The case to expand the Big 12 Conference by adding Rice University and Texas-El Paso (UTEP)

WHY UTEP & RICE?

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . .

President John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice Stadium, 12 September 1962

This is a great, great honor. But our national championship had some social significance that might outweigh anything that would ever happen to me.

Don Haskins, upon learning of his Basketball Hall of Fame selection in 1997

The Big 12 should expand by adding (1) Rice and (2) UTEP and divide into two divisions as follows:

Big 12 South

Texas

Texas Tech

Baylor

TCU

UTEP

Rice

Big 12 North

Oklahoma

Oklahoma State

Kansas

Kansas State

Iowa State

West Virginia

Alternatively, to alleviate the “all Texas” South Division, the Big 12 could divide into three divisions as follows:

Big 12 South

Texas

Texas Tech

Baylor

Rice

Big 12 Midwest

Oklahoma

Oklahoma State

TCU

UTEP

Big 12 North

West Virginia

Kansas

Kansas State

Iowa State

This allows the Big 12 to strengthen itself from within, from the “bottomup” and also position the Big 12 to expand (if necessary) to 16 teams by adding a fourth “pod,” which would likely be the four ACC schools that also have SEC schools within its geographic footprint (Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and the University of Miami) if the ACC implodes.

So why expand with Rice and UTEP? Let’s take each in turn.

Why Rice?

Short Answer: Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, and the Houston market.

Answer:

As earlier noted, “expanding the footprint” does little (at least by itself) to strengthen the Big 12 brand – which is what the Big 12 needs most. In other words, being “a mile wide and an inch deep” doesn’t help the Big 12 Conference very much. It’s better to build the conference from within – with schools who are regional rivals that existing Big 12 member schools would like to play – and thereby establish much-needed stability and position the Big 12 to later expand if necessary.

Moreover, in view of Texas A&M’s departure for the SEC, the vitally important Houston market is in play as to whether it’s SEC or Big 12 territory. Adding Rice to the Big 12 and part of the conference playing rotation solidifies the Houston market as Big 12 country.

In addition to this (and unlike the University of Houston), Rice actually expands the recruiting base for the Big 12 because it recruits differently than other Big 12 schools. Like Stanford, Rice will nationally recruit a specific type of student-athlete that can meet Rice’s rigorous academic standards. This doesn’t diminish other Big 12 schools in their recruiting, but instead complements it.

Perhaps most importantly, Rice’s academic reputation serves a unique role to enhance the Big 12′s overall “brand.” It’s no coincidence that every other major BCS conference has a school similar to Rice (Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt), and whether described as the “conscience of the conference” or “honest broker,” it’s a school that puts its own rigorous academic standards above winning at all costs. (And even though Baylor is a private school, Baylor does not play this role; Baylor wants to win, as its numerous previous NCAA violations attest, and is more in the nature of a “poor man’s” USC).

Why UTEP?

Short Answer: Cal-Berkeley/UCLA, the El Paso market.

Answer:

As earlier noted, it’s better to first build the Big 12 conference from within – with schools that are regional rivals with existing Big 12 schools, and establish stability and position the Big 12 to later expand if necessary. In addition, in developing the Big 12 brand, too often fans forget “Newton’s law of conference play,” which is “for every conference win, there is an equal and opposite conference loss.” The ideal conference provides a mix of schools with diverse academic missions and different championship traditions in various sports – but with a common regional and cultural bond. That’s just what UTEP does for the Big 12.

Also, as everyone knows, there is a political component to conference re-alignment, particularly in Texas. To this end, Texas A&M’s departure for the SEC creates an enormous opportunity for the University of Texas system to enhance the “brand” value of UTEP. This was not politically feasible when Texas A&M was in the Big 12 conference because the Aggies would not have agreed to
another UT-system school in the conference.

But Texas A&M is gone – and as the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Much like Cal- Berkeley and UCLA have benefitted from playing in the Pac-12, UT-Austin and UTEP can both benefit from playing in the Big 12 and at the same time transform the Big 12 into the conference of the future, because no public university in the country is better positioned for growth than UTEP, with its emerging role as a Tier I institution and the country’s premier minority-majority university.

Finally, the El Paso market is an ideal market for college sports – not quite large enough for major professional sports, but plenty large enough for UTEP to be the “biggest game in town” and provide the Big 12 Conference what it needs the most – energy and stability.

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