If there’s been one constant story for this offseason, beyond silly Harbaugh controversies, it’s been Big 12 expansion and realignment. Will they add two teams? Four teams? Which ones? Will TV force the conference to disintegrate? Balloon? It’s already made schools create promotional materials to brag about video games, or mail meat to other university administrators.
If there is one thing an even cursory look at college football history tells us, it’s that there’s nothing new under the sun. People have been hollering about recruiting violations and improper benefits since Chicago’s Big Ten Team was, well, Chicago. They’ve fret over technical innovations ruining the game of football since the forward pass. And the Big 12 has worried about the outsized influence of Texas and TV revenue since before there was even a Big 12.
Sports Illustrated’s Joan Niesen put together a thoughtful and interesting oral history of the Big 12 conference that is worth a read for anybody who is interested in conference realignment, the future of the Big 12, and the business aspects of this weird, wonderful sports.
But this isn’t just a story about the Big 12. The early 1990s brought on another era of college football realignment. As former Iowa State coach Jim Walden adds in the story, “At that time, hell, everything was changing. It was a fruit basket turnover in college football. Good god.” Florida State joined the ACC. Arkansas bolted the SWC for the SEC. Penn State joined the Big Ten.
And amidst all this chaos, the Big Ten could have gotten even bigger. It’s worth a reminder: the Big Ten could have grabbed Texas. Or others!
Here’s former Kansas State university president Jon Wefald:
Notre Dame was being wooed by the Big Ten. The Big Ten was saying, we might be going for Kansas or Missouri. They even had overtures to Texas. My worry was that Texas would join the Pac-10. Texas is a great school. Academically, it's the best in the Big 12.
Kansas and Missouri, of course, were names bandied about during the Big Ten’s most recent raid of the Big 12, when they added Nebraska. They’re both midwestern, they’re both AAU institutions, and intuitively, they make some sense. But Texas is something else entirely.
Lest anybody think that this speculation is from a source that wouldn’t know, Bill Cunningham, former University of Texas president and chancellor, also added that “The Big Ten, our timing was a little wrong for them. They would have liked to have Texas.”
Elsewhere in the article, even Iowa State — which hey, is also in the AAU — was mentioned as a possible Big Ten expansion candidate, a name that you basically never hear about now.
Sure, Texas isn’t geographically close to any Big Ten institution from the 1990s, but it isn’t hard to see the hypothetical appeal. The conference wasn’t the punching bag it became in the national press in the late 2000s, and academically, it would have been a strong fit for the AAU, research-focused school. A Big Ten with Texas, fresh off the heels of grabbing Penn State, could have made the Big Ten potentially an even more massive player in the sport.
It’s fun to try and imagine the alternate history that would have sprung from this. Maryland and Rutgers are almost certainly not in the conference. Does Nebraska join? Does the Big Ten go to 14 and add other more western programs, like Missouri and Kansas? Would this have been enough to pry Notre Dame? Does the Big Ten Network ever get created? What would happen to the rest of the SWC or the Big Eight? If nothing else, the makeup of what we consider the “Power 5” would almost certainly be different had Texas joined the Big Ten back in the early 1990s.
The fundamentals behind what made Texas a potentially attractive property for the Big Ten haven’t changed that much, even if the financials of the television industry are different. It will be interesting to see if the conference decides to take another swing at the Longhorns once this current Big 12 television contract is over, especially if the Big 12 doesn’t end up expanding after all.
It’s a fun alternate history to think about, and there’s some solid proof that it wasn’t as crazy of an idea as it sounds.