By Ryan Sprayberry
As conference realignment has become a common topic over the past few years, it seems fitting to look back at the first major shift in the college football conference landscape – the Big 12. Of course, over the history of college athletics, conferences have sprung up and died out to the point where many aren’t even remembered by the casual fan. For instance, who today is familiar with the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association or TIAA? Or the Border Conference? TCU belonged to the TIAA and Texas Tech to the Border Conference before each school joined the SWC.
In 1996 a newly imagined conference rose from the ashes of the SWC. Combining schools from the Big Eight and four from the SWC, the Big 12 was ready to burst on the scene. Prior to its inaugural season, Big 12 advertising flooded the message of the Big 12 being the best conference ever.
At least they setting the bar low, right?
Sure enough, the Big 12 was a near instant hit. A journalist for the Lincoln Journal Star, Ken Hambleton, wrote, “The Big 12 hit the world of college football with all the impact of a Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas-Nebraska tornado…”
Even as Oklahoma had their worst season in 37 years, prognosticators pined that the Sooners “may once again contend in the South.” (Funny to imagine that now, as the conference has largely been dominated by OU).
While the SWC had many issues, one of the final nails in the SWC’s coffin was lack of a television footprint. The Big 12’s first TV deal reached a record $120 million. Of the five mostly highly rated college football games on TV, two belonged to the Big 12.
In that first season, five of the conference’s 12 schools went to bowl games and five finished ranked in the top 25.
A wider base also allowed for better recruiting, as Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes said, “This new conference gives us a solid base to build from.” Over that first year of the Big 12, Texas Tech enjoyed their highest success of in-state recruiting in nearly a decade.
The 1996 Big 12 season come to a perfect conclusion, as the Texas Longhorns upset the Nebraska Cornhuskers in front of 60,000 fans in St. Louis. The first conference title game kept Nebraska from contending for a third straight national championship, but showed that the new conference had parity and exciting football. While the 40,000 Husker fans in attendance probably weren’t pleased to see UT and James Brown pull off the win, the country of college football fans had to be excited about such a riveting product.
At the end of the year, Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney stated, “This conference will only get better. Keeping up with this group will mean you’re keeping up with the best in the country.”
Now in retrospect, with the loss of Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M, the Big 12 doesn’t seem as solid as it once did. Even with the addition of TCU and West Virginia, many whisper about the ultimate fate of the Big 12. Some, myself included, wonder what it would look like if the SWC still existed. Hopefully, this look back, will remind all of us that the Big 12 was a great success from year one and continues to be a conference with great possibilities.
Let’s hope we can get through another offseason without anything drastic happening…
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame