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Wild Cards and Smoking Aces: The University of Houston

by Khris Marion Tuesday May 12, 2015    8:45 AM

HOUSTON - The Big 12's struggles may begin and end with the NFL draft, but the space between is filled with a myriad of issues. Funding, or rather the lack of it, has caused the conference to scramble to keep up with the PAC-12 and the SEC by improving their position in the recruiting arms race. Despite the addition of former recruiting mogul Charlie Strong to the University of Texas, the conferences' show horse, the Big 12's troubles receiving significant recognition has been well documented by NCAA pundits. That recognition is largely affected by the lack of rivalries, viewership and programs in the conference.

For nearly a decade, the Big 12 has been shut out of the national championship spotlight. Not since the conference was whole, hungry and dangerous and not since Vince Young led the Longhorns to an undefeated season has the conference truly been relevant in the eyes of the NCAA decision makers. Now, two hungry wild card programs that fill a very apparent need for the Big 12 have emerged as lifeline during the Big 12's skid towards mediocrity. The benefits that these programs bring to the conference are so great that they cannot be detailed at once, so each program must be covered individually. This week we will delve deep into the pride of the Bayou City, the University of Houston.

Losing tradition

When Texas A&M's scurried away from UT and the Big 12 to the sunnier shores of the SEC in 2011, the effect was felt immediately. Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe is as much to blame for the fiasco the conference finds itself in. He lost four programs -- Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri -- in the span of two years. In losing Nebraska and Missouri, as well as Texas A&M, the conference lost two hundred years of rivalries and the money in ticket sales and product merchandising associated with those competitions.

According to a study done by the Perryman Group, the Big 12 lost $217.2 million in gross annual product when the Aggies decided to walk into the arms of the SEC bigwigs. Missouri racked up $20 million in revenue its first year in the SEC. Ultimately, Beebe did much to set the conference back to the Stone Age, losing countless millions on the back of untimely and unwise decisions concerning a formerly revered conference. Unfortunately for the faithful fans of the Big 12, his successor hasn't done much to change that trend.

The Bowlsby error

Despite bringing in Texas Christian University and West Virginia University in an attempt to stabilize a severely weakened conference, current commish Bob Bowlsby bumbled damage control by failing to add the University of Houston, Brigham Young University or both. Both programs are in high-volume areas and boast forward-thinking alumni with homegrown money and talent and have faithful fan bases and are bubbling with value. Eight months ago, in a weakened conference, both TCU and Baylor suffered the consequences of a shortage of programs and were dismissed as playoff worthy adversaries for a fast, but defensively susceptible Oregon team. Florida State, a bigger storyline draw, was chosen instead and history saw the Seminoles dismantled in an offensively inept performance. Bowlsby seems to prefer to ride on that famous Egyptian river called denial and continually resist doing what is necessary to save the conference and make it a powerful adversary of the SEC.

"Ten is what we are and I think the status quo with all 10 schools committed and with grants of rights for all our media," he said during halftime interviews at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. "We're distributing the largest amount of money per school of any of the leagues right now and I don't think any of our members want to change that. Competitively, we think that having everybody play everybody is the right way to determine a champion, even if you do sometimes have a tie."

His denial that the conference needs improvement, either by the addition of a championship game or two new programs, ties in with his tendency to flip-flop and switch allegiances on seemingly a monthly basis. Six months prior, he stood steadfast in his support for the no-championship method of choosing a conference champion during the July 2014 Big 12 Media Days.

"I like our path to the championship. The fact that we play everybody in our league is a nuance that is not going to be lost on the selection committee," Bowlsby told members of the media during his opening address at the gala. "We always are going to get to the point of a true champion. That's the other thing about playing nine games is you're always going to have a head to head; you're not going to have two teams with the same record that didn't play each other. That part is self-resolvable."

Six months later, TCU and Baylor were the casualties of their commissioner's questionable decision-making and leadership, with both schools squeezed out of an inaugural playoff that one of them deserved. Despite Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher declaring the Big 12 not having a conference championship as 'ridiculous,' Bowlsby boldly defended the Big 12s crumbling mold.

"Our champion has been decided on the last day of the season for about five years. We have great competition at the end of the year," he said. "I think there will be a year when we'll say, 'Gosh, if we could have played just one more good opponent, we might have been able to demonstrate that we were good enough.'

"When you play that playoff game at the end of the year, you also have two or your better teams presumably play each other, and one of them becomes damaged goods, and it may not be the one you want. I think the answer is some years it's a good thing, some years it's not a good thing."

The comments seemed oblivious of the plight of the conference he was paid to defend. It was like Bowlsby was drowning in two feet of water. After he received considerable backlash and tremendous pressure from numerous coaches within the conference and their fan bases, the Big 12 commissioner almost backslid and admitted to the need for a final, defining game.

"What we heard is if we don't go to a championship game we're at a disadvantage," Bowlsby said. "All things being equal, 13 games are better than 12 games. That's what we heard. So that gives us clear enough direction that we're coming in at least at a modest disadvantage. We need to do whatever we can to mitigate that."

Last week ago he implemented a 'tie-breaker' clause, a mini-championship that attempts to assuage both coach and constituent, but fails on both fronts. According to the clause, if two teams are tied, the winner of the game between the two tied teams will be declared the champion. If three teams are tied, the two teams with the greater strength of schedule will play each other to decide a champion. It's a championship -- sort of -- but it sounded more like an antiquated commissioner desperately clinging to a dying and out-of-place system and futilely defending against the necessary evolution of the conference.

"I really have been proud of our athletic directors because they chose to respond to not being in the playoff rather than react," Bowlsby said to the media last Tuesday, per ESPN'.com's Max Olson. "I think they've been very thoughtful about it and continue to be thoughtful about it. We all believe that one year is not a long enough window or trial to draw any conclusions. We may find ourselves in better shape than some other conferences as a result of our model, not in spite of our model."

The newest jewel of the south

With just over 2 million people, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and is largely considered the energy capital of the world. According to the Houston government website, more than 5,000 energy-related companies call Houston home. Many major players of those companies are proud UH alumni. Shell Oil President and Director Marvin Odum, Reliant Energy President Elizabeth Killinger and President and Chief Executive Officer David McClanahan are a few examples of the alumni star power UH boasts. The Big 12 already gets a large share of the Houston market, but inviting UH opens the proverbial floodgates of Houston's energy alumni contributions. Despite having access to television revenues, the conference consistently misses out on the wealth of these contributions by excluding possibly the biggest up-and-coming university in the nation.

Adding U of H gives the conference the ability to have the three largest universities in the State of Texas. With 31, 587 enrolled students in 2015, U of H would be second in size only to University of Texas in the Big 12 and almost four thousand higher than Iowa State, the next highest. Higher enrollment numbers means more fans, athletes, students and alumni, and a greater national presence for the Big 12.

Texas, specifically the city of Houston, is fertile Big 12 recruiting ground. According to a recent USA Football study, the Greater Houston area is also a hotbed of next-level talent and surpassed by only Miami in terms of U.S. metro areas in producing NFL players. Those new recruits would prosper from both the hire of new Head Coach Tom Herman, who is most known for his prolific offenses at Rice and Iowa State and as the Broyles Award-winning assistant coach of the National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes, and the visibility that a complete Big 12 conference with a conference championship could bring. With the addition of Urban Meyer's former protégée, the Big 12 would have significantly more instant-name recognition in Herman, Strong, Baylor's Art Briles and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

The Fertitta factor

Tilman Fertitta, whom Forbes magazine dubbed the 'World's Richest Restaurateur' and valued at $2.6 billion, is a great example of the alumni support that awaits the Big 12 if they jump on the H-Town bandwagon sooner rather than later. He may not know the ins and outs and the X's and O's of college football, but he does know a good business proposition when he sees one. His Houston-based company, Landry's, owns and operates more than 500 restaurants, hotels, casinos and entertainment destinations in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Tillman, who also is a UH alum and sits as the chairman of the university's Board of Regents, earlier this year proposed that legal and fiscal pressure placed squarely on the shoulders of the conferences powers-that-be is the solution to the Big 12 problem.

"Be a big boy, step up and put this school that has almost 50,000 students, is high-profile, and is one of the top schools in the United States in the Big 12," Fertitta said. "It's a tier one university — we belong in the Big 12. We're a big, major school with an unbelievable history in athletics and academia."

The bottom line

Houston has history, mystique and, most importantly, Texas-sized pride, a faithful fan base and powerful alumni. UH, along with one other program, are the proverbial keys to the conference's return to relevance and are most able to right the wrongs done by wispy officials and apathetic commissioners. The prospect of Houston joining the Big 12 should make conference and NCAA officials jump for joy at the all the money that could potentially roll in from bringing a rising commodity like the Cougars. College football is not the only sport that would prosper; the basketball, baseball and baseball universes would blossom in a bigger conference with more national visibility. No longer would the conference lack significant rivalries, no longer would it have to scramble for top-tier recruiting talent. In Herman the conference would have another high-profile coach to help wall off recruits from the advances of other Power 5 conferences and, in a very foreseeable future, the conference's struggles to produce NFL draft-worthy talent could be solved simply with its own pair of trump cards: a city and a pen stroke.