CINCINNATI — Twelve days into the season, Houston has twice enjoyed nationally televised wins while the Big 12 mulls expansion, beating Oklahoma, 33-23, in Week 1 and fellow expansion candidate Cincinnati, 40-16, Thursday night.
The Big 12 is in the process of interviewing schools in person and has already met with presumed frontrunners Cincinnati and Houston, according to multiple sources. SB Nation can confirm candidates have not been officially informed of a decision date by the league, but that multiple universities expect to know if expansion is occurring and if they’re included by mid-October.
It would seem that the Cougars couldn’t enjoy more serendipity, unless this current streak of runaway success is actually hurting their standing with some existing members of the conference.
The Big 12 originally formed from two other conferences. The remnants of one might be in Houston’s corner.
When the Big 12 announced its intention to explore expansion in July, Houston became the overnight favorite, with one caveat: Texas. The longtime assumption among insiders and media alike was that the last thing power brokers in Austin wanted was to split the state one more time after TCU joined the Big 12 in 2011.
"It’s wrong to think that. What does Texas football stand to lose in the long run with Houston’s addition? The same as TCU’s: nothing," a source close to Houston’s expansion efforts said.
Within days of commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s announcement, the governor of Texas, as well as leaders at the University of Texas and Texas Tech, voiced public support for UH. There’s any number of motivations, not the least of which is that these are all state institutions lobbying for another public colleague to make more money.
Once the Big 12 officially announces expansion, candidates will need eight out of 10 votes from current Big 12 university presidents. If Texas and Texas Tech are in, it’s not a stretch to assume UH will woo in-state private schools Baylor (new A.D. Mack Rhoades held the same position at UH until last March) and TCU (the Frogs curried the favor of Texas to get into the Big 12, so they might follow the Longhorns’ vote).
That’d be four votes, all from Houston’s fellow former Southwest Conference members.
But then there’s the matter of old (and new) politics outside of Texas.
If the Longhorns won’t suffer for Houston’s inclusion, and state politics can convince the rest of Texas’ Big 12 members, the Cougars’ real problems are the member programs outside of the state who feast on Lone Star recruiting and exposure: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State. (West Virginia signs almost no recruits from the state of Texas.)
Sources at multiple candidate schools have told SB Nation that Houston’s growth potential could jeopardize UH’s bid to the Big 12.
It’s best to look at the non-Texas lower tier of the Big 12 as to why the Cougars might not be so popular. These are the schools with the least to offer in population and TV markets, and the most to lose if another Power 5 program emerges in Texas. It’s in that bloc’s interest to avoid Houston in favor of two (or four?) candidates from outside markets, like Cincinnati, BYU, or one of the directional Floridas.
Since its birth, the Big 12 has never fully escaped its old geographic and dual-conference party lines (check out this great SI oral history, in which Nebraska has a fight with Texas, goes to the store for cigarettes, and moves to Chicago).
Of those Big 8 schools, Oklahoma is the outlier; its national profile, revenue, history, and recruiting profile are equal to Texas. And just like the Horns, the addition of Houston or any other candidate won’t change business in Norman (yes, even after UH beat OU on the field two weeks ago).
It all goes back to recruiting.
As SB Nation’s Bud Elliott explained this week, Houston makes a ton of recruiting sense for the Big 12 in general, unless you’re a school it could leapfrog in Texas talent.
In the 2016 signing class, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State enrolled 111 players, 21 from Texas. That’s about 19 percent. Texas players comprised 25 percent of Kansas State and Oklahoma State enrollees, and 50 percent of Kansas’, where head coach David Beaty is using his Texas high school roots.
Per the 247Sports Composite’s 2016 class rankings, the Cougars’ No. 35 class as a mid-major would’ve been the fourth-best in the Big 12, behind only Texas, Oklahoma and TCU.
TCU’s progress is likely a disturbing trend to observe from outside of the state. The Horned Frogs started 6-12 in their first two seasons of conference play, then surged to national title contention in 2014 and ‘15, with their recruiting efforts bolstered by Power 5 membership. If Big 12 members see TCU already on the way to becoming the state’s No. 3 brand, behind Texas and Texas A&M, should they fear a Big 12 Houston doing the same?
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy spoke candidly about the situation to the Tulsa World last month:
"Anyone that’s not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league," he reiterated.
Oklahoma State could be matched or even surpassed by a Big 12 team like Houston in recruiting. SB Nation reached out to Oklahoma State for further comment from A.D. Mike Holder and President Burns Hargis, and the university declined.
"If Houston keeps Tom Herman and the financial commitment to being great continues as planned, it's easy to envision Houston as an upper-third program in an expanded Big 12," Elliott said.
So Houston’s pitch isn’t aimed at this group of schools.
Houston’s pitch to join the Big 12 centers on reclaiming the Houston Designated Marketing Area (DMA), a term for measuring television audiences, for the Big 12. The Cougars are armed with television ratings and alumni chapter membership numbers showing the city has eroded in conference loyalty since Texas A&M joined the SEC and post-Katrina migration increased the area’s LSU population.
It helps Houston’s case to the Big 12 that two weeks ago, the city jumped Atlanta and Boston to become the eighth-largest market in the country, per Nielsen. In UH’s pitch to the Big 12, it promises total control of one of America’s largest and wealthiest cities, meaning an increase in marketing dollars and corporate sponsorship revenue no other candidate can offer.
But Cincinnati (36th), South Florida (Tampa, 11th), and Central Florida (Orlando, 18th) are all viable markets that would increase exposure for current members and long-term value for a TV deal that’s far behind the Big Ten, ACC, and SEC.
And more importantly, those schools would open existing membership to exposure in brand new markets.
Then again, USF or BYU would also be expected to steal three- or four-stars out of Houston or Dallas who would normally end up in Stillwater, Oklahoma or Manhattan, Kansas.
"Any school you bring in to the Power 5 is going to get better in recruiting at some point, but some faster than others, and some starting with different advantages. And if it’s a school outside of Texas, that’s probably going to be easier to start with," a Big 12 head coach said.