University of Oklahoma president David Boren has become quite adept at navigating these treacherous waters.
Boren easily steers through an unrelenting river of questions he gets on the future of the Big 12 Conference — questions that inevitably run into an equally endless topic: the sea of conference realignment.
As we know, conference realignment comes in waves — waves that are a force of nature and can reshape the known geography of college athletics.
“I would just say that we’re, at this point in time, hoping the Big 12 will improve and succeed,” Boren told reporters after last week’s meeting of the OU Board of Regents.
“I think we’re really looking ahead at a whole wave of realignment as these (television rights) contracts come to an end. I think we’re four or five years away from it.”
What will Sooner fans be doing in four or five years, then?
Planning more trips to Lubbock and Waco and Lawrence?
Or evaluating new vistas like Ann Arbor or Oxford or Tempe?
“The question is, are you in a conference that’s going to have a chance to play for national championships and is going to be in the playoffs?” Boren said. “And I think probably more than anything else, performance is going to determine that.”
If that’s the determining factor for the fate of the Big 12 — or at least OU’s membership in it — then Sooner fans better start scoping out their favorite new autumn hangouts in other lands. Better to have the lay of the land in either the Big Ten, the SEC or the Pac-12 ahead of time for what looks inevitable.
Because if it’s national championships that determine Oklahoma’s future conference affiliation, it won’t be with the Big 12. The league’s last football title was now 12 years ago, 2005 by Texas. In men’s basketball, the last national championship came in 2008 — more than two full recruiting cycles ago. In women’s basketball, Baylor won it all in 2012. In baseball, Texas in ’05.
Oh, the Big 12 has produced plenty of cross country and track and field and gymnastics and volleyball and swimming and diving national titles in the last five years, and those should be rightfully celebrated. But among college sports’ money-makers, the Big 12 is hurting: zilch in five years and counting.
Don’t ever count out a good Kansas team from making a title run, and Big 12 baseball and women’s basketball can usually contend. But let’s talk about the real moneymaker: is the Big 12 in its current iteration capable of breaking into the football power structure of the SEC, the ACC and the Big Ten? Probably not.
Not when the Big 12 is the only conference to get shut out of the college football playoff field twice in the first three years of the bracket system.
And not when recruiting class after recruiting class comes up short of the competition. Five-star athletes no longer choose to play in the Big 12 — only four in the last four years, per the Rivals.com database.
That talent glut on the front end is exposed on the back end, too, by last month’s depressing NFL Draft numbers — only 14 players selected this year, by far the fewest of any Power 5 league (shattering the Big 12’s own futility record of 18).
With no elite talent coming in or going out, Boren has his answer: no, the Big 12 will not suddenly, unexpectedly start winning football national championships.
The Big 12 did report record earnings last year, some $30 million per school, but that dipped this year and won’t rebound significantly any time soon.
And when financially strapped television networks come to the board room to begin negotiating with conferences for new contracts — the Big Ten is first up for renewal in 2022 — they will not spend more money to partner up with a conference that lacks elite talent and can’t compete for national championships.
Boren is a wise man and a world-class politician. He’s also 76, so who’s to say he’ll be making decisions when that time comes? But if he is, bet on him having already positioned Oklahoma as a valued property when the Big Ten and its network partners begin examining that league’s membership.
The Big 12’s own media rights deal doesn’t expire until 2025, but the league will open discussions with its media partners before then.
The question then becomes, will the Big 12 go to the negotiating table with Oklahoma (and Texas, of course) as members? Or will those schools already have decided to absorb a minor financial hit on their grant of media rights with the Big 12 in exchange for even greater riches and a more stable tomorrow in a future league?
“I think for us,” Boren said, “it would not be advisable at this point of time to reopen the grant of rights question for a long number of years, because no one has a crystal ball to see exactly how these conferences are going to evolve. I think there’ll be more consolidation frankly. …
“We wouldn’t walk away from the Big 12 lightly, I’ll put it that way. We don’t have any plans to leave right now. There’s not any active conversation going on.”
Boren, ever the politician, thrives on “at this point in time” and “right now.”
In other words, this is how things will be. Unless things change.
“I don’t look ‘til four or five years from now for all of these things to become pretty fluid again,” Boren said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
None of us would.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.