History Lesson: How the Big XII was formed, and why Nebraska eventually left
First, an article from The Mercury, a Kansas paper:
Formation of the BIG 12
Jon Wefald picks up the phone from his Minnesota home, and seconds later, the former Kansas State president poses a question.
"Now what on earth would you be calling me for?" Wefald asks laughing, knowing the reason for the call.
College athletics is potentially on the verge of monumental change. The Big 12 Conference, a league Wefald was instrumental in building, has been vulnerable to dissolution due to conference realignment over the past year.
So if there was ever a time to jump in the time machine and look back at how the Big Eight became the Big 12 (almost the Big 16, more on that later) nearly two decades ago, it's now.
Not many people know more details about that time than Wefald, who served two terms as the Chair of the Association of Big Eight universities from 1989-93.
He spares to tell the story of how the 12-team league was formed — a conference that seemed ideal, a grouping of schools Wefald thought would be together for a long time.
But before he begins to paint the picture of that time, there's one last thing.
"You know, this story has never been written before," he says.
Moments later, he begins to tell it.
It was 1990, and the landscape of college athletics would soon undergo a significant change.
Arkansas left the Southwest Conference for the Southeastern Conference that year, and Penn State left its independent status and joined the Big Ten.
"The dominoes are real shaky in 1990," Wefald said, reflecting back on that time period. "The dominoes were falling and I was concerned about the future of the Big Eight. It's very similar to July of 2010, and now late summer, early fall of 2011."
Wefald, along with Kansas chancellor Gene Budig and Iowa State president Martin Jischke, understood what was at risk if those dominoes continued to fall.
"That's when I started thinking to myself, 'OK, I'm the Chair here and I know there are two or three other Big Eight presidents that feel we have to get aggressive,'" Wefald said. "Otherwise what I was worried about was Texas would join the Pac-10 in 1990, kind of like the same thing we found last year and now. They'd be leaving the Southwest Conference and that would be a powerful force to maybe trigger Oklahoma into joining the Southeast Conference.
"And then Colorado, going all the way back to the late 80s and early 90s — there were people at the University of Colorado that wanted to join the Pac-10. They had that kind of vision for two decades."
So a group of Big Eight presidents, led by Wefald, became proactive.
"We felt we had to get aggressive because if we don't, there's a good chance the Big Eight takes a big hit. It would create a real disturbance."
Wefald, Budig and Jischke began to look at a partnership with the Southwest Conference, which consisted of eight schools after Arkansas' departure: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston.
"It was something we were willing to consider, and it was something we thought we could talk the other Big Eight presidents into," Wefald said.
Fast forward to 2011, a time when 16-team super conferences are talked about daily, and this is where the Big Eight actually appeared to be well ahead of the game approximately 20 years earlier.
The Big Eight's goal was to form a 16-team conference, with all eight of the remaining schools from the Southwest Conference merging with the original Big Eight of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, K-State, KU, Missouri, Iowa State, Colorado and Nebraska.
"We actually were pushing that very hard," Wefald said.
The Southwest Conference presidents and Big Eight presidents happened to be together for a meeting of the national land grant and state universities in Kansas City in the summer of 1990.
Wefald would call a meeting for all the presidents from the two leagues to attend .Twelve to 13 of the 16 presidents showed up.
A partnership between the two leagues was discussed, but University of Texas president Bill Cunningham shut down the talks relatively quickly.
"We were talking about the merger," Wefald recalled. "After about a half-hour or 45 minutes, Bill Cunningham said 'we're not interested.' They were the only one to say that.
"It was kind of interesting even then, because without Texas, we thought, 'well we might as well conclude the meeting because Texas wasn't interesting. So the meeting ended."
Wefald, still the Chair of the Big Eight, thought the passing of time could perhaps change Texas' mind about a conference merger, so he let a couple of years go by.
Cunningham, the Texas president, was promoted to chancellor of the 15 educational institutions in Texas in 1992.
Bob Berdahl would take over as the university's president in 1993, and soon after, another meeting was called, this time in the hotel of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.
"We can't tell Texas they're coming up to Kansas City so we met at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport," Wefald said, half joking.
Fifteen schools were present at the meeting, with Rice being the lone exception.
Southwest Conference commissioner Steve Hatchell and Big Eight commissioner Carl James were at the hotel, but stayed out in the hall during the meeting.
"We met for I'd say two hours and just had a discussion, a complete discussion on a merger," Wefald said. "There's 15 schools there and we're kind of sitting on chairs, and after about a half-hour of conversation, I just said, 'well, let's just see who might be interested in mergering.'
"We're going around the room and it's one after the other 'I, I, I, I,' and ironically the last school was the University of Texas."
Fitting that it would once again come down to Texas. There sat new president Bob Berdahl, pondering the decision.
"The 14 schools said let's do it and we got to the University of Texas and Berdahl said 'I've got to think about this, I've gotta take it to our board of regents.' I just said to myself in my mind, 'oh darn-it, it's not going to happen.' That's just how influential the University of Texas is."
Berdahl, regarded as a low-key person by those who knew him, then caught everyone's attention.
"He just said 'if I had my way we'd join the Pac-10," Wefald recalled. "He just said 'look, we're not doing well in the Southwest Conference and we play all our games in Texas except for a few.'"
Unlike today, Texas was struggling in the early 90s. From 1991-93, the Longhorns posted a 16-16-1 record in football while failing to make a bowl game during that time. In addition, their basketball attendance was waning significantly. In its 1988 men's basketball season, Texas averaged just 4,028 fans per game in an arena that seated 16,231.
So Texas was seeking change.
"So we had 14 out of 15 that were saying 'I,'" Wefald said. "So the Big Eight presidents decided we shouldn't let this draw out and let's try and get a conference call within two weeks because you can't just let that sit there.
"We knew Texas had to meet with its board of regents and I assume that they did that within the week. So we had a conference call that was set up within ten days and all of the Big Eight presidents were on the conference call, and quite frankly, we did not know who was on for the Southwest Conference."
Fifteen minutes into that call, Wefald spoke up.
"I just said 'what do you guys in the Southwest Conference want to do?" he asked.
The first person to chime in: Bob Berdahl, the president of Texas.
"He said 'we've decided you should invite four schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech," Wefald recalled.
Texas and A&M were considered key components to the expansion, while Baylor and Texas Tech had some advantages on its side.
Ann Richards, the governor of Texas at the time, was a Baylor graduate. Therefore, the Bears' move to the Big 12 would be supported.
Texas Tech also had leverage, as key members in both the House and the Senate of the Texas legislature had a strong affiliation with the Red Raiders.
Meanwhile, TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston would be left out of the mix
"After the conference call I made sure we got telegrams with invitations to those four schools to join," Wefald said. "So like magic, we had a Big 12 and it was ready to go by 94."
On the outside looking in, everything seemed OK in the Big 12. But there were always points of contention in regards to the league perhaps catering to Texas. The Longhorns were a valued commodity to the league, and perhaps had some advantages others did not.
"The University of Texas, we met maybe a month later to come up with a mission statement and some ground rules," Wefald said. "Texas made it very clear all gate receipts would be kept by each school and we all supported that."
But Texas also took issue with Proposition 48s — which was a rule enacted in 1986 that requires incoming college athletes to have a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses and score at least a 700 on the SAT or a 15 on the ACT. This was better known as partial qualifiers, and Texas wanted the number allowed in the old Big Eight to be decreased significantly in the Big 12, which left a sour taste in the mouth of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.
"At the time, Tom Osborne maybe had over 20 or 25 Prop 48s and they were all excellent players," Wefald said. "Texas said we're only going to permit one and if you don't go along with it we're not going to join — it was almost like that. And we supported that. It was so important to have Texas and Texas A&M as part of this new conference and Baylor and Texas Tech are both excellent — so we had this Big 12 and we pretty much agreed on the ground rules."
But there were other rules some schools were bitter over. Revenue would not be distributed evenly under the guidelines of the new Big 12, as only 50 percent was divided equally among the league's schools.
"It was always the debate on the other 50 percent of the television revenues," Wefald said. "In the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, they share 100 percent and that was always a point of contention. But Texas and Texas A&M, Oklahoma and probably Nebraska felt it was fine to have 50 percent based on appearances because they were going to be on just about every week and that's just the way it is."
So the Big 12 was built, and in 1996, K-State played Texas Tech in the inaugural Big 12 football game in Manhattan. It was an exciting time for nearly all involved.
Those happy times have now turned to doom and gloom for a league that just a few years ago, had its issues, but all the schools seemed content.
Now animosity appears to exist, and trustworthy relationships have seemingly turned into a game of everyone looking behind, hoping not to be stabbed in the back.
"I'm sitting here and I can't believe this is happening," Wefald said. "You're taking a conference that was just perfect. You could drive to anywhere — everything was drivable. We had great rivalries — historic rivalries. We all got along well."
The rapid speed of all the talk regarding conference realignment has shocked Wefald.
"I am stunned at how rapid and quick this whole development has taken place," he said. "I wish they would just think about it for a while.
"It's a great conference. I think people really love the Big 12. I just wish they would stop and think about all the advantages for the Big 12. There are so many."
Wefald admits he's just a fan now, but at the same time, it's difficult to watch something he helped build possibly crumble so quickly. And there's nothing he can do but hope that in the end, cooler heads prevail, and logic defies greed and jealousy. And with Tuesday's news, everything may turn out OK for the league.
"The whole thing — it's all most surrealistic," he said. "I shouldn't be getting a headache over this, but I do. It's just, 'why?' How is this helping the sports of all these Big 12 schools?
"It's very disappointing. It all kind of leaves you speechless. The fact that pride, irritation, anger over things you wouldn't say are that major would lead to the dissolution of the Big 12... I just wish everybody would sit back and think about it more.
"It would just be very heartbreaking to see the Big 12 break up."
Next up, an article from the San-Antonio Express News, showing the perspective of the "forgotten" schools from the SWC:
Power brokers: How tagalong Baylor, Tech crashed the revolt
Web Posted: 08/14/2005 12:00 AM CDT
Express-News Staff Writer
It's hard to keep a secret around the state Capitol, especially when legislative talk turns from taxes to football.
So, in early 1994, when the buzz began that Texas and Texas A&M were preparing to leave the Southwest Conference, David Sibley went straight to a man he knew wouldn't deceive him.
Sibley, then a Republican state senator from Waco, buttonholed William Cunningham, the University of Texas chancellor, at a reception. He asked him point blank if the rumors that the Longhorns and Aggies were planning to desert the SWC were true.
Cunningham asked Sibley where he had heard that. He questioned the sources of the rumors. He tried to change the subject.
What he didn't do was deny it.
To Sibley, that was proof enough that something was up — something that wasn't going to sit well with state politicos with allegiances to either the six soon-to-be snubbed SWC universities or the communities served by those schools. Or, as was the case with Baylor graduate Sibley, to both.
It was time, as one state politician with a vested interest in the matter later recalled, "to turn loose the dogs of war."
The pack included Dobermans, a veritable who's who of Baylor and Texas Tech alumni. Ann Richards, then governor, and Bob Bullock, then lieutenant governor, were Baylor grads. Sibley held a high-ranking position on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Tech unleashed its own influential alums: John Montford, president pro tempore of the Senate; Robert Junell, destined to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Speaker of the House Pete Laney.
Sibley threatened a cut in funding for UT and A&M if they bolted on their own. Junell collared UT president Robert Berdahl and spelled out what was at stake.
"As I recall, it wasn't a very veiled threat to cut budgets if Tech was left behind," Berdahl recalls.
Laney doesn't recall any hints of reprisal.
"We'd be a whole lot easier to get along with if our teams were in there, but I don't think there were any threats," Laney said. "We (the legislators) are temporary. We'll be replaced sooner or later."
Bullock, who died in 1999, took the lead in galvanizing the Tech and Baylor factions. He called Bernard Rappaport, a Waco businessman then serving on the UT Board of Regents. Rappaport confirmed that UT's absorption into the Big Eight was imminent.
Bullock went to work.
It was Monday, Feb. 20, 1994 — Presidents' Day, a state holiday. Bullock began rounding up his troops. He called Cunningham and requested an immediate meeting. William Mobley, A&M's chancellor, and Dean Gage, A&M's interim president, were in Temple on a facilities tour when Bullock reached them by phone. Bullock wanted to talk — now. Mobley and Gage replied that they couldn't fit it into their schedules.
"I would think that if the Lieutenant Governor requested a meeting you would show him the courtesy," Bullock said angrily. Then he slammed down the phone. Minutes later, the phone rang.
Mobley and Gage had suddenly found time to talk.
The plot revealed
The group convened in Bullock's office in a state building next to the Capitol. On hand were Bullock, Cunningham, Sibley, Montford, Mobley, Gage and Bill Clayton, a former house speaker who now sat on A&M's board of regents.
Cunningham told Bullock that, indeed, UT was on the verge of joining the Big Eight. By then, Bullock and the others were prepared to act — prepared to wield the monolithic clout that stems from rural politics and lengthy tenure — to buy Baylor and Tech passage out of the doomed SWC.
The four other SWC schools — SMU, TCU, Rice and Houston, all based in metropolitan communities — found few advocates for their interests.
The fate of the three private schools in the group — SMU, TCU and Rice — was of little concern to the decision-makers in Austin.
Even among the four breakaway schools, unity was difficult to attain. One sticking point for a four-way exodus from the SWC was A&M, which still clung to aspirations of joining recently departed SWC member Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference.
According to witnesses — and also Clayton's testimony in the 1996 misappropriation of funds trial of former A&M regents chairman Ross Margraves — Clayton balked at the idea of the Aggies joining the Big Eight.
"No, you're wrong about that" Bullock told him. "You need to come with us to the Big Eight."
It so happened that A&M needed two votes from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which governs construction projects at state colleges, to proceed with the construction of its $33.4 million basketball and convocation facility, which became Reed Arena.
"Don't worry about it," Bullock told Clayton. "I'll get them for you tomorrow."
On Feb. 24 — just four days after Bullock's round of emergency phone calls — the Big Eight officially absorbed UT, A&M, Baylor and Tech, and a new league was formed, using a name the Big Eight had curiously trademarked years earlier: The Big 12.
That Capitol intrigue ended a revolt that had been in the works since the late 1980s, when UT and A&M officials first considered leaving the SWC.
First, the Longhorns looked west, to the Pac-10. Berdahl found it appealing that seven of the 10 schools in the Pac-10 were members of the American Association of Universities, a group comprised of the nation's top 62 research universities.
Distance was the main drawback. The University of Arizona, located in Tucson, was the nearest Pac-10 school to Austin — and still 788 miles away. Eight of the 10 schools were in the Pacific Time Zone, meaning a two-hour time gap with most of Texas.
"Texas wanted desperately the academic patina that the Pac 10 yielded," recalls Berdahl, who went on to serve as chancellor at Pac-10 member California-Berkeley. "To be associated with UCLA, Stanford and Cal in academics was very desirable."
Still, expansion in the Pac-10 depended on unanimous approval of the member schools. And Stanford, which had long battled UT in athletics as well as academics, objected. For UT, the way west never materialized.
The Longhorns next turned to the Big Ten.
Having added Penn State in 1990, the Big Ten was now made of universities that, in the view of UT officials, matched UT's profile — large state schools with strong academic reputations. Berdahl liked the fact that 10 conference members belonged to the American Association of Universities.
Yet, distance remained a disadvantage. Iowa, the closest Big Ten school to Austin, was 856 miles away — but the appeal of having 10 of 12 schools in the same time zone was seen as a plus.
But after adding Penn State in 1990, Big Ten officials had put a four-year moratorium on expansion. Although admitting interest, Big Ten bosses ultimately rejected UT's overtures.
That left the SEC as a possible relocation target for the Longhorns — until Berdahl let it be known that UT wasn't interested because of the league's undistinguished academic profile. Only two of 12 schools in the SEC were American Association of Universities members and UT officials saw admissions standards to SEC schools as too lenient.
"We were quite interested in raising academic standards," Berdahl says. "And the Southeastern Conference had absolutely no interest in that."
A&M, meanwhile, had no qualms about flirting with the SEC. From the late 1980s on, administrators from A&M and LSU had several informal conversations about the Aggies joining the SEC. After talks with Miami broke down in 1990, the SEC's courtship with A&M grew more serious.
LSU athletic director Joe Dean telephoned his A&M counterpart John David Crow to discuss A&M's candidacy.
"Joe was going to sponsor us, do what was needed to be done," Crow said. "They would have liked to have had us."
At the NCAA Convention in Dallas in January 1993, Dean reportedly met with Dodds and Crow to discuss a possible two-school move. Dean later told reporters that he believed UT was "headed north" — to the Big Eight or Big Ten — while A&M was the "most logical addition to the SEC."
In response to reports of the meeting, a representative of A&M president William Mobley told reporters there had been no offer and "Dr. Mobley is firmly committed to the Southwest Conference."
But in August 1993, A&M regents chairman Margraves flew to LSU for his son's graduation, taking time to meet with LSU chancellor William Davis to discuss the possible migration of A&M — and Houston — into the SEC. Margraves later said he came away from the trip favoring a move.
The right fit
Despite the repeated wooing from both sides, however, the relationship was never consummated. A&M administrators, apparently fearful of a backlash if the school made the first move solo, held back. UT wasn't interested and a suitable partner from the SWC couldn't be found. The SEC, meanwhile, backed off on expansion.
"I don't think the powers that be wanted us to move alone, leave the Southwest Conference and its tradition," Crow said.
Mobley, now a professor of management at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says A&M's actions resulted from a strategic analysis of the SWC's future commissioned by the league's presidents after Arkansas departed.
"It was a complex decision, a matrix of academic, economic and political factors for all schools and conferences," Mobley said.
He added that those factors included academics and compliance, television money, scheduling and travel, existing natural rivalries and "support and political implications among various stakeholders including the Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature, Former Students, the Athletic Department, faculty, students, media, etc."
Almost by default the attentions of UT and A&M turned to the one major football conference that was geographically nearest and competitively dearest — the Big Eight.
It helped that UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds and Oklahoma athletic director Donnie Duncan were old friends. Dodds had once served as AD at Kansas State. And, of course, the Longhorns and Sooners were longtime rivals from annual October football showdowns in Dallas.
Acutely aware of how the fast-moving world of television negotiations was changing the face of conference affiliations, Dodds and Duncan had, since the late 1980s, chatted informally about the possibility of UT joining the Big Eight.
For a multitude of reasons, that move made the most sense. All of the Big Eight schools were in the Central Time Zone. The most distant school from Austin was Iowa State, 840 miles away. Like the SWC, the Big Eight was looking to improve revenues and in need of additional markets to increase its bargaining power for TV rights.
Still, the Big Eight wanted to expand to 10 teams, not nine, so each school could play a round-robin schedule in football and still have two non-conference games. UT needed an expansion partner and the obvious choice was A&M.
Both schools offered large alumni bases, rich tradition and solid academic reputations. Both excelled in a variety of sports other than football and basketball.
Within a week of the meeting of political heavyweights, the expansion twins became quadruplets with the forced acceptance of Baylor and Tech into what amounted to a merger deal. Almost immediately, the deal paid off.
On March 10, the Big 12 signed a five-year, $100 million deal with ABC and Liberty Sports to carry the league's football games.
Denial, then denied
Even as the fortunate four were cashing in, the forgotten four were reaching for their wallets — and having that chill-bump sensation of finding nothing.
"It was a bomb," then TCU AD Frank Windegger said, "dropped square on top of us."
Even when the administrators at TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston received advance confirmation from those involved, some still refused to believe it.
In February 1994, days before the league dissolved, SMU AD Forrest Gregg privately asked Dodds if the move was imminent. Dodds said yes.
Gregg told SMU president A. Kenneth Pye of the conversation. Pye responded that it couldn't be happening, because the other league presidents hadn't said anything about it. Two days later, it came true.
"We were in Dallas, with a long and illustrious tradition, and we thought that would work," Gregg said.
SMU wasn't alone in discovering that what it offered in positives was set off by what it promised in negatives.
SMU, TCU and Rice were private schools, and big conferences desire schools backed by state coffers. Houston, TCU and SMU still bore the stain of NCAA probation.
All thought they could deliver big television markets to a league in search of the same, but the Big 12 members felt that UT and A&M could deliver Dallas and Houston.
There were brief discussions about keeping the Southwest Conference alive, but nobody could agree on whom to invite. And the TV money was quickly drying up.
"There was a lot of indecision," said Steve Hatchell, who served as the last SWC commissioner then assumed the same duties with the Big 12. "Those four were not in the habit of looking around to find a place for themselves. The picture changed totally."
SMU, TCU and Rice headed to the Western Athletic Conference, a geographically widespread league that boasted one football national champion (BYU, in 1984) but modest accomplishments elsewhere.
Houston, believing its future was to the east — the school had once coveted an invitation to the SEC — cast its lot with a new league formed from the nucleus of the old Metro Conference, called Conference USA.
Baylor and Tech — one a private school, one a school that had to pull out the stops just to be admitted into the SWC 26 years earlier and neither in major television markets — were simply happy to be included in the Big 12.
"As luck and fate would have it, Texas Tech had some very powerful members of the legislature," said former Tech AD Bob Bockrath. "Candidly, if not for the influence, it'd be the Big 10 — that's taken, so some other name. I don't think Texas and A&M saw Tech and Baylor as equal partners."
Former Baylor AD Dick Ellis said: "It was a battle of the haves and have-nots. Baylor, we kind of snuck in. I'm sure there's resentment from SMU, TCU and Rice."
While the forgotten four stewed about being jilted, the honeymoon that followed the marriage of the fortunate four and the Big Eight was short.
Officials of the new league were quickly saddled with two contentious issues: initial eligibility for athletes and arrangements for a football championship game.
The SWC expatriates wanted entrance requirements that were stiffer than those mandated by the NCAA. Nebraska, sustained through the years by more lenient standards, objected.
Suddenly, the process of forming the Big 12 became a clash of priorities and a dispute over how priorities shape integrity.
Cornhuskers fans howled about UT arrogance. UT supporters saw Nebraska's reluctance as a cynical, self-serving way to keep the Cornhuskers on top.
"Nebraska and Texas were jockeying for position," said Bill Byrne, the A&M AD who then held that position at Nebraska. "Nebraska was the 800-pound gorilla in the Big Eight. Texas was the 800-pound gorilla in the Southwest Conference."
In December of 1995, 10 months before the first Big 12 football game, the league's school presidents agreed to allow each Big 12 school to admit two male and two female partial qualifiers each season. Still, Nebraska officials wanted to delay implementation. League presidents voted 11-1 to put the rules into immediate effect.
That was the second major defeat for Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers had dominated Big Eight football — they won back-to-back national titles in that league's final two seasons — and they opposed the idea of a title game, fearing one upset could ruin a season.
In the summer of 1995, league presidents, warmed by the prospect of a title game providing another $10 million in revenue, voted 11-1 to put in a championship game.
Nebraska officials also blamed UT for the league's choice of Dallas as the site for league headquarters, a decision that dislodged the conference from its old Big Eight base in Kansas City. Adding to the early acrimony was the league's choice of Hatchell as the Big 12's first commissioner, another decision driven by Texas schools, Nebraska officials charged.
It was fitting that the first Big 12 championship game, held in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 1996, matched No. 3 Nebraska against 20-point underdog UT.
Even the ticket offices got into it.
In a conference call to set up the will-call ticket windows, a Big 12 official asked Nebraska's representatives what they needed. "Two tables and three chairs," came the reply.
He posed the same question to UT officials.
"Two tables and four chairs," said UT's ticket manager, earning a round of high-fives from his staff.
The underdog Longhorns, using a bold pass play on fourth and inches at their own 28-yard line in the final minutes, had the final say on the field, too, winning 37-27.
Nearly a decade later, Berdahl, an academician not normally given to moods of vengeance, can't contain himself when he recalls those early growing pains of the Big 12.
"It was," he says, "a real sweet victory."