As Expansion Talks Loom, Cougars Main Goal is Winning Now
IRVING – The scene likely unfolded something like this: in meeting rooms at a Key Biscayne, Fla., resort last week, presidents and athletic directors from a handful of schools kept ears on business involving the American Athletic Conference and both eyes glued to cellphones for any morsel of news regarding Big 12 expansion.
By the time Hunter Yurachek boarded a plane home, he called Friday’s developments at the Big 12 meetings “a win-win day for the University of Houston.”
And nothing was decided.
At this point, no news is good news for UH. Drag expansion talk on as long as possible, giving the Cougars an opportunity to showcase a rebirth of its football program that is the widely considered the Group of Five’s best shot again at playing in a New Year’s Six bowl and should be on the fringe of a top-10 ranking entering the season opener against Oklahoma.
Big 12 audition, anybody?
For now, UH’s expansion hopes have a faint pulse.
It’s better than no pulse.
“We can’t control anything that happened in Dallas,” said Yurachek, UH’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics, “but the door was not shut on any of us potentially having the opportunity at a future date to compete at an even higher level as a member of the Big 12.”
Two key decisions
As Big 12 leaders wrapped up three days of meetings, they reached decisions on two of the three major items on the agenda: a football championship game will return in 2017 and plans for a conference TV network have been scrapped. On expansion, the Big 12 has asked outside consultants to “gather more data” with the plan to reconvene sometime in August. The scenarios include adding at least two (and possibly as many as four) schools to the current 10-team league – or not expanding at all.
“I wouldn’t say (expansion has) cooled,” said Oklahoma president David Boren, the chairman of the league’s board of directors, “but I would say it’s ongoing.”
That offers at least a glimmer of hope for UH after the league’s two power brokers appeared to derail expansion hopes the previous two days.
On Wednesday, Texas athletic director Mike Perrin said the Longhorns do not favor expansion and “the prudent thing for us to do as a conference is stay where we are.”
On Thursday, Boren, who has been one of the league’s most vocal supporters of expansion – he once said the Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged” in its current state – softened his stance and said the league is not “in any crisis where we have to decide something very quickly.”
Boren added the Big 12 has to be careful when considering expansion that potential candidates – a list that includes UH, BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida, Memphis, South Florida and Colorado State to name a few – are not “dilutive” to the league.
By deciding against starting its own TV network, the Big 12 eliminated the importance of TV market size, which was believed to be a key component in the expansion decision. Remember how Perrin said UT was “certainly in the Houston market” with the Longhorn Network? Might not matter at all.
What the Big 12 might now look at is on-field football success.
“Yes, TV markets are important. Yes, the financial aspect is important,” Boren said. “But we certainly cannot afford to dilute our competitive reputation.”
With that thinking, the Big 12’s expansion target list could whittle from possibly a dozen or more candidates to only a handful: UH, BYU, Cincinnati and Boise State. Previously it was believed establishing a footprint in new markets like South Florida (UCF and USF) or New York City (UConn) gave the upper hand to some schools.
And the timing couldn’t be better for UH. No non-Power 5 team in the nation is hotter than the Cougars, who are coming off an American Athletic Conference championship and school record-tying 13 wins, including four over ranked teams. UH upset Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to finish with a No. 8 national ranking, the school’s highest in 36 years.
‘Worry about winning’
UH’s 88 wins over the last decade trail only TCU (100) for most among state schools.
“Bottom line: win,” coach Tom Herman said last month about erasing any doubts for inclusion in a marquee bowl or even the four-team College Football Playoff. “You just worry about winning.”
During the Big 12 meetings, presidents were presented data from consultant Navigate Research on how specific expansion candidates could impact the league. Boren declined to name those schools.
“We certainly consider there to be an array of options,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “There were still some questions raised about whether adding members was going to be the right thing or if in the end it was going to be dilutive.”
Boren said the Big 12 has to be “very careful” about weighing financial considerations – the addition of two schools could bring a windfall of $500 million to the league – against “reputational impacts.” The Big 12 announced a record $304 million in revenue distribution for 2015-16, or $30.4 million per school, that ranks behind the SEC and Big Ten.
Those totals don’t include UT’s $15 million annually for the Longhorn Network or additional revenue for school’s third-tier media rights. In comparison, the AAC, of which UH is a member, distributes about $3 million per member annually.
“In other words, our fans want to see our teams play against great teams,” Boren said. “They don’t want to see them play mediocre teams.”
Boren joked that he hasn’t “gotten any mink coats in the mail,” but he’s certainly received plenty of detailed data from hopeful expansion candidates. UH president Renu Khator has met with nine of the Big 12’s 10 presidents, according to a source, and one (West Virginia’s Gordon Gee) took a tour of facilities and met with members of the board of regents while on an academic-related trip to Houston last November.
Factoring the unknown
What can expansion candidates do to help their cases in the next few months?
“They don’t need to do anything,” Boren said. “I don’t think we need anymore phone calls or material in the mail. I think that every member in the conference is well aware of all of the schools that have expressed interest. There are presidents I haven’t heard from in a long time that I’m hearing from. There’s a lot of desire to join this conference.”
Boren said there is also an unknown factor in expansion, citing the addition of TCU and West Virginia in the last round of realignment.
“You may pick a team that you say, ‘Oh, well, they are on the bubble, what are they going to add to the competitive reputation of the conference?’ ” Boren said. “Then they surprise you.”
Now UH and the other schools wait.
“I’ll just say we’re not ready to vote on expansion,” Boren said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach some kind of consensus. It may be a consensus that we keep revisiting it in the future.”