Bill Little commentary: The short, happy life of the Big 12 Conference
Dec. 3, 2010
(Editor's note: As we prepare to enter a new era of college football with the final football event of the Big 12 Conference coming Saturday in the championship game, we take a look back at the beginning of the league just 15 seasons ago. The following is reprinted (with figures updated to reflect current status) from the book "Stadium Stories - Texas Longhorns" published by Globe Piquot Books and written by Bill Little)
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
Fourth and inches, & the beginning of the Big 12
As he came to the line of scrimmage and surveyed the Nebraska defense in the first-ever Big 12 Championship game, James Brown stood at the edge of history.
Or maybe, better said, he was right smack in the middle of it.
To understand the moment, it helps to understand the situation.
Our story begins long before that December afternoon 1996 in the TransWorld Dome in St. Louis. Less than three years before, there was no league championship game, because there was no league. Texas was the linchpin of the Southwest Conference, and Nebraska had become the dominant team in the Big Eight. But the college football world had been undergoing a metamorphosis that had actually been evolving since the summer of 1984.
That was when a lawsuit concerning television rights and who owned them was settled. For years, the NCAA had controlled broadcast television rights for its schools, and had distributed appearances and money as it chose. As new networks emerged with interests in covering sports, the parent organization held fast to its right to control the medium. But its member institutions, particularly the leading football powers, saw a new opportunity for both money and exposure. The universities of Georgia and Oklahoma led the way in a lawsuit, and when the court's landmark decision sided with them, it became open season in the television market.
ESPN was a new player in the arena, but it had been limited to showing games on a delayed basis while the NCAA apportioned games to its over-the-air network partners. When the Georgia-Oklahoma decision came down, ESPN quickly began seizing properties that brought nationwide exposure to programs such as Florida State and Miami, which heretofore had limited reach.
The College Football Association emerged as the steward of the television rights for the large conferences and independent universities, and that system worked until the University of Notre Dame saw an opportunity and seized it. The Irish signed an exclusive contract with NBC, thus breaking the CFA's control of college football weekend air time. Still, the CFA continued with a good coalition of conferences, so the issue was manageable.
But the restlessness and the positioning was a flowing stream that was not going to be denied. The dominoes began to fall in the late 1980s, and shortly after Penn State elected to join the Big Ten Conference, the musical chairs were activated.
In Austin, DeLoss Dodds was in his first decade as Texas' athletics director, and he was recognized as one of the cutting-edge ADs in the business.
Since coming to Texas in 1981, he had watched the defection of high school recruits from Texas to other high profile schools around the country. Attendance at league games at Houston, Rice, SMU, TCU and Baylor had diminished tremendously, despite relative success on the field. When Andre Ware won the Heisman Trophy at Houston in 1989, the Cougars averaged only 28,000 fans at their home games in the Astrodome. Part of all of that, Dodds had seen, came from the turmoil caused by recruiting scandals in the Southwest Conference. But he also knew the most important figure of all: As television began to become such a powerful force financially and exposure-wise, the area covered by teams in the Southwest Conference had only seven percent of America's TV sets. The Big Ten had thirty percent, even without Penn State. The Southeastern Conference had twenty-three percent. And the Big Eight, which had even lost its regional TV package, had seven percent.
As the dollars and the exposure opportunities began to be distributed, it was clear that the SWC and the Big Eight were in trouble.
"It usually takes a crisis to cause change," Dodds would say later, and the crisis came in the summer of 1990 when Arkansas announced it was leaving the SWC for the SEC.
Rumors flew that Texas and Texas A&M were right behind the Razorbacks. But when folks go shopping they often visit more than one store, and suddenly, the schools of the Southwest Conference were shopping, or in a couple of specific cases, being shopped.
While the old guard of the SWC entertained the notion of raiding its neighbor to the north - the Big Eight - the progressives were imagining what it would be like for Texas and A&M to play Alabama and Tennessee. There was even a small but powerful group that wanted to see the Longhorns as part of the Pac 10. Conversations were held between Texas and Texas Tech (which was the closest geographically) with the Pac 10. Some even considered the possibility of Texas and Texas A&M going their separate ways in different leagues, but that idea quickly was dispatched as nonproductive.
Before the flame could burn in either direction - west toward the Pac 10 or east toward the SEC - politics entered the picture. The state legislature and offices even as high as the Governor's and Lt. Governor's squashed the idea, out of deference to the Texas schools in the SWC which would be left behind.
Discussions of expanding the SWC included in-state schools such as North Texas, and schools as far away as Louisville and as close as Tulane to the east. To the west, informal discussions included Brigham Young, which was part of the Western Athletic Conference.
The people in the Southwest Conference office made overtures to the Big Eight to form a television alliance, where the two leagues would remain intact but would negotiate a television package together. There was talk of a merger combining all of the schools, with a playoff game between the two league champs.
Dodds, however, looked beyond the money. His goal had always been to keep Texas in a position to compete for national honors in every sport. The Southwest Conference, an institution in college athletics for over seventy-five years, was dying a slow death. Attendance was down just about everywhere except Texas and Texas A&M, and in the major sports of football and basketball, recruiting was getting harder and harder. Other schools regularly raided the football-rich arena of Texas high school football, and convincing an outstanding basketball recruit to even visit was harder and harder work.
In the Big Eight, things were not a lot better. Despite the fact that both Oklahoma and Kansas had Final Four caliber basketball programs and Missouri had a nationally respected hoops program, football was still the main attraction for television and fact was, not many folks were being attracted.
In Texas, three cities ranked among the nation's top ten in population - Houston, Dallas and San Antonio - and the television markets in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth were in the top ten television markets in the country. Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis were the only cities in the Big Eight with any significant media markets at all. While the Southwest Conference had what was called a "regional" TV package that aired its league games over stations in the area, the Big Eight had not been able to generate one at all.
So when Dodds and Oklahoma athletics director Donnie Duncan got together to survey the landscape, they saw a far different future than those who wanted to hang on to what was.
In early 1994, the house of cards fell. The Southeastern Conference, which had added South Carolina along with Arkansas when Texas and Texas A&M chose not to leave the SWC, signed a five-year, $85 million contract with CBS. The network also signed one with the Big East for $50 million, effectively ending the CFA. The final crisis was at hand.
In the space of less than two months, the league which had begun as the Southwest Athletic Conference in 1915 was dismantled. Television negotiations pairing the Big Eight and SWC were virtually an afterthought for the networks, who were after new material. They found it when the Big Eight voted to invite Texas and Texas A&M, and with significant encouragement from Governor Ann Richards and Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, their respective alma maters of Baylor and Texas Tech.
Left behind were TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston.
Texas agreed to join the merger on February 25, 1994, and on March 10 the league negotiated a television package worth $97.5 million, the most lucrative in college football history at the time, surpassing the one the SEC had cut just a month before.
The conference began play two years later, electing to split into two divisions. The North Division was exclusively former Big Eight schools, with Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri and Colorado. In the South Division were the four former Southwest Conference schools as well as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. And despite opposition from the coaches at all Big 12 schools, their presidents voted to have a championship game matching the division winners and sold the package to ABC-TV.
That is how James Brown came to stand with his team on the field of the TWA Dome, with less than three minutes remaining and Texas nursing an improbable lead of 30-27.
Since the league's formation, the South Division had been viewed as simply cannon fodder for the powerful North Division. There was open resentment among some media, fans and officials in the old Big Eight toward the interlopers from the four Texas schools. So it was with a degree of irony that Texas and Nebraska, two of the winningest programs in college football, would be the first representatives of the divisions to decide the first-ever championship.
Nebraska, which, along with Florida State, would be the most dominant team in college football in the 1990s, was 10-1 and within striking distance of playing for a national championship. All the No. 3 ranked Cornhuskers had to do was eliminate the Longhorns, who were twenty-one point underdogs after winning the South Division with a 7-4 overall record.
James Brown had been a significant figure in Longhorn football. He had emerged as a hero when he got his first start and beat Oklahoma, 17-10, as a redshirt freshman in 1994. He went on to lead the Longhorns to a Sun Bowl victory that season, becoming the first African-American quarterback at Texas to start and win a bowl game.
In that 1994 season, a year that was tenuous at best for the Longhorns' head coach John Mackovic, it was Brown who effectively turned the year - and Mackovic's tenure at Texas - around, as he led Texas to a 48-13 win over Houston and a 63-35 victory over Baylor.
In 1995, he had piloted Texas to the final Southwest Conference Championship, including a gutsy performance despite a severe ankle sprain in a 16-6 victory over Texas A&M in the league's last game ever. In leading Texas to a 10-1-1 record, he helped the Longhorns earn an appearance in the Bowl Alliance at the Sugar Bowl.
The Monday before the Nebraska game, Brown had walked into a press conference in Austin and stunned the media. Badgered by a reporter about the fact that Texas was a 21-point underdog and, "How do you feel about that?" - Brown finally responded, "I don't know...we might win by twenty-one points."
In less than five minutes, it was on the national wire.
"Brown predicts Texas victory."
John Mackovic, who was in his fifth season at Texas, told his quarterback in a meeting that afternoon, "Now that you've said it, you better be ready to back it up."
The TWA Dome was packed, with a decided Nebraska flavor for that game which would decide the first Big 12 Championship. James Brown had led his team on the field in warm-ups, and was out-cheering the cheerleaders in the pre-game drills.
Mackovic, who was known for creatively scripting his offense at the beginning of games, put the Cornhuskers on their heels immediately with an eleven play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown to open the game. Texas had led 20-17 at half, but when Nebraska took its first lead of the game at 24-23 in the third quarter and then made it 27-23 with ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak for Texas.
The representatives from the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, who had come poised to invite Texas after the `Horns were dispatched by Nebraska, had marveled at the Longhorn Band at halftime and had delivered to the Texas representatives material advertising the attractiveness of San Diego as a bowl destination site.
But four plays later, Brown hit receiver Wane McGarity for a 66-yard touchdown pass, and Texas was back in front, 30-27.
Nebraska's ensuing drive stalled at the Longhorn 43-yard line, and with 4:41 remaining in the game, Texas got the ball at its own six. A penalty on the first play pushed the ball back to the three. Five plays later, Texas had moved the ball to their own 28-yard line.
It was fourth down, with inches to go.
Mackovic called time-out and summoned Brown to the sidelines.
"Steelers roll left," he said. "Look to run."
Mackovic had used his weapons well in the game. He had taken Ricky Williams, who would win the Heisman Trophy two years later, and used him primarily as a decoy. Priest Holmes, who had been the third back after coming off of a knee surgery earlier in his career, had been the workhorse.
Both players, of course, would go on to fame in the NFL, with Holmes becoming the league's top rusher at Kansas City in 2001. Holmes finished the game with 120 yards on 11 carries, and Williams carried only eight times for seven yards. Everybody had seen the pictures of Holmes as he perfected a leap over the middle of the line for short yardage. He had scored four touchdowns that way against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl alone.
Nebraska geared to stop Holmes.
And now, there was James Brown, right where you left him at the start of this story.
"Look to run," Mackovic had said. But as the team broke the huddle, Brown looked at his tight end, Derek Lewis, and said, "Be ready."
"For what?" Lewis responded, as he turned to look at his quarterback as he walked out to his position.
"I just might throw it," Brown replied.
Brown took the snap, headed to his left, and saw a Nebraska linebacker coming to fill the gap. He also saw something else. There all alone, seven yards behind the closest defender, stood Derek Lewis.
Seventy-thousand fans and a national television audience collectively gasped as Brown suddenly stopped, squared and flipped the ball to Lewis, who caught it at the Texas 35, turned and headed toward the goal. Sixty-one yards later, he was caught from behind at the Cornhusker 11-yard line. Holmes scored his third touchdown of the game to ice it at 37-27 with 1:53 left.
The next morning, Mackovic was on a plane to New York to attend the National Football Hall of Fame dinner, and to accept on national TV the Fiesta Bowl bid to play Penn State. The reaction and reception he received was amazing. In choosing not to punt from his own 28-yard line, thus leaving the game in the hands of his defense with three minutes left, Mackovic had swashbuckled his way into a significant amount of fame. Had it failed, he would have been second-guessed forever, because the Cornhuskers would have had the ball only 28 yards from the goal, where a very makeable field goal attempt would have tied the game, and a touchdown would have won it.
There is an old Texas proverb that says it is only a short distance from the parlor to the outhouse, and there was John Mackovic, sitting on a stuffed sofa in a studio at CBS-TV, accepting a bid as the Big 12 representative to the Fiesta Bowl, as Nebraska dropped from national title contention and went to the Orange Bowl.
"The call" seemingly had been seen by everybody in America. Ushers at the David Letterman show were high-fiving the Texas coach, and managers of leading restaurants were sending him complimentary bottles of wine.
James Brown had made good on his promise, even if he didn't quite get the 21-point margin of victory. He passed for 353 yards, hitting 19 of 28 passes, including the touchdown pass to McGarity. He had led Texas to a stunning victory. The mystique of the North Division of the Big 12 had been shattered, and the guys from the South had proved they belonged.
In the years that have followed, Big 12 schools have played in the BCS National Championship Game seven times, as the young league quickly solidified itself as a true power in college football. Now, of course, it is in its swan song, with Nebraska departing for the Big Ten and Colorado for the Pac 10 after this season.
The victory marked the high water mark for Mackovic, who was able to enjoy the popularity of "the call" for a short spring and summer. When Brown sprained his ankle in the season opener of 1997 and couldn't play the next week against UCLA, disaster struck. Texas came apart as the Bruins beat the `Horns, 66-3. Brown never really got well, and neither did his coach. When the Texas season ended at 4-7, Mackovic was removed from the head coaching position and reassigned within the athletics department.
James Brown made a run at arena football and spent some time playing in Europe. In his time at Texas, he had earned a special place.
First, he destroyed the myth that an African-American couldn't play quarterback at Texas, and second, he had taken "fourth-and-inches," and made it into a euphoria that will forever rank as one of the greatest moments in the storied history of Longhorn football.