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The Pac-10 Might Soon Be the Pac-16. Is the Big Ten Next?

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Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past six hours, you probably know the basics, but, here goes:

A report from Thursday had Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado bolting for a new-look Pac-10 Conference. Missouri and Nebraska are rumored as Big Ten expansion candidates. That could leave Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor looking for new conferences.

Pac-10 officials open their spring meetings Friday in San Francisco, where future plans could be announced.

Of course, we've seen roughly six million rumors regarding Big Ten expansion during the past few months, and none of them actually had a shred of accuracy.  So, I was prepared to file this under the normal "don't believe anything unless it's from a conference president's mouth" category, but as Orson said at the time, the rumor was "a) weirdly specific, and b) [written by] Chip Brown, who is not generally given to foolishness."  Those words seem awfully prescient now; a conference president AND an affected athletic director are now on the record.  Larry Scott, Pac-10 commissioner:

"While many interesting scenarios have been suggested in numerous news reports, around the country, we remain focused on a thorough evaluation process that examines all of the options for increasing the value of the Conference for our member institutions, our student athletes and our fans. We have not developed any definitive plans. We have not extended any invitations for expansion and we do not anticipate any such decisions in the near term."

Note the very conspicuous lack of a denial there.  (Contrast Scott's reaction with Jim Delaney's outright rumor dismissals.  The difference is unmistakable, and plausibly not an accident.)  And then, the bigger news:

Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn said he and other school officials have been led to believe the Pac-10 Conference is on the verge of issuing invitations to six members of the Big 12 to join its ranks.

Bohn said CU has not had any contact with the Pac-10 or its representatives and he was not clear on how he came to believe invitations could be forthcoming. But he said Colorado, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech could receive invitations possibly as soon as this weekend when Pac-10 officials meet in San Francisco.

"The longer that we were together in Kansas City it appeared that that rumor or speculation did have some validity to it," Bohn said in an interview with the Camera as he left the Big 12 spring meetings here today.

Clearly, this is the most concrete, well-founded rumor we've heard so far.  Colorado has long been pegged as the most likely Pac-10 expansion candidate, it's been widely assumed that Texas and Texas A&M are a package deal (and those who really study the matter think that Texas Tech has to come along for the ride, too), and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State--who may also be a package deal--certainly would make fine additions as well.  Under this plan, the new Pac-10 would be able to divide neatly into two divisions (the original Pac-8 coastal schools in one division, and the six new schools along with Arizona and Arizona State in the "inland" division), and would be an athletic colossus, particularly in football.

If it's true, it's a masterstroke from a conference than many assumed a) would ultimately be forced to refrain from the expansion game altogether because of Stanford's insistence on maintaining high academic standards, and b) would be a reactionary player, not the catalyst.  This expansion would obviously put them in the vanguard of expansion, and would create a conference to rival any other financially, with a presence in 7 of the 20 biggest U.S. television markets.  Crazy.

What it might mean for the Big Ten, after the jump.

It seems that in the past month or so, the conventional wisdom has shifted a bit on probable new Big Ten members.  Missouri and Nebraska are widely assumed to be at or near the top of the list, and if the GodzillaPac-10 comes to fruition, they'd be left with virtually no other viable options.  If it seemed like Mizzou, in particular, was throwing itself at the Big Ten like a drunken floozy at last call prior to today, well, we ain't seen nothin' yet.  It's possible to construct a scenario wherein the remaining Big 12 teams (Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Mizzou, Iowa State) poach a few Mountain West and/or Conference USA members and make a run of it, but the damage their collective competitiveness, prestige, and each school's bottom line, would be enormous.  At this point, it's Big Ten or bust for Mizzou and Nebraska.  The Big Ten, of course won't have any interest in Kansas State, Iowa State, or Baylor.

Which leaves Kansas--to me, the most interesting player (or non-player) in the maelstrom.  I've long believed that KU would be a great addition for the Big Ten, and in many ways superior to Mizzou.  Kansas obviously wouldn't bring a ton to the table football-wise, but they'd be an absolutely epic basketball addition.  Going to Allen Fieldhouse and having KU at the Breslin Center on a regular basis would be faaaaaaaantastic.  And if this is all true, KU will do absolutely everything possible to get a bid to the Big Ten.  Basketball's king there, and any conference that they could end up in would be a massive downgrade from the current Big XII -- except for our conference, of course.  KU's basketball fortunes could sink dramatically if they're left out in the cold, and one would have to believe that they'd go to great lengths to avoid that from happening.

However, it's not like Jim Delany is going to expand the conference for charitable reasons.  Most have assumed that any new member to the Big Ten would have to be treated as a full member, with full economic rights and benefits from the get-go.  If that's the case, there's no incentive to add KU (or Nebraska or Mizzou, for that matter) because they'd be willing to share revenues unequally, at least initially.  Presumably, as a prerequisite to extending a conference invitation, the Big Ten will have to determine that the new member will 1) bring a net economic benefit to the conference (i.e., make it worthwhile to dilute each existing school's piece of the revenue pie), 2) be acceptable academically, and 3) be competitive athletically.  While KU, NU, and MU would be orphaned by these events, it's not the Big Ten's responsibility to play Daddy Warbucks.

Regarding the Big Ten's next moves, two observations:

  • The new Big Ten will almost certainly be a 16-team league, if only because we'd need to do so in order to remain competitive in this brave new world.  My (admittedly pollyanna-ish) hope that we'd be able to add Notre Dame and be done with it seems positively quaint now.
  • And, speaking of Notre Dame, it seems to me that this move would reduce the chances of the Irish joining the conference.  Notre Dame's AD famously said that a "radical change in the industry" might force ND to join a conference.  While this is clearly a radical change, it seems less likely that this is the right kind of radical change.  With Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri suddenly on the market, it seems more likely that the Big Ten might be looking west -- thereby reducing the chance of a Big East collapse.

The Pac-10 meetings open tomorrow, and if anything could relegate the NCAA's imminent decision on USC's future to the back burner, it's this.  If true, it's an utter bombshell.  Throughout this entire process, Jim Delany has seemed to be in total control; that status is obviously in question now, as the dominoes may have already started to fall.  The next few days and weeks should be very interesting.