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Luck divulges old plan to marry left-behinds from Big 12, Big East

Oliver Luck revealed to ESPN he sought to orchestrate a Big East merger with less-powerful Big 12 schools during the realignment swirl of September 2011.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Oliver Luck told ESPN his Big 12 band of brothers are giving zero thought to expansion, essentially crushing (for now) the hopes of BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall, who said last week “I would love to be a member of that conference.”

Yet Luck’s assertion that we’re-a-happy-10-team-family wasn’t the newsiest peg of that story. More striking was his revelation of trying to arrange a marriage between the fading Big East and the Big 12 left-behinds during the high-angst realignment swirl of 2011.

“My favorite story that hasn’t been written,” Luck told ESPN.

Unwritten until Wednesday.

That’s when he recounted how “the Big East was a mess” after Syracuse and Pittsburgh planned their tandem leap into the ACC, a move the transpired the same week as Luck said Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State “were playing footsie” with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

With two clusters of schools fretting daily about their conference affiliations and future viability, Luck hatched a lifeline plan to bring them all together. He phoned up Baylor athletics director Ian McCaw, Kansas’ Sheahon Zenger, Kansas State’s John Currie and Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard—a high-stakes telemarketing scheme of desperation that required a quick pitch and some quick introductions.

“I didn’t know those guys from Adam,” Luck admitted.

At the time, Luck was only 14 months into his post at West Virginia, and curiously he started discussions without notifying then-Big East commissioner John Marinatto. (Perhaps that was a show of declining respect for the commish who would be forced out in March 2012, but Luck was understandably antsy about going through Marinatto after failed attempts to get West Virginia into the SEC and ACC.)

Luck’s layout for the 12-team post-apocalypse Big East involved a West Division featuring Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, TCU and Louisville, and an East Division of UConn, Cincinnati, Rutgers, West Virginia, South Florida and Central Florida.

That setup, while workable, would have constituted the weakest of the major conferences. And it would have sustained further erosion once Rutgers received a Big Ten invite and Louisville headed to the ACC.

Fortunately for West Virginia, the doomsday option became moot once the Longhorns and Sooners committed to remaining in the Big 12. Within a month, that league had opened its arms to the Mountaineers and TCU.

At only 10 teams, the Big 12 is the smallest of the power five conferences, potentially dinging its perception nationwide and, under current NCAA rules, preventing the staging of a football championship game.

Yet the league also is lean and mean with regard to revenue, with a higher per-school take than the 14-team SEC. While that is expected to change once the SEC Network launches this summer, Luck said Big 12 ADs are so satisfied with payouts and “expansion is one thing we’re not talking about.”

Well, at least not publicly.

Rushing to add two teams for addition’s sake would be foolish and cost-prohibitive, but so would closing off the idea of continued exploration. College sports haven’t forever lost the realignment groove and settled into a cozy holding pattern—the same motivators that had Luck frantically calling Waco and Ames three years ago continue to perpetuate.

Luck told ESPN there are no “available teams” that would add enough to the conference pie to justify membership. That’s not wholly accurate, because BYU undeniably would.

The Cougars arguably would represent the league’s No. 3 most recognizable football brand (behind UT and Oklahoma) and their 2013 home attendance of 61,225 would have ranked third in the Big 12. Their final basketball RPI of 37 would have been fifth in the conference, ahead of Texas, K-State and Oklahoma State.

Yet, as I wrote previously, the prospect of Big 12 expansion requires adding two teams, not one. So the biggest obstacle to BYU coming aboard is finding a suitable plus-one. Not even UConn, reveling in its fourth basketball national title, seems to make financial sense. Neither does Boise State, Cincinnati, SMU or Houston.

Big 12 sources have said BYU’s religious aversion to playing on Sundays makes the Cougars a difficult partner, yet that doesn’t impact football and rarely matters in hoops. It’s primarily a scheduling headache for non-revenue Olympic sports, whose welfare wasn’t considered anyway when the conference carousel began.

The league may someday rue its reluctance to add Louisville and BYU as teams No. 11 and 12, but for now there’s a cheery air around the 10-team family. At least until further prompting.

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