The board directed the commissioner to actively evaluate their interest, and to report those evaluations back to the board. —Oklahoma president David Boren
There isn’t a definitive conclusion yet for BYU in its bid to join a Power 5 conference, but there is a glimmer of hope following the Big 12’s presidents meeting on Tuesday.
Oklahoma president David Boren, the chair of the Big 12 expansion committee, said during a teleconference that the league board will evaluate potential candidates for expansion. This comes a month and a half after the league chose to reinstate a football league championship game in 2017, a move some feared could end expansion talks for the Big 12.
“A number of universities have contacted the Big 12 to express interest in our conference,” Boren said. “The board directed the commissioner to actively evaluate their interest, and to report those evaluations back to the board.”
Boren said the Big 12 intends to explore the possibility of expanding by two to four teams and that the league will recontact schools to gauge their level of interest. Among the schools widely considered top candidates for Big 12 expansion are BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, South Florida, Central Florida, Memphis, Boise State, East Carolina and Colorado State.
“We are obviously excited the leadership of the Big 12 has advised Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to review potential expansion candidates,” BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe said in a school statement. “BYU is known for its academic excellence and I believe we have an exceptional athletic program. As I’ve stated before, I would like to see our student-athletes compete at the highest level.”
Bowlsby said football-only additions could also be considered, according to CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd.
Boren said it would be “inappropriate” to specify which teams have shown interest in joining the league.
“I want to underline the fact that — that the Big 12 Conference has not gone out and sought conversations with other schools. Other schools have come to us. It's a nice position to be in,” he said.
Bowlsby, who joined Boren on the teleconference, said he isn’t prepared to put a time frame on a decision on expansion, though “we intend to be active very soon.”
“It's possible that this could extend to our October board meeting, but it's also possible that we could have a special meeting sometime between now and then. But I would say clearly it's another step in the process,” Bowlsby added.
According to ESPN’s Jake Trotter, Bowlsby said it’s “conceivable” the Big 12 could vote by September on specific expansion candidates.
Bowlsby also suggested that expansion members could be added by the 2017 season, while Boren said several criteria the Big 12 will be looking for in expansion candidates include strength of the athletic program, competitiveness, fan base, media market, reputation and academic standing.
“All of those things will come into play and we'll be able to look at, say, a range of how these universities compare, those that have expressed interest to us, how they compare with each other in all of those categories,” Boren said. “And we're very seriously concerned about all those categories, because we obviously stand for athletic competitiveness, winning in the right way.
“We also stand for academic excellence. When we use the term student-athlete, we use that very seriously and that's just not a slogan.”
Bowlsby added to those criteria, saying, “I would say that we are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end, will benefit from an affiliation with the schools that are currently in our conference.”
Boren said it was a unanimous vote by members of the Big 12 board to move forward with meaningful discussions on expansion.
“It's a positive step. It's not yet a decision, if any particular university or college — or even a definite decision about when we expand or the way, the form this would take,” Boren said. “But it's definitely a forward step, and I think it shows momentum on the board to very seriously consider this as a possibility.”
For BYU, the path to finding a home in a Power 5 conference has been an exhaustive one. Since the Cougars began playing as an independent in football and joining the West Coast Conference for 12 other sports beginning with the 2011-12 season, BYU has been linked to talks about Big 12 expansion. Two former MWC affiliates have moved on to Power 5 conferences: Utah to the Pac-12, and TCU to the Big 12.
Holmoe has weathered a storm of Big 12 speculation for years.
“I know for sure that every day for the last two years, somebody’s caught me at the mall, on the street, at church, wherever and asked me what’s going on (with the Big 12),” Holmoe said during the State of the Program portion of BYU football’s Media Day on June 30. “It’s hard for me, because what we read in the papers is really a lot of the information. They’ve kept that tight to the vest.”
“ One of the things I like about pursuing this is just the fact I want our players, not just in football but in all of our sports, to play at the highest level. In college football, that’s what it’s all about is playing at that level. We’re imitating a P5 schedule right now and being in a conference like that, but it would be a great thing for BYU football to get there.”
Joining the Big 12 would be a particular boost to the BYU football program.
On June 3, the league reinstated a football league championship game effective in 2017. The Big 12 held a conference championship game from 1996 to 2010, but after Nebraska and Colorado left to join the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively, in 2011, the then 10-member Big 12 no longer had the required number of schools to host a title game. But the NCAA passed legislation in mid-January this year to allow a conference with fewer than 12 members to stage a championship game.
After that June 3 announcement to reinstate the Big 12 conference championship game, it was unclear whether that closed the door on expansion. But even Bowlsby had expansion on his mind in the weeks after, telling the Des Moines Register on July 5 that he hoped the conference could bring an end soon to the expansion discussion.
“I have indicated that I think it’s about time we made some decisions one way or the other,’’ Bowlsby said.
Last summer, Boren stressed his feeling that the Big 12 was at a ‘psychological disadvantage’ in the playoff era, as the league had the fewest members of the Power 5 conferences, trailing the SEC (14), Big Ten (14), ACC (14) and Pac-12 (12).
“I think it’s something we should strive for while we have the time, stability, all of that to look and be choosy,” Boren told The Oklahoma Daily about expansion. “(We) can be very selective about who we want to add. It would have to add value to the conference. I think we should.”
As recently as last month, though, Boren indicated that expansion talk was cooling.
“I don’t anticipate any dramatic action on expansion this summer,” Boren told OU Daily on June 21.
That just gives a glimpse at how difficult it has been to predict if the Big 12 would ultimately expand, and who would be the best candidates.
One thing is for certain now, though: with Tuesday’s announcement of evaluating prospective expansion members, the Big 12 is certain to be popular among schools on the outside of the power elite in college football.
“Sometimes you may think you have to change your cell phone number because the number of schools that want to express interest in coming to join the Big 12 Conference. It's nice to be in a position where you're wanted, and we've certainly been made to feel wanted by a lot of colleges and universities across the country,” Boren said.