Mailbag: What schools will the expanding Big 12 add?

First of all, you may have noticed the Mailbag has been going up on Thursdays, rather than Wednesdays recently. That wasn’t intentional, rather mostly due to travel and other conflicts. Next week’s will likely be later as well, but it will definitely return to its usual time slot in plenty of time for the season.

Secondly, it’s been a while since I actually included my email address in these columns, which tends to impede the ability to compile a Mailbag. It’s Add it to your contacts and write in whenever something comes to mind.

As late as Tuesday morning, in fact, I was concerned I would not have enough submissions for this column. But then, of course, the Big 12 did what the Big 12 does best — create drama!

Crisis averted, presumably for the next several months.

Dear Stewart: Is this week’s ACC Network news really the reason for the Big 12’s change of heart on expansion?  The bigger news from the Eastern Time Zone was the ACC extending its Grant of Rights into the 2030s.  Knowing that this agreement essentially put teams like Florida State, Clemson and Notre Dame beyond reach, did the Big 12 finally realize it will have to settle for Group of 5 schools?

— Leonard Lanier, Washington, NC

(Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

The very first question to David Boren on Tuesday’s media conference call (the one where he shocked not only reporters but officials within his own conference by proclaiming the presidents’ intent to pursue expansion) was about the impact of the ACC news. Boren, college football’s walking quote machine, made it seem like yes, that was very much the impetus, which I found odd. The Big 12 and its consultants have spent 18 months exploring expansion. Not to mention it was no secret in the industry that the ACC and ESPN were hatching something.

Based on my subsequent conversations with knowledgeable sources, many of the presidents (mainly Boren) never stopped being concerned about both the “psychological disadvantage” of staying at 10 teams as well as the widening financial gap between the SEC/Big Ten and their league. But they still needed to be convinced of the worth of adding less-than-ideal schools. The ACC news — and, perhaps just as important, the Big Ten’s new deals with ESPN and FOX — likely helped sway a couple of holdouts.

As for the ACC Grant of Rights extension, I agree it’s significant. But I don’t think Big 12 leaders were holding out hopes of luring away a Florida State or Clemson. Those schools are clearly better off where they are. Again, the impact may have been more psychological than anything. Here was yet another conference making yet another proactive move while the Big 12 keeps treading water (beyond adding a championship game).

So basically, the Big 12 presidents may wind up completely altering the face of their conference and the college landscape as a whole due primarily to a bad case of FOMO.

Stewart: Now that the Big 12 has opened the door for expansion, what schools are on your short list to bring the conference to 12 or 14 teams?

— David Whitlock, Sunnyvale, CA

BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium (Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports)

Sunnyvale, huh? I was having lunch at the world-famous Adamson’s French Dip just hours before the Big 12’s announcement.

You’re going to see all sorts of lists like this in the days and weeks to come, but they’re all educated guesses, mainly because it’s unclear what exactly the Big 12 is looking for in its upcoming fishing expedition. In fact, I don’t think even its own leaders know. So let’s divide this into a few general categories.

If the goal is to bring in two to four programs best equipped to boost the overall quality of Big 12 football, be it based on past success and/or recruiting base and support, my list would be: 1) BYU, 2) Houston, 3) Boise State, 4) Cincinnati.

If the goal is to enter new TV markets so as to better position the league for future contract negotiations, but without unnecessarily diluting the football product, I’d go: 1) UCF, 2) USF, 3) Cincinnati, 4) Connecticut.

If the goal is to tap into corporations and/or boosters eager to pump money into their programs and by extension the conference, then it’s 1) Memphis, 2) Memphis, 3) Memphis, 4) Houston.

Finally, if you’re asking me for my own personal recommendation based on some combination of the above, it would be 1) Cincinnati, 2) UCF, 3) BYU, 4) Houston. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Cougars have much chance due to the Texas’ schools’ fears about empowering another state school (look how quickly TCU rose up and started stealing their thunder), and I don’t sense much traction for UCF. UConn and Memphis probably have a better chance than either of those two, and perhaps even Colorado State as well.

Like how I covered all my bases?

Stewart: Now that the Big 12 has apparently decided to expand, I keep seeing the names of BYU, Cincinnati, UConn, etc. While these schools are OK, I do not think they would bring in the type of revenue the Big 12 needs in order to expand their wallets. So what are the chances that the Big 12 can grab other Power 5 schools such as Arizona, Arizona State or other schools?

— Chad, New Braunfels, Texas

Good luck getting an Arizona school out of the Pac-12. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Close to zero?

The Big 12 missed its chance to land Power 5-profile schools when it passed on Louisville and/or Pittsburgh in 2011. Those schools were desperate to get out of the sinking Big East, and the ACC ultimately provided that life preserver.

Five years later, I can’t think of a single Power 5 school that would be better off in the Big 12 than its current home. Why would the Arizona schools give up their equity stakes in the Pac-12 Network to join a conference where they’d be geographically isolated from the other members (in the case of West Virginia, by 2,000 miles)? It’s also a moot point because the Pac-12 schools, as well as the ACC’s and Big Ten’s, are locked into long-term Grant of Rights deals. The only ones that aren’t are the SEC’s, and no one’s leaving the SEC for the Big 12.

But of course, the Big 12 schools wouldn’t do this if there weren’t opportunity to expand their wallets. SI’s Pete Thamel did a great job explaining how on our latest episode of The Audible. ESPN and FOX are contractually obligated to raise their annual payouts to the Big 12 by the same per-school amount the league is currently getting. That’s believed to be near $25 million per year. But new members don’t necessarily get a full share right off the bat. TCU, which joined in 2012, is only reaching that point this year.

So let’s say the Big 12 expands by four, but the new schools start out getting a 50 percent cut, $12.5 million a year, leaving $50 million on the table. That’s an extra $5 million a year for the 10 existing schools. And Boren even said Tuesday that the league wants to listen to schools’ “proposals.” If someone proposes taking $8 million a year instead of $12 million, does that give it a leg up? Is this going to be a big game of just how desperate are you willing to go?

Obviously, that’s a short-term stopgap while the new members get phased in. The long-term goal is that simply by joining the Big 12, the new schools significantly bolster their brands before 2025, when the current deals expire, so as to raise the league’s overall value for its next contracts.

Hi Stewart. Long time reader, first time writer. With the Big 12 expanding, do you think any other teams, besides the one we always hear about (BYU, Cincinnati, UCF, etc.) , could be in the mix to join the conference? With the addition of WVU recently, we now know that locale is not necessarily an issue, so why not consider teams like Boise State or NIU?

— Guillaume, Quebec City

Northern Illinois feels like a long shot for the Big 12. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Well, one wild-card that’s starting to pop up — and which I literally laughed off in a Mailbag earlier this spring – is Tulane. More props to Thamel, who noted that university presidents are making these decisions and they’re more apt to be drawn in by Tulane’s prestigious academic reputation than we football-centric types. That being said, the Green Wave have been relevant in football for one season (1998) in the last 40 years. That would be a ginormous risk.

Boise and NIU have had more recent success, obviously, and Boise in particular probably seems like a no-brainer to some. But the school has a less-than-illustrious academic reputation (no offense, Boise grads), is in a small market and plays in a 36,000-seat stadium. Which is monstrous compared to NIU’s 24,000-seat Huskie Stadium (though it announced expansion plans a couple years back). Boise’s best shot is if the conference decides to add football-only members, which Bob Bowlsby suggested is a possibility. NIU feels like a long shot.

Now that coaches can be ejected from games for two unsportsmanlike conduct flags, which major conference coach do you think is the first one to get tossed during a game? Based on their antics, I would say Jim Harbaugh, Bret Bielema, Nick Saban or Brian Kelly.

— Mark in Baltimore

Will Muschamp, in all his fiery glory. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Are you serious? I would be stunned if it’s anyone other than this guy.

It appears that Jim Grobe was an awful choice as the Baylor interim FB coach, at least from a public relations standpoint. Who should they have hired instead? I think Tom Coughlin would have been perfect for this role.

— Craig Smith

Grobe made some cringe-worthy comments during his press conference at Big 12 Media Days, but does that necessarily make him an “awful choice?” I’d encourage you to read Bruce Feldman’s story from Dallas about his off-podium conversation with the former Wake Forest coach, where he better explains some of those seemingly tone-deaf comments (most notably, “We don’t have a culture of bad behavior at Baylor University.”)

I don’t know whether Coughlin would have been interested, but even if he were, he’d probably find himself in much the same awkward position as Grobe, who is basically being asked to atone for sins that occurred before his arrival. His job is primarily to lead the Bears through the 2016 football season, which means supporting the players and coaches under his watch, but the anger and emotions from the revolting Pepper Hamilton investigation are still so raw that most people outside the Baylor football building aren’t yet ready to move on. They want more heads.

Jim Grobe (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Case in point: Grobe is being criticized — unfairly in my opinion — for not coming in and firing all of Art Briles’ assistants. By vaguely blaming the Bears’ “staff” for attempting to interfere with or subvert sexual assault investigations, Pepper Hamilton implicated all of them whether complicit or not. But beyond the two Briles support staffers Baylor fired in May, Grobe sounds fairly certain that the nine position coaches and coordinators won’t be implicated. I was plenty critical of Briles and Baylor administrators back when details of their despicable mishandling of these cases emerged, but I don’t feel comfortable calling for peoples’ jobs when there are no specific allegations against them.

Having said all that … I’m not particularly confident in Baylor’s on-field prospects this fall under Grobe. He’s running an offense with which he has no familiarity with players who will have had almost no relationship with him. The assistants are walking lame-ducks. Players’ morale may be worn down. The Big 12 media picked the Bears to finish fourth; that may be optimistic. But I also can’t give you the name of another outsider that would make me feel better. End of day, no interim coach is ideal. Grobe mainly just needs to get the program through the next five months controversy-free. I do believe he’s up to that.

Stewart, love the Mailbag and I have yet another Baylor question for you. The Colorado football team went through a somewhat similar trajectory. Long-time also-ran makes it to the top of the college football pyramid before a sexual assault scandal rocks the program. In the Buffs’ case, they have gone through a decade of irrelevance since their downfall.  How does Baylor avoid the same fate?  Is simple geographic location enough to keep Baylor playing at a high level?

— Nathan, Colorado

The new Baylor coach shouldn’t face the same adversity as Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre. (Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

As of this moment the two situations definitely feel similar. But while I don’t expect Baylor to maintain the extremely high level it achieved the past five years under Briles, I do believe it can avoid the extreme depths to which Colorado sank.

For one thing, because the issues at the heart of the CU scandal involved its recruiting practices, the school responded by instituting some of the most restrictive policies in the country surrounding recruiting visits. That immediately hampered CU’s recruiting. Then the program compounded its problems by hiring a renowned coach but terrible recruiter, Dan Hawkins, under whom the talent level sunk, then followed that up by hiring completely in-over-his-head replacement Jon Embree. The program fell even further behind. And finally, moving to a very strong Pac-12 made rebuilding infinitely more difficult than if it were still in the old Big 12 North.

No question, Baylor’s recruiting is already suffering. The Bears will feel the effect of their slashed-down 2016 class and caught-in-limbo ’17 class in the years to come. But if new AD Mack Rhoades hires the right coach this winter — and remember, he’s the same guy that hired Tom Herman at Houston — that person should be able to regain recruiting momentum. Briles came in at a time when Baylor was the Big 12’s annual doormat and proceeded to land a future Heisman winner (Robert Griffin III) and a host of current NFL players. Comparatively speaking, the next Baylor coach will have it considerably easier than not only Briles circa 2008 but than Hawkins, Embree and current Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre ever did.

Art Briles says he will coach again in 2017. Baylor’s new AD hired Tom Herman at Houston. If Herman bolts for Baylor in 2017, is there any chance that Houston brings Art back to town?

— Josh Fleming, Abilene, Texas

Not if it read the Pepper Hamilton findings.

Stewart: Since the Kain Colter unionization effort, Northwestern has done everything in its power to distance itself from individual player promotion. The only jersey number it sells is Pat Fitzgerald’s No. 51. So its new Anthony "The Franchise" Walker promotion, complete with a custom logo, seems out of character. Should college teams, especially Northwestern who appeared to know better, be allowed to market individual players in the absence of payment?

— Ryan, Chicago

First of all, for anyone not familiar with Walker, the guy’s a stud. I first noticed him being all over the field in Northwestern’s season-opening shutdown of Stanford last season, and he went on to finish the season with 122 tackles and 20.5 tackles for loss. I received my own Walker superhero lunchbox in the mail the other day, and inside is a quote from Fitzgerald that says the junior “has a chance to be the best linebacker we’ve ever had.” That’s high praise coming from a guy who as a player himself happened to win the Bednarik Award twice.

In general, I do believe that athletes should receive a cut of any merchandise bearing their specific likeness, most notably numbers on jerseys, from which the school generates revenue. But that’s not the case here. The school’s Walker campaign is solely a gimmick to promote him to the media, much like its “Persa Strong” dumbbells and billboards for quarterback Dan Persa in 2011. You used to see gimmicks like these all the time for Heisman candidates (I still have a Baylor RG3 trading card), but TV networks and social media have largely rendered them a relic. However, they make sense for a school like Northwestern that doesn’t get nearly the same exposure as an Ohio State or Michigan.

All in all, I think it’s fairly harmless.

What do you expect to see from Alabama this year?

— John Bowden, Loveland, Colo

A lot of really big dudes running really fast.

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