Ralph D. Russo
With Oklahoma and Texas on the way out, the Big 12 announced Friday it has invited BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston to join the Power Five conference and said it has not ruled out further expansion in the future.
The eight continuing members of the Big 12 unanimously approved applications from the four schools that sought membership after the league learned the Sooners and Longhorns will leave for the Southeastern Conference no later than July 2025.
Formal approval of the invites was pending on some campuses, but the expansion is all but done.
In fact, BYU said all its sports will begin Big 12 schedules in the 2023-24 athletic season. BYU is an independent in football, but competes in the West Coast Conference for basketball and so-called Olympic sports like track and swimming.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said current American Athletic Conference teams UCF, Cincinnati and Houston will join no later than July 1, 2024, but said he “certainly wouldn’t foreclose” on the possibility of them coming in a year earlier with BYU.
The AAC requires members to give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league, though there could be negotiations between the schools and that league to reduce that time.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said the league expected Houston, Cincinnati and UCF to “abide by the conference bylaws to ensure an amicable and orderly transition” as the league considers its options.
“Today’s news confirms what we have said all along regarding our status as a power conference,” Aresco said. “The irony that three of our schools are being asked to take the place of the two marquee schools which are leaving the Big 12 is not lost on us. Our conference was targeted for exceeding expectations in a system that wasn’t designed to accommodate our success.”
After identifying its primary expansion targets last week, the Big 12 moved quickly to make it happen. The four schools had previously been vetted and were among 11 interviewed by the league in 2016 when it considered expansion before staying at 10 teams.
Bowlsby described that process five years ago as “a voyage of exploration,” but said the decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave prompted renewed consideration of available options. He also said the league could someday be open to further expansion.
BYU president Kevin Worthen said the Big 12′s expansion study five years ago made the process much faster and easier this time. Cougars athletic director Tom Holmoe said that failed attempt to get into the Big 12 turned out to be a “launching point.”
The Longhorns and Sooners have said they will honor their current contracts with the Big 12 and do not plan to join the SEC until 2025, when the conference’s current television rights contracts with ESPN and Fox run out.
If they stay, the Big 12 could have up to 14 members for at least a season or two.
“We are were living in a very fast-changing athletic environment and we will be at 14 for a while,” Bowlsby said. “We’ll drop back to 12, and as there are targets of opportunity or as there are situations that dictate that we would change composition, we’ll be prepared to do those things.”
With the additions, the Big 12 will be spread across eight states and three time zones. There are more than 2,300 miles between the UCF campus in Orlando and BYU in Provo, Utah. Once settled in the Big 12, the Knights and Cougars will both face average trips of around 1,300 miles each way for conference games.
West Virginia still will average about 1,100 miles each way on the road, but the Mountaineers at least picked up a relatively short trip with Cincinnati from Morgantown. Houston faces much shorter trips for its Texas-based foes.
“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” Houston chancellor Renu Kahtor said.
Half the league’s 12 charter members will remain when Texas and Oklahoma are gone.
The Big 12 began play in 1996, when all Big Eight teams (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) joined four Texas schools from the old Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to form a new league split into six-team divisions.
Arkansas had left the SWC a few years earlier to join an expanded 12-team SEC, starting play there with South Carolina in the 1992 season. The SEC is now set to grow to 16 teams, with its last four additions all coming from the Big 12.
The Big 12 has been a 10-team league since the last significant round of realignment a decade ago that started with Nebraska going to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, before Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC. TCU and West Virginia are both now in their 10th Big 12 season.
WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez said BYU had been transparent “in exploring opportunities to find league affiliation for its football program and has been presented with an opportunity that fits its needs.”
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