A look at KU’s options if departures by Oklahoma and Texas put the Big 12 in jeopardy
photo by: Orlin Wagner
It may — and may not — still be a little premature to look at possible landing spots for Kansas in the event that Oklahoma and Texas leave the Big 12 Conference for the SEC.
But the timeline that has been reported and the mere fact that this is even being discussed in the first place make it a worthwhile endeavor.
So here it goes.
The way I see it, if (when?) OU and UT leave the conference, KU would have five options. Those options are listed below in the order of what I believe is most likely to least likely.
That’s today. A lot can change. And a lot of this list is based on what I learned the last time realignment hit the conference. And a lot has changed on that front, so it’s hard to know if the realities from a decade ago are still relevant today.
• Move to the ACC
There are plenty of obstacles associated with Kansas moving to the ACC, but also plenty of benefits. Travel is certainly no picnic and would make things hard for both sides unless the ACC wanted to further expand somewhere in the Midwest. Assuming they can get past that, which is no sure thing, the move to align with the best basketball programs in the country seems to make a lot of sense. We all know that it’s football that drives realignment, but unless you’re joining the SEC — which KU isn’t — you’re already playing for second place in that department. So why not be the best in the world in the other major sport? The ACC probably already believes it is. Adding Kansas would solidify that. Beyond that, KU AD Travis Goff’s close ties to ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips could be beneficial in negotiations. Could.
• Move to the Big Ten
A top-tier athletic and academic conference with most of its schools in relatively close proximity to KU’s campus, KU landing in the Big Ten would be a dream scenario. I’m just not sure it’s the most likely scenario. While the current state of the KU football program would still be problematic when it comes to facing the Ohio States, Michigans and Iowas of the world, the lower half of the Big Ten is not untouchable. Rutgers, Maryland, Illinois and Nebraska all have struggled at times. KU can’t worry about that right now, though. If there’s a way to get into the conference, you do it. And you trust that the Lance Leipold hire winds up being good enough to at least make you competitive with most of the conference. The Big Ten could certainly be inspired to look elsewhere, but adding Kansas and Iowa State would not be the worst thing it could do either, provided it’s even interested in expanding.
• Be a power player in keeping the Big 12 together
Although the Big 12 as we know would cease to exist with Oklahoma and Texas no longer in it, there figures to be a pretty strong push to try to use the brand to salvage some kind of Power 5 spot. There are plenty of quality teams a new-look Big 12 could add. None of them would come anywhere close to bringing what OU and UT do. But you could add major markets (Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida), schools with nationwide recognition (BYU) and teams that some believe are on the brink of breaking through with the right opportunity (SMU, UCF and others). If that doesn’t do it for you — or, more likely, for your television partners — then you get greedy and you try to poach teams from other existing Power 5 conferences, with Arizona and Arizona State sitting at the top of the list. I put this one third because, for KU, finding a way into either of those first two conferences makes the most financial sense. Neither is a lock, though. And, beyond that, there are going to be plenty of people out there who are willing to fight for the survival of the Big 12. If that turns out to be what KU deems is its best path forward, then KU needs to flex its muscles and become in the new Big 12 what OU and Texas were to the old one. That will be harder to do with the state of the football program, but they have to try. One other crazy option to consider: If SEC programs Missouri and Texas A&M wind up voting no on inviting OU and Texas into that conference, could that seal their fate for the future in the SEC and would moving back to the Big 12 be a smarter play?
• Move to the Pac-12
Money and time zones make this a tough option, but if the Pac-12 is interested in expanding farther east, maybe with KU, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Colorado and Utah providing a solid footprint from the Rockies to the Midwest, something could be thrown together. The most sensible move would be some sort of combination of the best of both conferences. Even with its football program in the state that it’s in, KU would be on that list. But the lack of a recruiting base out west, along with the cost of travel and the late game times in local markets would not make this an ideal option.
• Move to a basketball conference
I don’t know how you manage this, but people will mention it as an option. The only way this works is if you join the Big East and team up with Villanova, Creighton, UConn, Georgetown, Butler and others and then allow your football program to play as a pseudo-independent. Sounds messy, though. Because even as much as the fans — and opponents — might like to joke about KU dropping football, that’s not in the best financial interest of the athletic department. The tricky part about joining a basketball-centric league is two-fold. Not only are you risking the potential gain from the football dollars, but you’re also asking the impossible of the program to keep football going. Right now, Kansas is not enough of a draw for television networks to get excited about the Jayhawks playing anybody. So KU does not bring a whole lot of TV juice to the table. From the KU side of things, if the Jayhawks take a bunch of tough games for the national exposure and big pay days, that’s only going to make it more difficult for the Jayhawks to get back on the winning track.
Tough times are ahead for a whole bunch of college athletic programs if OU and Texas do in fact leave the Big 12, setting off another round of conference realignment.
And while KU’s future may still lie in a revamped Big 12 Conference, it’s in the school’s best interest to do everything it can to try to find a better landing spot before settling for that option. And by school, we’re talking exactly that. First-year AD Goff will play a big role in this whole thing, but don’t forget that Chancellor Douglas Girod and the Board of Regents also swing a mighty sword here.
Money talks, too. So if the powers that be who are seeking to keep the Big 12 alive find a way to get guaranteed annual TV money in the range of $20-25 million per member (the Big 12 paid out roughly $35 million last year), that might make that move easier to stomach.
Even then, the annual payout of nearly twice that much in the ACC or Big Ten would make another round of settling for the best the Big 12 can do a lot tougher.
Buckle up, and let’s see what happens.