A prediction I made two years ago looks like it will be dead wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
The Big 12 Conference, which I figured wouldn’t last three years after the departures of Nebraska and Colorado in the spring of 2010, appears to have solidified itself into a long-term player in college athletics.
Lots of good people in the Big 12 who also are good friends lost lots of sleep after the 2010 uprising. More worry lines formed when Texas A&M revealed in 2011 it was leaving.
With Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma also flirting with other leagues, death-bed pronouncements were prepared.
But things changed last September when Commissioner Dan Beebe was fired and Chuck Neinas was appointed interim chief.
Neinas is one of the five wisest people I know in this business. The Big 12 needed a major presence at the big-boy table to secure its future, and the former Big Eight commissioner and one-time leader of the College Football Association provided it.
“He’s strong. He’s national,” said Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, who worked under Neinas in the old Big Eight as an assistant commissioner. “He can walk into any room with any group and be a player.”
The nine-month miracle that the 80-year-old Neinas has pulled off matches any accomplishment in his sterling career.
Under his watch, the Big 12:
»Added West Virginia and TCU to account for the losses of Texas A&M and Missouri.
»Crafted new TV deals that should boost the estimated league payout to schools to about $20 million annually — double what it was when Nebraska was a member.
»Signed an agreement with the Southeastern Conference to match football champions, a move that turned heads nationally and may have set some of the framework for a football playoff.
»Provided the stability and positive trend lines needed to attract a highly respected athletic figure — Stanford A.D. Bob Bowlsby — to replace him in July.
“Everybody had pretty much buried the Big 12,” Oklahoma State President Burns Hargis said at last week’s league meetings. “Fast-forward to today and you see a conference that is not just stable, it’s a conference that is sought-after by many schools in the country.
“That’s proof that Chuck Neinas has been a wonderful leader and navigator for us through these very difficult times.”
The near Lazarus-like revival of the league drew praise from NCAA President Mark Emmert, who came to Kansas City, Mo., to meet with Big 12 chief executive officers and athletic directors.
“(The Big 12) did a number of good things in the last year,” Emmert said. “First, the presidents collectively made a commitment to stay together.
“Once the smoke cleared and the shouting died down, it said, ‘Look, this makes sense. It’s still a great conference. Ten might be a better number than 12.’”
Nebraska A.D. Tom Osborne, a longtime friend of Neinas, said he is happy to see good news coming from his old league.
“I want to wish Chuck well, and I have a lot of friends in the old Big Eight,” Osborne said. “I hope things go well for them. I don’t want to see anybody go away, that’s for sure.”
Yet all of this high praise comes with a warning. I used the words “appears to have solidified” regarding the Big 12 for a reason.
When Texas — the eight-million-pound gorilla of college sports — is part of your alliance, you may not have one for long because the Longhorns are always angling for a better deal.
With Emmert predicting that more conference realignment is imminent as schools try to position themselves for the configuration of a football playoff, movement from coast to coast remains a reality.
Here’s hoping — not predicting — that the Big 12 will survive and flourish.
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