Just when you thought it was all over, the Big 12 has reversed course and pulled schools across the country back into the murky waters of college realignment. After going back and forth for months on the subject, commissioner Bob Bowlsby surprised many in the college athletics world at the league’s media days by saying the Big 12 is essentially opening its doors to new members.
There should be no shortage of schools that want to walk through those doors to join the Power Five club and Bowlsby’s phones are likely to be ringing off the hook over the next six to nine months. While the latest round of musical chairs won’t be quite as involved as in recent years, it nevertheless should make for a fascinating 2016.
Three Reasons Why Houston Should Join the Big 12
1. They have political support in Texas
In a surprising twist to realignment, Houston has suddenly been on a roll of endorsements to be the next school to invite to the Big 12. Both the Texas governor and lieutenant governor have thrown their support behind the Cougars and they wouldn’t be the first in their positions to help a school move to another conference. Perhaps the most astonishing turn of events has been the support that Houston has received from both Texas and Texas Tech. It remains to be seen if this will all result in the necessary votes to get in but momentum is on Houston’s side more than any university under consideration.
2. Houston is enhancing its academic and athletic profile
The university has undergone an impressive transformation in the classroom and on the field over the past decade to shed the image of being “Cougar High” and of being a commuter school. UH president and chancellor Renu Khator has personally made a big push to land the school in a Power Five league and is not only pumping money into new buildings and research initiatives, but also new athletic facilities and salaries. Tom Herman might already be the hottest football coach in the country right now and has positioned his Cougars as the highest profile team among the Group of Five leagues. In many respects, the entire school is following the path TCU laid out a few years ago.
3. Helps Big 12 in a large market that is close to other schools
The city of Houston already has a large number of fans and alumni from Big 12 schools and doesn’t really have one truly dominant team in the market. But conference leaders have to be mindful of the fact that nearby Texas A&M is doing well in its new league and beginning to turn the area into an SEC town (as TV ratings indicate). Elevating the Cougars into a power conference and having regular appearances from other Texas teams could stem the tide and keep the city under the Big 12 banner. Plus, Houston is already a rival of many Big 12 schools dating back to its SWC days and its location is a lot closer than any other option so travel is a plus and not a glaring minus.
Three Reasons Why Houston Shouldn’t Join the Big 12
1. It would negatively impact recruiting for most schools
While Texas or Oklahoma probably don’t have to worry about Houston recruiting well in the area near its own campus (as the Cougars are under Herman), other Big 12 teams won’t share the same enthusiasm. The rest of the conference will seemingly lose the ability to play the power league card when going up against Houston one-on-one in recruiting and coaches probably are not too thrilled at the prospect of that happening.
2. It will be hard to own the city even if Houston is in the Big 12
The Big 12 doesn’t have its own conference network so TV market isn’t as big of a factor as it might be in expansion. Still, school presidents and other leaders are sure to understand that an invite going out to Houston will not make the city a stronghold. The Cougars have to compete with Texas A&M an hour up the road and their large fan base sprinkled all over the area plus what Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and others bring to the table.
3. Fan support hasn’t been at a Big 12 level
In just his first season on campus, Herman wasn’t shy about calling out Cougars fans for a lack of attendance at football games in 2015, despite a run toward a conference title and New Year’s Six bowl. The problem is that Houston has never been a super passionate fan base on the whole and has struggled at times to put people in seats even during the successful “Run and Shoot” days as well as recent stints under Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin. Maybe getting into the Big 12 would change that but nobody is holding their breath.
When the Big 12 was first discussing expansion, the general consensus was that if there was a decision made to go forward, Houston would find itself on the outside looking in. The thinking goes that because the school doesn’t add a ton in a market the conference is already in, not even the very competitive football team would be enough to boost the candidacy of the Cougars.
Well, things seem to have changed quickly. Public displays of support by key political figures in the state of Texas plus the major endorsement from the Longhorns have quickly made Houston one of the favorites to be added now. There are certainly some negatives when it comes adding another school in the Lone Star State but university leaders at UH appear to be doing their best to reassure everybody that’s a positive and not a negative.
From a common sense standpoint, Houston in the Big 12 makes a lot more sense than some options like BYU, Connecticut or Memphis. But common sense is rarely the biggest factor when it comes to conference realignment in college athletics so Cougars fans probably won’t be counting on an invite until one actually comes.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.