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Hoping to heal its Texas and Oklahoma wound, the Big 12 makes four schools happy

The Big 12 has extended membership invitations to BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston to join the Power Five league. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

Happy talk swept the college sports landscape Friday when the Big 12 Conference, walloped by the midsummer news that Oklahoma and Texas will abandon it for the SEC, began a formal stab at healing. It officially welcomed BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida to its eventual membership set to begin with BYU in mid-2023, with the other three perhaps incrementally thereafter by mid-2024.

“It’s a good day,” Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, touting the addition of “200,000 new students, three additional states, 40 million in population” and “three of the best recruiting areas in the entire nation.”

“A bigger, stronger, more national Big 12 is a great thing for college athletics,” said Lawrence Schovanec, the mathematician and Texas Tech president who headed the 10 university presidents and chancellors who approved the additions.

“The Big 12 is going to shock people,” said Houston Board of Regents chairman and billionaire restaurateur Tilman Fertitta, with “how good it’s going to be in the future.”

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A four-part series of announcements through the day concluded with Cincinnati, the 202-year-old university that will join its 10th conference across the past century and whose president, Neville Pinto, said, “Thank you for believing in us,” while Athletic Director John Cunningham said, “It’s a great day to be a Big 12 Bearcat.”

At UCF, that relative pup of universities at 58 years old, dignitaries went with words such as “historic” and “landmark” and “unanimously,” that last one describing how the trustees voted on the matter. AD Terry Mohajir reveled in the “meteoric” rise of a UCF that joined the football bigwigs only in 1996 and said, “Imagine where UCF’s football program will be in fifty years.”

Joy overwhelmed two men who once played football for BYU and Houston, then later became athletic directors at same.

“Congratulations, Cougar Nation,” BYU Athletic Director and former NFL player Tom Holmoe said in a video news conference. “It’s been a long time coming, and here we are.” He soon added: “It’s in my blood. I feel it. I know what this means to everybody.”

“I’ve found myself failing for words at several moments the last couple of days as this has come to fruition,” Houston AD and former Houston football captain Chris Pezman said. He called it “a transformational moment, and it’s something that we’ll look back to over time and remember where we were at this moment.”

The departures of Oklahoma and Texas, set for 2025 if not sooner, had seemed catastrophic for the Big 12, leaving it with eight schools when all other Power Five conferences have at least 12. It removed giants in terms of football success (Oklahoma) and market share (Texas).

Now the conference, an epicenter in college athletics’ tectonic shifts of the 21st century, will have gone from 12 schools in 1994 to 10 in 2010, then a different 10 in 2011 until now, and soon 14 across the next few years before Texas and Oklahoma leave it at 12.

“We’re always going to be open to the opportunities as they present themselves,” Bowlsby said.

For the opportunities of Friday, they pulled one football independent that plays other sports in the West Coast Conference (BYU) and three of the 11 members of the American Athletic Conference, an ambitious lot that in recent years had nibbled toward the edges of Power Five status. UCF President Alexander Cartwright said the school would pay a $10 million fee to exit the AAC and $2.5 million to enter the Big 12.

Where for a decade the Big 12 has featured teams of a gaping geographical distance, stretching the 1,280 miles from Morgantown, W.Va., to Lubbock, Tex., the new moves will make a conference stretching the 1,893 miles from Orlando to Provo, Utah.

Men’s basketball-wise, the move will add a recent Final Four program (Houston), a program occasionally pegged as a Final Four contender (Cincinnati), and two programs that have made some recent noise. Football-wise, always the larger financial question, the league will add three programs that have frequented the top 10 in recent seasons (UCF, Cincinnati, Houston) and one familiar around the country for a storied tradition (BYU).

With that and all its questions about market sizes, Bowlsby spoke of the puzzles — the “migration to streaming,” the “deterioration of the cable bundle” and how, in 2024, the Big 12 would “begin talking with our broadcast partners and others who may have interest in the inventory.” BYU’s Holmoe said money alone shouldn’t drive decisions but said of its importance: “I get it. Everyone gets it.” He concluded, “There’ll be plenty of money in this conference.”

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All the mirth came almost five years after all the pain of October 2016, when the Big 12 held a drowsy news conference near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in which it announced it would refrain from expanding, flinging bummers around the country. “The last time, it was a voyage of exploration,” Bowlsby said. “We were unsure as to whether or not expansion made perfect sense.” He said in the video conference with Houston honchos, “We had a lot of people disappointed at that time, including, I’m sure, the University of Houston.”

Fertitta, livid in 2016, smiled briefly at that, having said already, “I love that it’s the Big 12 again.” He said: “I love the Big 12. I love the rivalries. I remember the Southwest Conference days.”

“There isn’t any question,” Bowlsby said, “that the Cougars raise the bar in every sport and in every way.” Then he pointed right to the heart of all of it: “They live and reside in arguably the best [football] recruiting county in the U.S.”

BYU viewed the disappointment of 2016 as but a marker in a process even as it knew it “didn’t want to be independent forever,” Holmoe said. He recalled 2016 as: “This isn’t going to be a failure. This is going to be a launching point.”

This story has been updated.

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