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VOL. 131 | NO. 211 | Friday, October 21, 2016

As Big 12 Stands Pat, AAC Looks To Grow Brand

By Don Wade

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It wasn’t difficult to figure out why the Big 12 – or the Confused 10, if you prefer – started down the road of exploring expansion.

Oklahoma President David Boren, left, speaks as Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby looks on during a news conference after The Big 12 Conference meeting in Grapevine, Texas, Monday, Oct. 17.

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

It turned out to be a road to nowhere – a twisting, turning road with many stops to ask for directions – and finally the league announced on Monday, Oct. 17, that it would, in fact, not expand.

Oh. That was fun.

But let’s go back to the energy that drove this process in the first place. Baylor and TCU were left on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff after the 2014 season, in great part because the league lacked a championship game.

That was the setup for Oklahoma president and conference board chairman David Boren famously – infamously? – saying the Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged.” 

It wasn’t necessarily an inaccurate statement, just a poorly played one. It cemented the Big 12 as the fifth of the Power 5 conferences behind the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12. If people didn’t already view the Big 12 as the least of these, it certainly did after Boren’s comment.

Perhaps the one thing the Big 12 did right was bring in consultants to study if adding a conference championship game would improve the odds of the league’s champion making the College Football Playoff. To no one’s surprise, the answer was yes.

Previously, NCAA rules required leagues to have at least 12 members to have a league title game. That would mean expanding by at least two schools. In the end, however, the NCAA rule was changed and the Big 12 will have a league championship game after the 2017 season.

Yet Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the league plowed forward with the notion of expansion

The University of Memphis was just one of about 20 schools that worked hard to make the jump from a Group of Five Conference to the Big 12. FedEx’s Fred Smith was behind the effort and it became public knowledge he was potentially willing to have his company sponsor that Big 12 championship game.

Memphis president David Rudd was all-in on getting Memphis into the Big 12 and even had said moving into a Power 5 conference was a must if the school was to achieve its goals.

But in September word got out that while seven other American Athletic Conference schools remained in the running for Big 12 inclusion, Memphis had been eliminated. That stung. Not just being passed over, but being cut before the likes of obvious didn’t-fit-wannabes such as Rice and Tulane, among others.

In the end, of course, no one made the cut. Not Cincinnati, UConn, Houston or SMU. Not UCF or USF. Not BYU or Air Force or Colorado State.

Did we leave anybody out?

“It was a little more of a sweepstakes than we thought it would be at the beginning,” Bowlsby said after the oh-never-mind announcement on Monday.

The reluctance of the league’s TV partners, ESPN and Fox, clearly played a substantial role. Fox Sports president Eric Shanks told SportsBusiness Daily that Big 12 expansion would be “harmful to the future of the conference.”

Translation: None of the expansion candidates moved the needle. They would, in fact, dilute the football product. And, rest assured, it’s the football product that matters here. If basketball had any real impact, UConn would have been a slam-dunk choice and Memphis would have been a strong contender.

Memphis fans won’t like to hear it, but the truth is most of the college-football-watching public does not know that backup Denver Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch starred at Memphis, that first-year Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente turned around the Memphis program, or that new coach Mike Norvell is already just one win away from having Memphis bowl eligible.

The best news for Memphis, in fact, is that the Big 12 decision to not expand – no matter how messy the journey to that destination – prevented the American Athletic Conference from losing one to four schools. Conference commissioner Mike Aresco long has tried to position the AAC as the sixth Power 5 league and now work begins anew to further close the gap between the AAC and the Big 12, which indisputably is the weakest of the Power 5 conferences.

Aresco, in an interview with ESPN, conceded the drawn-out Big 12 expansion search was a “colossal distraction.” Seven AAC schools were said to be among the schools that gave video presentations in September: UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, USF, SMU and Tulane.

Looking to mix up his own batch of lemonade, Aresco ultimately found positives in the process and said the league received a lot of attention.

“Our brand is national now,” he said. “The AAC, The American, the fact the light was shining on our schools, they were the targets for the most part. We had a certain status. That’s really important and it’s important to capitalize on that.”

Aresco’s plan now: Launch a true “Power 6” initiative that keeps the league’s profile on the rise; borrow from IKEA and try to assemble your own power conference. 

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