Nearly six tumultuous years have passed since the ground started shifting beneath the feet of college sports through conference realignment. The massive quakes came and went, but the aftershocks still haven’t subsided.
The latest realignment rumblings are coming from Oklahoma, where OU president David Boren is publicly hounding the rest of the Big 12 to take a series of steps that he contends will stabilize the league for the future. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t appear to be endearing him to the rest of the conference. The protracted drama seems to be wearing thin everywhere else around the country, too.
Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star gave voice to those frustrations in a blistering column taking Boren to task. In the view of Mellinger--and any league administrator(s) who might have planted the piece--the “egomaniacal” Boren running his mouth has only served to weaken the Big 12 and add to its problems, which are really no different from every other league.
I find the machinations of conference realignment fascinating, but can definitely admit to being exhausted by the never-ending drama. (For the record, I’m also not that keen on the Big 12 expanding, OU changing conferences or even the direction of college sports in general.) Boren’s habitual bitching about the conference to the press is the latest crisis-inducing irritant for the Big 12, and it does indeed reek of “a 74-year-old president at a legacy university drunk on his own power.” He also played protagonist in the last Big 12 missile crisis, so it’s easy to understand why his latest power play is grating on everyone outside the state of Oklahoma.
However, despite the respect he carries around the state and the power he wields at the university, Boren isn’t king of OU. He’s not making all this noise just because it’s his prerogative, even if he’s pretty clearly not a fan of the current state of the conference.
Boren is a skilled politician who always knows which way the wind is blowing. He wouldn’t start flapping his gums if he didn’t know that he had backing--or outright orders--from the university’s regents and major donors. He sees the e-mails from the people who buy the tickets to the games.
I hear plenty of the complaints from OU fans about the conference, too, so let me try to sum them up.
Since the Big 12 got poached, OU has traded football games against Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri and Colorado for TCU, West Virginia and more dates with the Iowa States and Kansases of the conference. From the standpoint of quality of play, I’d argue that the conference hasn’t missed a beat.
Yet, a visit from the Mountaineers doesn’t rev Crimson and Cream engines the way the Cornhuskers or Aggies did. It’s not that WVU doesn’t have a good program; it’s that OU had decades of history built up with the schools that left. (To be fair, OU had a big hand in diluting its storied rivalry with Nebraska when the Big 12 was formed.) On top of that, there’s no Big 12 championship game waiting at the end of the season anymore.
OU fans also have watched ESPN and the SEC form a symbiotic relationship that often makes it hard to tell if college football exists outside the southeast. Meanwhile, Mike Slive used A&M’s disgruntlement to help open the Big 12’s traditional recruiting ground of the Lone Star State to marauders from the east.
How do you think all of that's going to play in Oklahoma, a state where the marriage between its identity and the flagship university's football program takes a backseat to no one outside of Alabama?
All these things add up to the people who shell out to make OU's athletic department one of the highest-grossing in the country. Boren isn't simply going rogue. He's speaking on behalf of a constituency that has passed the point of mere restlessness over an uncertain future. Airing his grievances publicly shows the natives that he's trying to get things fixed; keeping the other Big 12 schools comfortable naturally falls pretty far down on his list of priorities.
It wouldn't matter if OU's president was David Boren or David Bowie. The rest of the Big 12 might be annoyed by Boren's yapping, but it would be a mistake to treat this as a narcissistic old man shooting from the hip. The bigger hurdle to Big 12 stability is the Sooners who are writing the checks.