Impacting Big 12 in all the wrong ways
Realignment will tear apart rivalries and probably hurt attendance
KANSAS CITY -- When you've been to the past 15 Big 12 women's basketball media days, you figure nothing can possibly surprise you. Then Baylor coach Kim Mulkey dropped a "Real Housewives of Waco"-type quote on the typically drowsy morning media session.
Gee, who says this realignment circus is all bad? At least we get a few laughs out of it, even though Mulkey didn't at all sound as if she was trying to be funny.
Asked about whether she planned to continue, past this season, playing SEC-bound Texas A&M, which now has a vibrant women's basketball rivalry with Baylor, Mulkey made it very clear how she felt.
"I remember Texas A&M's president with these quotes: 'It's like a marriage. If it's over, it's over,'" Mulkey said of the Aggies' decision to exit the Big 12, mostly due to being intensely sick of the Texas Longhorns. "Who wants a relationship that's over and has no value for you? Basically, he's talking about a divorce. And I know a little bit about a divorce.
"My feeling is this: If a man wants to divorce me and says our relationship has no value to him, and then asks me if he can sleep with me, the answer is, 'No!'"
It's about TV and football and ego. And I'm not sure ego is third.” -- Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson on realignment
Within seconds, eager fingers among the Lone Star State-based media were getting this risqué gem onto Twitter as fast as they could type. We've already seen plenty of verbal haymakers thrown the way of the Longhorns, whose apparent insufferable burnt orangeness has been blamed for driving out Nebraska and Texas A&M, and perhaps is even a small factor in the possible pending exit of Missouri. (Although Missouri really just seems to want to be wanted by someone else.)
Now on Wednesday, via Mulkey, Baylor threw a hard jab at the Aggies for leaving the Big 12. Later in the day, A&M's Gary Blair, coach of the defending national champions, looked more sad than angry about the whole thing.
"I'm not going to get in and be the wordsmith with Kim or anything on how she feels," Blair said. "That's out of our hands as basketball coaches. Last year, everybody loved us. This year, now everybody says we're the villain."
Well not necessarily. Isn't Texas still leading the villainy category? Always and forever?
"We know we're going to stand strong, know we're in the Big 12 and we feel good about it," Texas coach Gail Goestenkors said. "We don't feel like the villain. We know we're not the villain."
Nebraska, which from the Big 12's inception loathed the inclusion of Texas into what used to be the Big Eight, would disagree. If the Huskers had been here at media day, that is. They, of course, were not, as the Big Red now belong to the Big Ten. Also absent from the Big 12 now is Colorado, and maybe that's just as well. The Buffaloes had an odd history of travel problems in getting to Big 12 women's hoops media day, no matter where it was held.
Now they are in the Pac-12. Their reason for leaving was the lure of supposed great stability in that conference. Wasn't it?
It's kind of hard to remember with all the rumors, innuendoes, double-dealing, back-stabbing, making up and breaking up that's gone on in the past two years in college athletics. Ultimately -- not to be too snarky -- but maybe Colorado left simply because no one in the Big 12 cared enough to stop it.
Yes, we know the conference shuffles are all about football. Every Big 12 women's hoops coach who was present Wednesday said so. That didn't include Iowa State's Bill Fennelly, dean of the league's coaches, who stayed home in Ames as he is receiving treatment for a cancerous lesion on his vocal cords. But he would have said it had he been here: football, football, football.
Actually, Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, whose school now faces the potential loss of historic rival Missouri, put it even more bluntly and correctly.
"It's about TV and football and ego," Henrickson said. "And I'm not sure ego is third."
Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor were the schools that have been oft-mentioned as potential "orphans looking for homes" if the Big 12 really had busted apart -- something that has seemingly been on the brink of happening at least a dozen times since the conference craziness began in earnest in 2010. But it still hasn't taken place.
My world is directly affected by the decisions that are made. It's far less fascinating and far much repugnant, actually. When you start breaking conferences apart and playing all your games in different time zones, what does that do to a student-athlete's life and their welfare?” -- Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale on realignment
Once Nebraska and Colorado were gone, things supposedly had settled down. Then Texas A&M said it wanted out earlier this year, making the SEC a 13-team league. That got the Missouri-to-the-SEC train running again; the Tigers tried to escape the Big 12 before, but were left at the station by the Big Ten.
Oklahoma got into the act with statements that made it appear the Sooners were in position to potentially say yes to the Pac-12, neglecting to wait for the actual invitation. Apparently, Texas put the kibosh on that, too, because the Longhorns were the main gem the Pac-12 wanted. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech would have just come along with Texas if they'd all headed west.
"It did cross our minds. It sure did," Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke said. "We even looked at changing our recruiting base just a little bit, hitting California a little if this was truly a possibility. I'm just grateful and thankful that our league stuck together, because central United States needs this conference."
However, Texas A&M has decided it doesn't need the Big 12, and Missouri appears to be closer to saying that it doesn't, either. Another Lone Star State school, TCU, has been invited to essentially take the Aggies' place. If the Tigers go, the Big 12 likely will look to poaching schools from other leagues to get up to 10 or 12 members.
And so round and round it goes. Where it stops, nobody knows.
"If I were someone on the outside looking in, watching it all transpire, I might think, 'Gosh, this is fascinating,'" Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the various moves in college athletics. "But I'm not on the outside. I'm not a voyeur for all this. My world is directly affected by the decisions that are made. It's far less fascinating and far much repugnant, actually.
"When you start breaking conferences apart and playing all your games in different time zones, what does that do to a student-athlete's life and their welfare?"
And what does it do to natural, geographic rivalries and their impact on attendance? The Big 12 has led the nation in women's basketball attendance now for the past dozen seasons. Part of that is the elevation of the teams -- Baylor and Texas A&M have won NCAA titles, Oklahoma and Texas have reached the Final Four -- and part is how many games with rivals are drivable distances for fans.
Waco (Baylor), College Station (Texas A&M) and Texas (Austin) are all in a triangle roughly each an hour-and-a-half away from each other. Norman (Oklahoma) is further up Interstate 35, but doable, especially for diehards.
Meanwhile, the results and attendance haven't been nearly as good for the likes of Missouri and Kansas in women's basketball. Yet if there's any game that is sure to draw well for either team, it has typically been the one between the "Border War" rivals. Henrickson doesn't want to lose that game, but she might have no choice.
"Our rivalry [with Missouri] belongs in the Big 12," she said. "Institutionally, I think we all feel that way."
Incidentally, Baylor is picked to win the Big 12, and Texas A&M was chosen to finish second. Those teams met four times last season; the Lady Bears won the first three (twice in the regular season, once in the Big 12 tournament), then the Aggies won the NCAA Elite Eight showdown.
It's possible, of course, that they could play four times again this season. After that, though, Mulkey made it clear she doesn't expect to schedule the Aggies again. An NCAA meeting would be the only way they'd face off.
Blair, once an assistant coach on the Louisiana Tech team for which Mulkey was a guard, said he will always consider her a friend. But he knows that doesn't matter, either, after the new battle lines have been drawn in conference alignment.
Blair, who spent a decade in the SEC while running the Arkansas program, knows his way around that conference. He believes that Texas A&M will continue with all the progress that it has made since he took over in College Station. He'll get used to the SEC again.
"I have to adjust," Blair said. "But I'm really, really going to miss the Big 12."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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