and Texas than it might right now. The playoff, for example, could expand to eight spots, which in theory would give the Big 12 a cleaner path to the postseason. And the proliferation of online streaming, as another example, could provide the Big 12 with several bankable opportunities to park its tier 3 rights.
"The Big 12 is highly dysfunctional in many areas. But their brand is still strong. They're still making money. The Big 12 is really doing better than the perception out there," the insider said. "And when you think about it, Oklahoma and Texas fit best in the Big 12 for a lot of reasons."
Indeed, the Big 12 still fits the Longhorns and Sooners in a number of ways, even as the angst among both fan bases continues to balloon.
Notwithstanding West Virginia, the footprint of the league is sensible for both schools, especially considering some of the alternatives.
Though conference realignment has gutted several of its top rivalries, the Big 12 still boasts the Red River Showdown, which remains one of the sport's most iconic games.
"Absolutely they can save the Big 12, without question. But they've also had plenty of opportunities to lay the cards down that way. And have yet to indicate that." A Big 12 insider
The Big 12 is the only league with a tier 3 framework in which Texas can continue its lucrative Longhorn Network, which pays the school an average of $15 million a year.
And in the Big 12, as the national brands and founding members, Texas and Oklahoma wield influence in the boardroom in a manner they wouldn't be able to in any other Power 5 conference. In fact, if it resulted in a rights extension, one Big 12 official suggested that the league would be perfectly fine with giving Texas the authority to pick one expansion school, and Oklahoma, the other.
Of course, the Big 12 has enormous challenges ahead in order to remain a viable league, as commissioner Bob Bowlsby has repeatedly acknowledged.
The Big 12 is the only Power 5 league without a conference network, which is a great source of the consternation Oklahoma president David Boren has expressed about the league.
While the Big 12's distribution of $30.4 million per school is currently competitive with the other Power 5 leagues, Bowlsby has pointed out that the conference is primed to lose ground to the Big Ten and SEC, which both boast bigger markets, larger stadiums and remunerative conference networks.
Even then, the second insider countered that the Big 12 still has plenty to offer.
"I don't think there's any reason why -- if the current members remain committed to it -- the Big 12 couldn't be a substantial and competitive entity going forward," the insider said. "The truth is, the angst around it now has been self-created, through the effort to look at this expansion issue and the public comments made about it. Personally, I don't see why it couldn't continue to be a viable entity into the future. It's included in the autonomy group. It has strong access to the playoff bowl games. Its basketball has been succeeding at a very high level. Maybe they're a little bit short on the inventory compared to bigger conferences, but what they have is content still desirable to entities out there that, in the future, will want to broadcast college sports."
What matters, though, is, to what conclusion will Texas and Oklahoma come? While the allure of, say, the Big Ten or SEC or Pac-12 could be enticing, there is evidence to suggest that the Sooners and Longhorns could continue to thrive in the Big 12 in various ways.
Though much has been made of the SEC recruiting some of the top talent out of Texas, the Red River schools have proven they can still recruit at a high level.
Under Charlie Strong, the Longhorns have reeled in back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes, despite consecutive losing seasons on the field.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, currently owns the nation's fifth-best recruiting class, which includes a trio of ESPN 300 prospects out of the Lone Star State.
Though the Red River Showdown this weekend figures to carry little fanfare after both have struggled to 2-2 starts, Oklahoma and Texas have shown they can still deliver big TV ratings from the Big 12, as well.
Texas' overtime win against Notre Dame earned a massive 7.0 overnight rating, making it ESPN/ABC's second-highest watched opening weekend game on record. Even though it kicked off at 11 a.m. Central Time, Oklahoma-Houston was the third-most watched game on opening weekend Saturday.
"I know the value that conference can bring, the ratings that conference can bring," said the first insider, who added that when Texas finally returns to prominence, the Big 12 will be viewed in a different way than it is now.
"Texas will be back at some point. And when that happens, nobody is going to be talking about the Big 12 being inadequate. The conference is having a bad year, but they have two national brands that can bring it all back. I see this as a blip, not a trend.
"There's more there than people realize."
Will Oklahoma and Texas agree?
The future of the league they built together some two decades ago hinges on it.