Huskers hightailing it: Football-rich Nebraska leaves Big 12 for Big Ten

Football fans at Memorial Stadium in in Lincoln, Neb., pictured above, will call the Big Ten Conference home after the school announced it was leaving the Big 12 on Friday. The Cornhuskers will attempt to begin play in the Big Ten in 2011.

One thing many people worried about when Kansas University football coach Turner Gill was hired in December doesn’t seem like much of a problem anymore.

On Friday, as expected, the University of Nebraska — where Gill starred as a quarterback in the 1980s — announced its intention to leave the Big 12 Conference for the Big Ten. Nebraska became the second school in the past two days (Colorado officially joined the Pac-10 on Thursday) to depart the 15-year-old Big 12, which now appears closer than ever to extinction.

Because the Cornhuskers hope to begin play in the Big Ten in 2011, it appears Gill may have to face his alma mater just once as the head coach at Kansas, thus making concerns about his potentially divided loyalties all but moot.

Although Gill almost certainly has his own thoughts about Nebraska leaving its former Big Eight brothers, the KU coach made clear his feelings toward the Big Red when he was hired by Kansas.

“It’s just a name of a school,” he said. “I’m not getting caught up in where I’ve been. Obviously, I understand it. I have great memories there, and I have great respect for Nebraska. But I’m here to tell people about the University of Kansas and what we have to offer.”

What exactly that will be remains to be seen, as the rumors of Kansas heading to this conference or that continue to rage. What we do know for sure is that the Big 12 is down to 10 members and that Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe is doing everything he can — perhaps hoping against hope — to keep the conference alive.

“I will still be working for the remaining 10 institutions,” Beebe said via teleconference Friday. “I’m going all the way to the final whistle, and I have every intention of holding together the 10 that we have. I’m playing it out as hard and fast as I can, and I’m doing the best I can to help them understand what they would give up by leaving and what they have by staying.”

Although the reasons for Nebraska’s departure vary and are wide-ranging, Nebraska President J.B. Milliken spelled it out clearly Friday afternoon.

“The University of Nebraska would have new opportunities with membership in the Big Ten — and I believe the Big Ten would be a stronger conference as well,” he said.

For Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, the move came down to the future. Heading to the Big Ten, Perlman said, offers the kind of security that the Big 12 cannot.

Added Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne: “As we read the tea leaves and listened to the conversations, some of the schools that were urging us to stay, we found some of them had talked to not only one other conference or two but even three, and those were the same ones urging us to stay,” he said.

Osborne continued: “This is not about any type of vindictiveness. You don’t make a decision of this size based on where you’re going to play Big 12 championship games.”

For now, it appears as if the Big Ten is finished with the Big 12. When asked if his conversation with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany revealed any plans for adding Missouri, which has been open about its desire to follow Nebraska into the Big Ten, Beebe said: “At this point, my understanding is that there aren’t any other Big 12 members being considered by the Big Ten.”

The funny thing about that statement is that the Big Ten now might be the only conference not considering adding Big 12 schools.

Sources have told The Journal-World that the Mountain West Conference, which made a splash Friday by poaching perennial football power Boise State from the Western Athletic Conference, would jump at the chance to add any Big 12 institutions left in limbo.

“Without a doubt,” the source said. “The Mountain West would be very aggressive in moving forward to add any Big 12 schools that might be looking for a conference.”

Furthermore, East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland spoke frankly about his conference’s interest in any Big 12 castaways.

“Conference USA is rapidly preparing to compete for the remaining Big 12 members if the meltdown continues to a full implosion,” Holland said in a statement.

Another report, from ESPN, indicated that four of the five schools originally rumored to be heading to the Pac-10 with Colorado — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech — would be ready to announce their departures as soon as Tuesday.

That would bring the Pac-10’s membership to 15. At that point, most believe, there would be one more spot available in the Pac-10 that could be filled by Texas A&M, which was in the original merger talk, Kansas or Utah.

A&M has been rumored to have a strong desire to join the SEC, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive revealed Friday that he would be willing to move current SEC schools Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East to allow for Texas and Texas A&M to slide into the SEC West.

Despite all of the rumors that continue to grow wilder by the day, Beebe said the Big 12 still had value with the 10 members that remained in the conference as of Friday.

“We could look at adding teams if the 10 institutions we have remain together,” Beebe said. “And that’s something we need to consider. However, in terms of value and conducting a high-level conference, we don’t have to do that. The information we have is pretty strong that the 10 members we have would continue to provide a tremendous amount of revenue in the future. The question is, ‘Are there any institutions that would add more value?’ I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Throughout this entire ordeal, some of the most influential people in Kansas have remained unified in their desire to see KU and K-State move forward together. If the Big 12 south schools do, in fact, jump ship to the Pac-10 by Tuesday, that could do damage to that outcome, especially if KU is interested in becoming the 16th member of the Pac-10, if invited.

Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson released a statement in the wake of Nebraska’s announcement Friday. Along with pledging confidence in the university leaders, Parkinson’s statement spoke to the dire situation both schools are facing.

“The University of Kansas and Kansas State University are world-class institutions with premier academic, research and athletic programs,” Parkinson said. “Although it appears uncertain whether they will stay in the Big 12 or align with a different athletic conference, I am confident that Chancellor (Bernadette) Gray-Little and President (Kirk) Schulz, working with the Board of Regents, will make a choice that’s in the best interests of their student-athletes, their world-class universities and our state.”