Further Big 12 Expansion Is 'Very Possible,' League Sources Say

U. of Louisville

If the Big 12 decides to add an 11th member, the U. of Louisville would be a likely choice. Best known for its storied basketball program, which plays in the recently opened 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center (pictured), Louisville would meet the conference's financial and geographical goals.
January 24, 2012

Expansion talk is on the table again in the Big 12 Conference, with the addition of at least one new member "very possible," two high-ranking officials told The Chronicle.

The University of Louisville, which the league considered adding last year when it brought on Texas Christian and West Virginia Universities, is the likeliest choice, according to people with knowledge of the talks. Brigham Young, another university the conference has considered, continues to be a possible target. But an invitation—or invitations—could still be months off, and some Big 12 members are reluctant to expand beyond the current 10 institutions.

A four-person expansion committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to begin exploring the league's options, Chuck Neinas, the acting commissioner, said in an interview on Tuesday. It is the group's first meeting in months and follows other recent league expansions. (On Tuesday, Navy agreed to join the Big East in football, joining five other recently added institutions.)

Since October, when the Big 12 announced its latest additions, the league has not reached out to any colleges, Mr. Neinas said, but several institutions have made their case to be added.

"We're definitely committed to 10 in the foreseeable future," he said. "How that plays out, we'll have to wait and see."

Other Big 12 leaders are cautious when describing how soon a move might happen.

"I don't want to send the message, 'Oh, they're getting ready to expand,'" said Joseph R. Castiglione, the Oklahoma athletic director and a member of the expansion committee. "But you'd be naïve to think there's not instability still in our business.

"From a transition standpoint, we're in position now to deal with the reality of our world," he said. "We're going to make some evaluations and reach the best conclusion that helps us stabilize our long-term future." 

The expansion committee­—which is chaired by V. Burns Hargis, Oklahoma State's president, and includes Kirk H. Schulz, president of Kansas State, and DeLoss Dodds, athletic director at the University of Texas at Austin—plans to make a report to the Big 12 Conference's Board of Directors next week.

That report will be an update on where the committee believes things should go next, Mr. Hargis said. "If there are two schools that we feel meet our various criteria—good academic institutions with good athletic programs and strong fan bases—and that our television network partners think are additive to our conference, it's something we're clearly going to consider."

He added, however, that there is no rush to decide: "It's a very strong conference, and we're very comfortable with the new members," he said. "Whether we go beyond that is a big and important question that requires a very deliberative approach."

Looking East

Sources close to the talks, who asked not to be identified because no decisions have been made, said the conference is most interested in expanding east, in part to give West Virginia a travel partner. Adding a university with an existing rivalry with the Mountaineers is also a priority.

"It's not to eliminate BYU by any means," one source said. "But given that we've already added West Virginia, it would be more natural to go east. West Virginia has to fly over two states to get to the next conference school, and that's not a good thing in the long run."

Any potential new member also must bring a proportionate increase in revenue to the league. "I know it sounds very mercenary here, but you do have to determine, if you're adding, what is the value of a new member or new members?" Mr. Neinas said. "If there's an 11th mouth at the table, are they able to find more food so the ones there can still get theirs?"

With roughly $85-million in revenue last year, Louisville can certainly feed itself. It is best known for its rich basketball history, having won two national titles and regularly ranking among the country's top programs. Its football teams have also had much success in the past decade, finishing in the top 20 three times since 2004. And many of its other programs, including baseball, are perennially among the nation's best.

The Cardinals have poured more than $150-million into their athletics facilities since the late 1990s. The new $248-million KFC Yum! Center, where the university's men's and women's basketball teams are the primary tenants, is one of the country's premier arenas.

And Louisville, which is located less than seven hours from Morgantown, W.Va., has competed against the Mountaineers in the Big East Conference since 2005.

Adding two institutions would allow the Big 12 to have a league championship game in football. It had that until two years ago, when Colorado and Nebraska announced they were leaving. (Colorado is now in the Pac-12, and Nebraska the Big 10. In the past year, Texas A&M and Missouri also announced their intentions to leave for the Southeastern Conference.)

Although a football championship game could put millions more dollars into conference coffers, Big 12 members have not shown much enthusiasm for adding one, Mr. Neinas said. On several occasions, an upset in the league title game caused a Big 12 university to lose a bid to the BCS National Championship.

Coaches also like playing a round-robin schedule in football and basketball. In football, each team plays all nine members, a schedule that would be difficult to continue if the conference expanded.

These issues are part of what makes expansion decisions so difficult, Mr. Neinas said.

"Don't get too far out in front on this. It's sexy to be hypothetical and try to forecast, but it's a very orderly process," he said. "What the expansion committee will do is still to be determined."