KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chris Del Conte calls it the Lubbock ambush in jest. Last week, the TCU athletic director, speaking to an audience in Lubbock, Texas, made a statement about schools wanting to join the Big 12. And then chaos ensued.
“Isn’t it amazing that two years ago the league’s going to dissolve?” Del Conte said at the time. “You guys (Texas Tech) are going to the Pac-10 to today, Clemson, Miami, Florida State - they all want in the Big 12. Two years ago we were going from being disintegrated to now everyone wants us.”
Del Conte clarified what he intended to say this week at the Big 12 meetings, stating that he was simply referring to all the rumors of those teams wanting in, not that the Big 12 was having discussions with any of the schools he mentioned.
“Things that are being talked about today just tell you about the unity and the strength of the league,” Del Conte said Wednesday at the InterContinental Hotel. “When you start to hear rumors, I just sit back and look at the (athletic directors) that are in the room and say ‘gosh, we’ve been through everything.’ The highs and lows and now there’s talk about continuity, talk about possible teams (joining).
“The Big 12 has come out of that firestorm unbelievably unified and in that room today I can assure you it has been unbelievable to be a part of it. I was never there for the negativity. But coming in today it’s just been a real positive experience.”
That sentiment has been echoed over and over again throughout the first two days of the Big 12 meetings, a testament to the job acting commissioner Chuck Neinas has done since taking over as the league’s interim commissioner following the firing of Dan Beebe in September. In just nine months, Neinas, who will retire from his role in June when Bob Bowlsby takes over as the league’s new commissioner, has guided the Big 12 through murky water and into what Oklahoma State president Burns Hargis called the “promised land.”
“I’ve said in our meeting in there what a difference a year makes,” Hargis, the chairman of the Big 12 Board of Directors, said Thursday. “When you think of the situation of when Chuck came on board, we’d lost two important members, we had television issues that we were dealing with - everybody had pretty much buried the Big 12. You fast forward to today and you see a conference that’s not just stable, it’s a conference that is sought after by many schools in the country. And I think that’s the proof that Chuck Neinas has been a wonderful leader and navigator for us through these very difficult times.”
Due in large part to Neinas, now 80 years old, the Big 12 believes it’s in a position of strength now rather than one of vulnerability.
“It’s interesting right now to watch the reaction (on the) outside when we’ve been talking about this 10-team deal for two years now and it’s almost like nobody wants to believe us,” Kansas State athletic director John Currie said. “But inside that room we feel pretty good about that model. Now we certainly have our heads up and are aware of the landscape and want to do the right thing to position our institution and the league, but right now we’re in a position of strength.”
So it could be said, when considering everything that has transpired over the last couple of years, that the Big 12’s interim commissioner saved the league.
“I felt like Mariano Rivera,” Neinas joked.
What about Notre Dame?
As Currie said above, the Big 12 is happy at 10 teams. But there’s a good chance it’d be happy if Notre Dame joined the league and made it 11.
“Obviously Notre Dame is a brand like none other,” Hargis said. “If they had some interest that’s something we ought to consider.”
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has admitted the Big 12 has had conversations with Notre Dame about joining the Big 12, though the Fighting Irish would be an extremely tough get for any conference. They love their independent status and have a strong television contract with NBC.
Florida State is another school that has been linked to joining the Big 12, a story that began to make waves in early May when Andy Haggard, the chairman of the Florida State Board of Trustees, told Warchant.com “On behalf of the Board of Trustees I can say that unanimously we would be in favor of seeing what the Big 12 might have to offer.”
The Big 12 heard those comments, but continues to say there’s been no dialog between the conference and the Seminoles.
“Obviously I’m aware of it,” Hargis said. “You’d have to be under a rock to not be aware of it. As a Big 12 member, I’m flattered that a school of the quality of Florida State is interested in the Big 12. I think it’s another indicator of where the conference is. But in terms of any school, including that school, there are not discussions going on between the conference and any school about expansion.
“There has to be a very compelling reason to go to 12, and as of right now I don’t think our membership sees the need to grow.”
The granting of rights
All 10 Big 12 institutions are expected to grant their first-tier and second-tier television rights over to the Big 12 for 13 years when the conference’s new TV contract with ESPN becomes official. In doing so, all revenue from the league’s top TV games, which are shown on ESPN/ABC and Fox would continue to go to the Big 12 even if a team were to leave the conference. In other words, a 13-year grant of rights would essentially bind the 10 current members to the league for the duration of the TV contract.
“The granting of rights is really a foundation for stability,” Hargis said. “As we’ve seen in these recent events, withdrawal fees are not necessarily an impediment to leaving, but leaving one’s TV revenues behind certainly is.
“I don’t think anybody is agreeing to grant their rights under duress. I think we all see it as an essential step in the future of the conference.”
The Big 12 announced last April a new 13-year TV deal with Fox. The league’s contract with ESPN/ABC expires in 2016. The conference could announce the new deal in the near future, though Neinas said the contract “is still being worked out.”
“The Big 12 has a contract with ESPN and it has a contract with Fox,” Neinas said. “What’s happened is Fox and ESPN have agreed to some type of a collective programming system. We want to maintain separate contracts with both entities so what we’re trying to do is marry some of the important parts of each contract so they conform to what we’re trying to do collectively. As a result that makes it a little more complicated because you’re not starting with a clean slate.
“We already have signed a 13-year contract with Fox and we have four years remaining on a contract with ESPN. So it’s not like starting with a blank piece of paper. That’s how we’re working on it. I don’t think all the issues have been resolved and that’s why we can’t comment.”