To the Brink and Back

Iowa State has to re-assess its commitment to Division I athletics, and must be prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure a more secure future.

Tuesday should be the day that brings an end to the fears of many a Cyclone fan, not to mention followers of four other schools that stood to be stuck in athletics purgatory following what seemed to be the imminent destruction of the Big 12, care of the Pac-10, Big Ten and SEC. Exact details are not yet known, but from all indications, the Big 12 will survive - a ten team conference that hopes to re-emerge stronger, despite the loss of two schools. 

It's tough to place complete blame on the two member institutions that are leaving, though there is certainly some to spread around. There is no doubt that Colorado has eyed the Pac-10 off and on for a number of years. They saw a situation in the Big 12 growing ever more unstable, and probably made the right move by jumping at the Pac-10's offer, rather than risk the possibility of being left out in the shuffle. The Pac-10 similarly thought they were being proactive at the time, trying to avoid the possibility of Baylor ending up in their conference. 

Nebraska is slightly more different. Harvey Perlman and Tom Osborne were, with no doubt, attracted to a growth in revenue as well as fleeing a situation that seemed like it could get ugly in the Big 12. Nebraska's role was part being proactive, part fleeing a situation they were never quite happy with in the Big 12. Their escape to the Big Ten may end up being more profitable than staying at home, though one wonders how the dynamics of new television negotiations would have played out with an 11-team conference that only lost Colorado. The discussion is moot, however. The Huskers are headed east. Destroyed are a number of rivalries along the way.

All holy hell soon broke loose. The following schools were rumored at different times to have suitors from the following conferences:

Iowa State: Big East, Mountain West, Conference USA

Kansas: Big East, Mountain West, Pac-10, SEC

Kansas State: Big East, Mountain West

Missouri: Big East, Big Ten, SEC

Baylor: Mountain West, Pac-10, Conference USA, Big East

Texas: Pac-10, SEC, Big Ten

Texas Tech: Pac-10

Texas A&M, Pac-10, SEC, Big Ten

Oklahoma: Pac-10, SEC, Big Ten

Oklahoma State: Pac-10

 

The situation was fluid to say the very least. Complicating the matter was various reports that assured that any number of deals were done. Chip Brown. Joe Schad. Orangebloods. Dan Wetzel. Enough "sources" to make one's head explode. 

 

Today brought the biggest and best news that the Big 12 would survive. A ten team conference with increased revenues. An increased divide in revenues, for sure, but an increase in revenues that assured the viability if the strong but shaky power conference.

 

Times were tenuous in Ames. Even the most optimistic Cyclone fan had to admit that the situation looked bleak. Despite what seemed to be overtures from the Big East, an initial assessment by Iowa State leadership did not like parts of that fit, including increased travel costs. Quite simply, Iowa State and its athletics department faced a situation where they had no idea just what they could do - but none of it looked good. Uncertainty with funding, contracts and the overall health of the department were all in question. It looked dire before today's 11th hour save.

 

But this situation may end up being a boon for Iowa State athletics.

 

HOW DO WE KNOW THAT THIS CONFERENCE IS BUILT TO LAST? We don't, necessarily. Chip Brown has reported that the new version of the Big 12 will make it difficult to leave, but difficult does not equal impossible. However, the conference has been brought back from the brink at least once, so it does seem there is a drive from the leadership of the South schools especially to try and make the situation work.

 

DAN BEEBE - HOW MUCH OF THIS IS HIS FAULT? A decent chunk, for sure. His rear end may have been saved by a totally unrelated group of people in all of this. He likely deserves credit in the ultimate salvaging of the conference, but as has been said, the Big 12 should have been proactive - not reactive. One has to think that he could have helped negotiate an even better revenue stream if the conference had remained wholly intact. The Big 12 also needs to work to market itself. Look at a Big 12 Network and follow what the Big Ten started. Use a new television deal to increase national viewing opportunities. Market. Market. Market. Make what's left of the Big 12 a brand like the Big Ten and the SEC.

 

CONSTANT RUMORS, ALL WEEK LONG. HOW SHOULD WE HAVE KNOWN WHAT TO BELIEVE? There is a popular notion that Orangebloods.com's Chip Brown was being fed information from the Texas Athletics Department. One has to be naive not to believe that much of his information came from within. He, however, was also out in front of most of the information that ended up being true, so his role in all of this spans the gamut from rumormonger to newsbreaker. Yesterday's report from AggieYell.com, however, struck me as full of doublespeak, and it was not something I was willing to completely trust, despite having elements of validity to it. The frustrating part was the fluid nature of all the rumors. The moral of the story is, ultimately, until an institution actually issues a statement, anything is possible. 

 

WE'RE BENDING OVER FOR TEXAS, AREN'T WE? No away around it, Texas, and to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Texas A&M stand to make out quite well. The conference has always revolved around Texas, and that's why this morning's news held so much importance. But any pride that schools like Iowa State and Kansas State had needed to be swallowed to avoid the unknown. The situation moving to the Big East may have been better initially, but that situation was in NO way more solid than what the Big 12 has become. The Big 12 is under Texas' thumb. Probably always will be. But Iowa State doesn't have the sort of financial resources or athletics history to make it on its own. And as far as the horses of the college athletics world go, there's worse options than Texas. They are staying on top. And we will have to continue to deal with what they want. But we have to. And we need to.

 

SO WHAT'S GOOD IN ALL OF THIS? Well, obviously avoiding the overall destruction of the Iowa State Athletics Department is a good start. But Iowa State could actually come out stronger. It's long been known that the State of Iowa wants to cut off all Regents schools from state funding for athletics. While Jamie Pollard has done a good job in terms of making progress, we're not there yet. Roughly doubling conference revenues would sure as heck help. It's also a lot easier securing donations and ticket sales when you can advertise home dates against Texas and Oklahoma every other year. Football recruiting may also get a bump. Nebraska may become less of a factor in Texas, while at the same time, coaches can not only pitch that recruits will play in one of the strongest conferences in America, but families will get more opportunities to see their loved ones come back to their home state to play.

 

A new television deal should obviously mean that Iowa State will be on television more. The chance of a Big 12 Network is still out there. More should be learned on this front on Tuesday. And, while an Iowa State network isn't really feasible, the four North schools could always entertain the notion of a four school network centered on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and the surrounding markets, including places like Omaha.

 

Non-revenue sports are also breathing a sigh of relief. The women's basketball program and Bill Fennelly always sold the fact that ISU went up against and beat the best. Despite Nebraska's strong season last year, the conference can easily survive losing them and Colorado. The Olympic sports now no longer have to worry about flying halfway across the country for games and matches. Or the simple fear of their sport being eliminated.

 

Rivalries special to Iowa State are also being preserved. Iowa State and Kansas in basketball and Iowa State and Missouri in basketball come to mind. If the Big 12 survives as a four team wrestling conference, Iowa State and Oklahoma State control a fair bit of the actual tradition of the college version of the sport. Some new rivalries may grow. The nearly shared common fate of Kansas State and Iowa State should lead to the growth of a friendly rivalry. Cyclone and Cowboy fans have always shown as much respect for each other as any two schools in the league, and being able to play them more often will also be enjoyable. And, ultimately, despite losing Colorado and Nebraska, increased interaction with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma will have a certain sweetness to those fond of remembering the days of the Big 8.

 

IS IT ALL GOOD? Not necessarily. Again, we'll need to see the details of the new television deal before getting too excited. To that end, Iowa State faces much tougher battles to reach the postseason in the revenue sports. The football team has to play Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State every year. Not guaranteed losses, but a guaranteed beast of a challenge at the outset. Men's basketball faces a similar challenge, though not as steep.

 

And, obviously, inequity in the conference will continue. Only time will tell how much these factors will hurt Iowa State. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot.

 

--

Let's make it clear. I think most people would prefer an intact Big 12. But the possibility exists that the strife of the past week could leave Iowa State stronger than before. What has to happen now is a change in the atmosphere of Iowa State and the athletics department. Despite any guarantee of the conference membership, Iowa State needs to have contingency plans. The school has to be prepared for the worst of situations. They also need to be wise about their investments. There will be increased revenue. And we know that the engine that has driven this entire mess is football. Iowa State HAS to show an even greater commitment to football. The program possesses adequate, but not great, facilities. Jamie Pollard has to try harder than ever to execute the Athletics Facilities Master Plan. Bowl in the end zone. Make the Jacobsen Building football only and move the rest of the A.D. offices to a new structure. New sound system. New scoreboard. Get us on par with the rest of the BCS schools. Continue with renovations to Hilton Coliseum. Look at the feasibility of newer facilities for Olympic sports. We've come a long way with a lot less than many other programs. We're going to get more, and we have to use it wisely.

 

Fans also need to step up their commitment. You know how you reacted to all of this. How many Cyclone fans would have been absolutely crushed with what COULD have happened. Now take steps to make sure the Athletics Department is much stronger through all of this. Buy an extra season ticket as a gift to another Cyclone fan. Start donating to the National Cyclone Club or Cyclone Gridiron Club. Make an effort to get to another game. You can start small. But take those steps to put ISU in a stronger place. 

 

Iowa State was truly brought to the brink over the last week. We can't be sure how much of what we read was true, what was rumor, and what was fabrication. But it appears we've been saved. We HAVE to learn from this. Division I athletics certainly makes no promises to land grant universities in low population states with two BCS schools. Kansas State was on the edge of the precipice too. And one has to imagine that the leadership at Mississippi State is thanking their lucky stars that they are safer than most. I think we've gained a new appreciation for those like Kansas State and Baylor that nearly faced the same disastrous fate. And, as much as some may not like it, a tip of the cap is in order to those same bigwigs in the South that nearly allowed our entire conference structure to collapse. 

 

Iowa State is a special university to many of us. There are too many stories to be told about epic games at Hilton Coliseum and the Armory, unbelievable outcomes (both good and bad) at Jack Trice Stadium and Clyde Williams Field, VEISHEA, Welch Avenue, or something just as simple as a walk across campus in the spring. And that same university was about to face one of the most trying times in its history. Let's take this opportunity to take stock of where we've come from, where we are, and where we are going. 

 

Because, at this point, we now know what we could have lost as Cyclones. And we don't want to have to face it again.

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