THE MOST MIRACULOUS HAIL MARY PLAY IN THE Big 12's 16-season history came in 2010 when commissioner Dan Beebe—faced with his conference's implosion should five schools bolt for the Pac-10, Missouri and Nebraska light out for the Big Ten and Texas A&M sashay to the SEC—used his considerable political talents to hold it together. Though Colorado (for the Pac-12) and Nebraska (Big Ten) eventually left, the Big 12 is not only still in business (albeit now with 10 teams) but it also has a 13-year, $1.17 billion TV deal with Fox. Moreover, Texas is launching its Longhorn Network this month. A certain natural order has been preserved.
Formed in 1996, the Big 12 welded members of the Big Eight and four refugees (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) from the dissolving Southwest Conference. The new alignment made sense. The schools shared a rugged worldview shaped by their location on the Plains and by a muscular Christianity. (Is it any wonder that a man named Dana X. Bible coached at Nebraska, Texas and Texas A&M?) Oklahoma-Texas was already one of the sport's most revered rivalries, and now they would be in the same league. Best of all, there was a synergistic tradition of excellence. Current Big 12 schools have won or been named national champion a dozen times and have produced nine Heisman winners. Paramount were the 1940s and '50s Sooners machines of coach Bud Wilkinson and the Longhorns powerhouses of the '60s and '70s under Darrell Royal—not coincidentally, Wilkinson's quarterback at Oklahoma in the late '40s. Befitting the rawboned nature of their recruits, the teams of today's Big 12 through the decades produced a plethora of bruising runners, corn-fed blockers and pad-popping defenders. It is only in recent years that coaches such as Missouri's Gary Pinkel, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas Tech's Mike Leach, with his dizzying spread attack, have changed the hidebound image by going airborne.
What has remained constant is the steadfast fervor of the followers. In 2010 the Big 12 had the highest average attendance in its history: 62,975. That's especially notable because this is not a fair-weather league. When the season begins, spectators have to shield themselves from a blazing sun. For the games around Thanksgiving, they encounter snow, sleet, whipping winds and marrow-chilling cold. Sometimes sitting out there requires a survival instinct. For this conference, that's only fitting.
FIRST DOWNS, BIG 12
1886 First Chant of "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk"
Kansas's signature rallying cry begins as a Science Club cheer
1895 First Coaching Job for Pop Warner
At Iowa Agricultural College, now Iowa State, Pop goes 18--8
1900 First Game in the Red River Rivalry