As the Big 12 presidents and chancellors were wrapping up their summer board meeting in Irving, Texas, last July, one prominent school official was driving to a dinner when he flipped on his satellite radio. Instantly recognizing the voice of Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby over the airwaves, he couldn't believe what he was hearing.
The Big 12, Bowlsby declared, would officially begin to explore expansion.
"Almost careened off the road," said the official, who immediately began phoning his colleagues around the league to figure out how this happened. They, too, were stunned.
"I thought we had lost our minds."
A collective shock reverberated around almost every corner of the conference, as Big 12 athletic directors and coaches alike were blindsided by this unexpected turn. Going into that summer meeting, few had any inkling the Big 12 leadership would go through with a vote to explore expansion. But they didn't foresee a blockbuster announcement from a rival conference the night before, which would completely alter that day's agenda in Irving.
One year after a summer of drama, the Big 12 struck a more measured, unified and optimistic chord during annual league meetings earlier this month.
"I'm seeing a strong spirit," said Oklahoma president David Boren, who infamously termed the Big 12 "psychologically disadvantaged" for being the smallest Power 5 league, and the only one without a conference network or championship game.
"We're stronger this year than we were last year, considerably," he said. "Much more united. The presidents feel a real commitment to each other, feel a real desire to work with each other.
"I think we're on the right track."
Interestingly, though, not much has actually changed for the Big 12.
The league added a championship game that will make its debut this December, and provide each member with an additional $2 million-$3 million in annual revenue. The title game will also give the Big 12 a bigger presence on championship weekend, as well as a 13th game, which the league believes will finally put it on equal footing with the other conferences in the eyes of College Football Playoff selection committee.
Yet the league still doesn't have a conference network. And still, it comprises only 10 members.
"There's always that question, can you excel at 10?" said one industry insider, who works in college athletics. "There's nothing tangibly to point to that says you can't. But there's that mindset that the league is a little small."
Such an inferiority complex drove the Big 12 to begrudgingly explore inviting Group of 5 members, even when the desire to do so was never really there.
During league meetings last June, the expansion push lost almost all momentum, especially after Boren was informed that adding the likes of Houston or BYU or Cincinnati would not deliver the lucrative conference network for the Big 12 he so desired.
As a result, the expansion issue seemed dead. Until on the evening of July 18, when the ACC announced it had a deal with ESPN to launch a conference network in 2019. The Big 12 was about to become the only Power 5 league without a linear channel. And that changed the dynamic of its boardroom that following morning.
Consultants the Big 12 had hired showed the presidents, step-by-step, how the ACC's past aggressiveness -- including adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and, most painfully, Louisville, considering the Big 12 had passed on the Cardinals -- had resulted in the bounty of a conference network.
The message was simple: do nothing and risk dissolution.
The message resonated.
It didn't take long for the Big 12's public expansion process to turn messy.
Two days after the Big 12's announcement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, University of Texas president Greg Fenves and University of Texas chancellor Bill McRaven all posted Twitter messages endorsing Houston's bid to join the conference.
"Big 12 expansion is a non-starter unless it includes University of Houston," Abbott wrote.
Politics surfaced in other ways, as well.
More than two dozen LGBT advocacy groups came out in opposition of BYU's Big 12 candidacy, criticizing BYU's honor code for prohibiting "homosexual behavior." Later, Iowa State's student government passed a resolution denouncing BYU's potential Big 12 membership.
Elsewhere, close to 20 schools from the Group of 5 schools mobilized to compile talking points, brochures, PowerPoints and videos; several even hired outside consultants to help. Eleven of them -- Air Force, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, Houston, Rice, South Florida, SMU and Tulane -- made Bowlsby's cut for in-person interviews.
Yet just as the operation was ramping up, the appetite for expansion was rapidly waning again.
With a national fan base, strong football, the Salt Lake City market and solid academic credentials, BYU had been viewed as the frontrunner in any Big 12 expansion scenario. The LGBT community's opposition, however, severely diminished BYU's candidacy.
Houston, meanwhile, failed to generate enough support among the non-Texas schools, which feared having to recruit against another Texas school for precious Texas talent.
As the Big 12 began staging the in-person interviews in Irving, it was becoming clear no candidate stood much chance of inducing the eight votes needed to secure an invitation.
Houston board chair Tilman Fertitta said he saw the writing on the wall when none of the Big 12 presidents attended Houston's interview with Bowlsby.
"What they did was extremely unprofessional," Fertitta said. "You're going to waste my time like that?
"I would've loved for Houston to be in the Big 12. I would've been very proud. But you just knew they never had any intention. ... I don't like people who waste people's time."
By the time the crucial Oct. 17 board meeting rolled around, there was little to be discussed. One Big 12 president spent more time on his cellphone than in the boardroom; two others departed well before the meeting had officially concluded -- clear signals that the expansion debate had long been decided.
"My aspiration with the process we went through last year was to get to the end of the process with all the presidents and chancellors singing off the same sheet music in terms of making some data-driven decisions," Bowlsby said this month. "If you can all agree the numbers you're looking at and the outcomes you're anticipating are all the same, then you can make a good, legitimate assessment.
"I think that's what happened."
The data also shows that the Big 12 has considerable challenges ahead.
Last season, the Big 12 failed to put a team in the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.
On the recruiting trail, the league has continued to surrender a sizable chunk of the top talent in its footprint to rival conferences. This February, the Big 12 signed only one of the top 10-rated players out of Texas.
Most damning, however, was the league's performance in the most recent NFL draft. The Big 12 had only 14 players selected, the fewest in league history and one fewer than the American Athletic Conference.
While Big 12 officials have downplayed this downturn as "cyclical," most agree that winning a national championship -- the conference hasn't won a national title in a dozen years -- would go a long way toward resolving these ills.
"It stops the talk," West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said. "It quiets the critics when you win. It would make a huge impact."
Lyons and others point to what Ohio State's national championship in 2014 has done for the perception of the Big Ten.
"I was there when they were saying how we're too slow; the part of the country we're in, you can't get recruits," said first-year Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, who arrived this summer from Iowa. "Sure enough, things have changed."
Yet to win a national championship, the Big 12 first must put a team in the playoff.
"We're three years into this, and we've only been in once," Bowlsby said. "We know we need to be in it more. It's as simple as that."
By implementing a championship game this year that will, unlike other Power 5 conferences, guarantee its top two teams face each another, the Big 12 is making a calculated gamble.
"It's always going to be a risk, but we're maximizing the potential," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said, acknowledging the potential of the regular-season champion losing in the title game.
Of course, to fully maximize its potential, the Big 12 will have to perform better against nonconference teams. Last season, the Big 12 collectively failed to defeat a nonconference opponent that finished in the top 25 of the polls. That was a big reason why Oklahoma was unable to seriously factor into the playoff discussion, despite becoming the first team since 2009 to run the table in Big 12 play.
"You have to win your nonconference games," Del Conte said. "We know that."
Interestingly, the Big 12 will be relying on a pair of coaching rookies in Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Texas' Tom Herman to carry the freight on that front. Not since 1947 have the Sooners and Longhorns had new coaches in the same year.
Both will be put to the test early. In Week 2, the Sooners will travel to Ohio State. The following Saturday, the Longhorns will visit USC.
Whether Riley can build off the success of predecessor Bob Stoops and whether Herman can finally whip Texas back into national relevancy after several lean years will factor heavily into whether the Big 12 can finally begin repairing its reputation.
The Big 12's challenges, however, extend beyond the field. In mere months, the Big 12 will be the only Power 5 league without a conference network.
But going forward, Big 12 leaders are hopeful that not having their tier 3 rights tied up in a linear channel could actually give the conference an edge on the digital front.
"Frankly, the traditional linear network is obsolete technology," Bowlsby said. "We have a long ways to go, but I like the flexibility we have right now. ... We see some opportunities on the horizon."
Those opportunities include becoming the first conference to land a lucrative third-tier agreement on a digital platform.
"We intend to be among the first to be successful broadening our ability to bring our athletics, our sporting events to a different kind of audience on new platforms," Boren said.
Beside the traditional players such as Fox and ESPN, whose parent company, Disney, is investing $1 billion in the over-the-top streaming service BAMTech, the Big 12 is banking that Netflix, Google, Hulu and Amazon could soon join the marketplace as well.
Amazon paid $50 million to stream NFL Thursday night games. That was a fivefold increase from the $10 million that Twitter paid for the same rights in 2016.
One challenge for Bowlsby will be mining an agreement that makes the venture worthwhile for members that already have their own remunerative tier 3 deals in place, notably Texas, which still nets an average of $15 million annually from the Longhorn Network (owned by ESPN). Another is timing. Bowlsby must balance the urgency to make a deal with waiting for one that doesn't undervalue the league.
"Anybody that tells you they can forecast what media distribution will look like three to five years from now is delusional, because the technology is changing so quickly," said Bowlsby, who was involved in the early stages of the creations of the Big Ten and Pac-12 networks as athletic director at Iowa and Stanford. "But we'll know the right opportunity when we see it."
Parlaying that opportunity could be the game-changer for which the Big 12 has been searching.
"That could be very positive."
Despite the spectacle that was last summer, the Big 12 is still standing.
This month, the conference announced a revenue distribution of $34.8 million to each member, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
"Members have less reason to want to leave a conference that's economically healthy and doing very well financially," Boren said.
The Big 12 payout ranked third among Power 5 leagues, well ahead of the Pac-12 and ACC.
One league official said that, "considering the upheaval" of losing Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri, "the Big 12 is doing better financially than it gets credit for."
Including tier 3 revenue, Texas banked about $21 million more in distribution in 2016 than any ACC or Pac-12 school; Oklahoma made roughly $13 million more.
"Considering how much attention [expansion] got, and the black eye that was associated with the process, it seems like they've come out of it in a way that looks a little more unified to me," said the industry insider who works in college sports. "They look like they're doing pretty well financially in comparison to some of the others.
"Considering how much was written and said about the conference being dysfunctional, to me it looks a lot better now than it did then."
Indeed, one of the biggest positives for the Big 12 one summer later has been a more unified tone.
"When I was in the Big Ten, when you read articles, I didn't know a lot of people in the Big 12. ... You'd think this place is falling apart," Taylor said. "I would say in the meetings I've been in, this is a conference that understands we're stronger if we're together."
Boren, who has been viewed as a source of that dysfunction in the past, has effusively praised Bowlsby and the Big 12 in recent weeks, while stating over and over that Oklahoma is committed to the Big 12.
"I think the day has come and gone of, 'Is the Big 12 in danger? Is the Big 12 here to stay? Is it a stable conference?' I don't even think that's an issue anymore," Boren said. "My goal is to get that topic off the table. ... I think we're on firm ground now. We're financially in a strong position. We're very tied to each other. We have many traditional rivalries.
"I feel much more confident about where we are than I did even two or three years ago or this time last year. ... I think there's a lot of sticking power to this conference, and the best days are ahead."
That will be put to the test for a league that now has six presidents or chancellors who've been on the job for two years or less.
Boren, who at age 76 could be nearing retirement, as well, has acknowledged another "wave of realignment" could be on the way, once TV rights begin to expire, beginning with the Big Ten's in 2022-23.
And though he has attempted to quell the narrative Oklahoma is primed to bolt, Boren did answer questions during a May regents meeting about whether the Sooners would qualify academically for Big Ten membership.
That might have been innocent enough, but it didn't go unnoticed around the Big 12, either.
And with the college landscape potentially headed for another seismic shift, the clock is ticking, leaving the Big 12 no more than five years to demonstrate long-term viability to its flagship members -- before others come circling the waters and cherry-pick the conference into oblivion.
"We all know, that in five or six years ... the landscape could change in a lot of ways," Taylor said. "As a conference, we know, if it starts, if all hell starts breaking loose, we've got to be positioned well as a group.
"It's coming. We've got to be ready for it."