Bigger Big 12: BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston on the way

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall looks to hand off the ball against Arizona during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

The Big 12 didn’t even wait for Oklahoma and Texas to leave before expanding and the league may not necessarily be done growing after adding BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston.

“This was a very clear and relatively easy decision for the eight continuing members of the Big 12,” Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said Friday after that group unanimously approved applications from the four schools that sought membership after the league learned the Sooners and Longhorns will leave for the Southeastern Conference no later than July 2025.

Within hours of the Big 12 vote, all four formally accepted the invitations.

There had been no indication that Oklahoma and Texas, the only Big 12 teams to win football national championships, were looking to move until the reports emerged a week after Big 12 football media days in mid-July. By August, both had accepted formal invitations to join the SEC.

The moves prompted speculation that the Big 12 would soon be in a death spiral without its two most storied programs, at least in the revenue-producing sport of football. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby had been largely quiet in recent weeks as the expansion was put in motion.

“Speaking purely on a personal level, I enjoy working with people that I trust, that I like and that I know share the values that I have for intercollegiate athletics,” Bowlsby said Friday.

BYU said all its sports will begin Big 12 schedules in the 2023-24 athletic season. BYU is an independent in football, but competes in the West Coast Conference for basketball and so-called Olympic sports like track and swimming.

Bowlsby said current American Athletic Conference teams UCF, Cincinnati and Houston will join no later than July 1, 2024, but he “certainly wouldn’t foreclose” on the possibility of them coming in a year earlier with BYU.

The AAC requires members to give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league, though there could be negotiations between the schools and that league to reduce that time.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said the league expected Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to “abide by the conference bylaws to ensure an amicable and orderly transition” as the league considers its options.

“Today’s news confirms what we have said all along regarding our status as a power conference,” Aresco said. “The irony that three of our schools are being asked to take the place of the two marquee schools which are leaving the Big 12 is not lost on us. Our conference was targeted for exceeding expectations in a system that wasn’t designed to accommodate our success.”

The four schools were among 11 interviewed by the Big 12 in 2016 when it considered expansion before staying at 10 teams.

Bowlsby described that process five years ago as “a voyage of exploration,” but said the decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave prompted renewed consideration of available options.

BYU President Kevin Worthen said the Big 12′s expansion study five years ago made the process much faster and easier this time. Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe said that failed attempt to get into the Big 12 turned out to be a “launching point.”

The Longhorns and Sooners have said they will honor their current contracts with the Big 12 and do not plan to join the SEC until 2025, when the conference’s current television rights contracts with ESPN and Fox run out. That means the Big 12 could have up to 14 members for a season or two.

Bowlsby said the Big 12 will take the departing schools at their word “and if it turns out that that isn’t the case, we feel like we have the necessary legal prerogatives to manage it as we see fit at the time that it occurs.”

The Big 12 distributed about $345 million of total revenue between its 10 members for the 2020-21 academic year that was greatly affected by the pandemic.

Asked about the potential value of media rights for the new conference without Texas and Oklahoma, Bowlsby didn’t offer specific numbers but said the league added as much as it could in football and more to arguably the best basketball conference in the country that already has reigning men’s national champion Baylor and perennial power Kansas.

“I think live sports is always going to be a valuable commodity, and if you have live sports with competition among the very best universities you can put together in an alliance, you have a chance to go forward and do good things,” he said.

As for possible future expansion, Bowlsby said the league was ready if there “are targets of opportunity or as there are situations that dictate that we would change composition.”

With the four additions, the Big 12 will be spread across eight states and three time zones. There are more than 2,300 miles between the Central Florida campus in Orlando and BYU in Provo, Utah. Once settled in the Big 12, the Knights and Cougars will both face average trips of around 1,300 miles each way for conference games.

West Virginia still will average about 1,100 miles each way on the road, but the Mountaineers at least picked up a relatively short trip with Cincinnati from Morgantown. Houston faces much shorter trips for its Texas-based foes.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” Houston Chancellor Renu Kahtor said.

Half the league’s 12 charter members will remain when Texas and Oklahoma are gone.

The Big 12 began play in 1996, when all Big Eight teams (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) joined four Texas schools from the old Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to form a new league split into six-team divisions.

Arkansas had left the SWC to join an expanded 12-team SEC, starting play there with South Carolina in the 1992 season. The SEC is now set to grow to 16 teams, with its last four additions all coming from the Big 12.

The Big 12 has been a 10-team league since the last significant round of realignment a decade ago that started with Nebraska going to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, before Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC. TCU and West Virginia are both now in their 10th Big 12 season.

With 10 teams, the Big 12 has played round-robin schedules in football and basketball. The top two teams in the standings advance to the conference’s football championship game. Bowlsby acknowledged that the league will likely be going back to divisions with the additions.

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AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.

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