At the Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas, reverent basketball fans can slip into center court to soak up Jayhawk history. And that's a lot of history. Wilt Chamberlain played here. The building is named for Hall of Fame coach F.C. "Phog" Allen. And the road out front commemorates an earlier coach, James Naismith, who no exaggeration invented basketball. Three national titles, repeated conference championships KU is indisputably among the elite basketball programs in the nation.
Now the Jayhawks are wondering what conference will have them. After 16 years of uneasy coexistence, the Big 12 the powerhouse affiliation of heartland college sports teams including Kansas, archrival Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma is on the verge of collapse. The University of Nebraska, prized for its history as a football powerhouse, announced Friday it is headed to the Big 10, drawn by the older league's lucrative TV network. Colorado has bolted for the Pac-10. With the door wide open, the Big 12's powers in the south, including Texas and Oklahoma, appear poised to split too. A decision is expected within days.
That could leave the Jayhawks stranded in the wreckage of the conference they helped to build a conference steeped in history, based on a century-old alliance among rivals in the valley of the Missouri River. "One hundred years of tradition, just being thrown away," sighs Daniel Roth, a KU senior who stole onto the Allen Fieldhouse court to show the hallowed place to his family, visiting from Dallas.
Some see the Big 12 shake-up as the first tremor of a nationwide, seismic realignment of major college sports, which until now have been organized in geographic clusters. The driving force is television dollars: over the next few years, four "super conferences" of 16 teams each could emerge, potentially producing super revenues. But a steep price might be paid in lost history.
At the Free State Brewing Co. in the heart of this historic college town, 40-year-old Kansas grad Jeff Landes pauses during his lunch hour to fret. "It would be a real shame, because basketball as we know it would be over," he says. That may be an exaggeration, but he certainly captures the mood. If Missouri and Kansas end up in different conferences, it will disrupt one of the nation's oldest sports rivalries. Kansas and Missouri, the scene of some of the bitterest guerilla fighting in the Civil War, have launched their flagship football teams at one another for 118 years. Kansas and Nebraska have been going at it just as long.
And history counts around here. Patrons at the brewpub sip ales with names like John Brown and Josiah Miller, the antislavery activist who coined the state's motto, "Ad astra per aspera" (To the stars through difficulties).
This has certainly been a difficult week, leaving Kansans shocked, anxious, even downright depressed. Basketball is big as ever at KU, thanks to current coach Bill Self, who couldn't inspire more awe around here if he walked across the Kansas River on his way to the office. But the conference realignment is all about football, because that's where the big money is. Texas and Oklahoma are football behemoths, and now they hold the fate of the Big 12 in their hands.
A columnist for the Kansas City Star called this potentially the "darkest sports hour" in the region's history. "If today is when the Big 12 really ends, this is something bigger, something scarier, something more permanent," Sam Mellinger wrote. "It's quite possible that Kansas City's college sports scene will never fully recover, will never again be as competitive or meaningful." On the 50,000-watt sports radio station that blankets the prairie, a commentator soothed potential callers: "We'll talk you off the bridge, we'll talk you off the ledge."
"It feels like The Grapes of Wrath everyone is leaving," says Brett Beneke, a 23-year-old recent KU grad, on a break from his job at a campus bagel shop. Part of the despair comes from the fact that this all seems so sudden. True, tensions between Nebraska and Texas simmered from the birth of the conference in 1994, when the old Big Eight absorbed the swaggering Longhorns and other refugees from the old Southwest Conference. And Missouri had been flirting with the Big 10 for months. (The romance apparently sputtered, and Nebraska wound up at the altar.) In spite of it all, the Big 12 never seemed stronger than this year, with teams high in the rankings of sport after sport after sport.
But beyond Texas, the Big 12 just doesn't have a lot of TV sets, and the conference was slow to face up to that problem. There's a feeling that the Big 10 another history-drenched conference centered in the Midwest, and anchored by such teams as Michigan and Ohio State outfoxed the Big 12 by putting together its own TV network, which has proved to be a cash cow for members. Nebraska's share of Big 12 TV revenues was $10 million a year; reportedly, the pact with the Big 10 will double that to $20 million.
At Kansas State, where the men's basketball team roared into the Elite Eight this season, coach Frank Martin called it a "crying shame" that "money, greed and jealousies" threatened to ruin historic relationships not to mention leaving his Wildcats in the cold. Iowa State and Baylor, too, appear on the verge of homelessness.
U.S. Senators from Kansas and Iowa have lamented the potential breakup, but concede that there is little Congress can do. It all comes down to Texas, which could save the conference by sticking around and inviting a couple of other schools speculation suggests Texas Christian University and Arkansas to fill the slots opened by Nebraska and Colorado.
"Is the ship blowing completely apart, or can we bring in two new schools and patch the hole?" muses another fan at the Free State pub, Kevin Edwards. For now, Jayhawk fans are distracting themselves from their worries by moving an endless assortment of colleges around a mental chessboard. Suppose Texas goes to the Pac-10 but Texas A&M heads instead to the SEC would that leave room for Kansas in the western super conference? Or maybe KU will latch onto the other coast, finding a home in an expanded Big East conference. The permutations are endless, for the time being.
Kansas coach Self has projected calm throughout, assuring fans that the school will end up in a power conference. "All of a sudden we became more attractive to people ... We may land in a group that gives us more exposure," Self told reporters Friday night, raising hopes. Was a behind-the-scenes deal in the works? Missouri fans, too, studied tea leaves, noticing that university officials did not look particularly stressed by the tumultuous week. As one Missouri alum says: "Maybe they have an ace up their sleeve."