The Utah Utes joined the Pac-12 Conference for the money, the prestige and the chance to play … Oklahoma?
That just might turn out to be the case, if the league winds up expanding for the second time in a year. All indications kept pointing to that scenario Monday, when the boards of regents at Oklahoma and Texas authorized their presidents to take action on conference realignment the expected first step toward the Pac-12 adding four schools from the Big 12 Conference to form a 16-team "superconference."
If that happens, the Utes not only will have joined the likes of USC, Oregon and Stanford in their new league, but Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, as well.
Not that they want to talk about it, just yet.
With nothing decided after two weeks of turmoil in the college sports world and schools and conferences nationwide scrambling to position themselves, the Utes are staying quiet probably in part because they are one of the two new schools in the prestigious Pac-12 and unwilling to make waves.
Athletic director Chris Hill declined to comment on the potential expansion because the decision will be made by the university presidents in the league nine of the 12 would have to approve any decision and interim university president Lorris Betz declined an interview request through a spokesman, referring all questions to Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who was not available for comment.
"It would be hard to say anything of substance," Hill said.
Media reports in Texas and Oklahoma have indicated the merger is nearly a done deal, however, even though Oklahoma president David Boren and Texas president William Powers both said staying in the Big 12 remains an option.
Boren made clear that the Sooners and in-state rival Oklahoma State will act in concert; the Cowboys have scheduled a regents meeting on Wednesday.
"Whatever we do, we're going to do it together," Boren said.
Also apparently under discussion is how an expanded Pac-16 would operate. The Austin American-Statesman reports that one idea under consideration is to divide the league into four "pods" for scheduling purposes, much like the old 16-team Western Athletic Conference.
In such an arrangement, each school could play the other three in its pod in football every year, and two from each of the other pods on a rotating basis. That would allow teams to preserve regional rivalries, while also enjoying exposure in other parts of the league, most critically Southern California.
The Utes seem likely to be grouped with Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State in such an alignment, with the four Northwest schools in another pod, the California schools in a third and the former Big 12 schools in a fourth.
The model did not work for the far-flung WAC from 1996 to 1998.
Teams were so spread out that travel costs and logistics quickly became a problem. The league stretched from Hawaii in the west to Oklahoma and Texas in the east, with the Utes and Brigham Young Cougars in between, yet was not attractive enough nationally to command top dollar for broadcast rights, which then had to be shared 16 ways.
"There wasn't a plan in place" to address scheduling issues, WAC commissioner Karl Benson said, "or enough money to satisfy the equity of the members, specifically BYU and Utah."
Fans were disinterested in untraditional matchups, too hello, Utah at Tulsa? and the Utes and Cougars ultimately led an exodus that resulted in the formation of the Mountain West Conference in 1999.
Both teams left the Mountain West last summer, the Utes to join the Pac-12 and the Cougars to play football independently.
Even now, fans seem to dislike the idea of superconferences, with a KRC Research poll released Monday showing that 76 percent of college graduates within Big 12 states would be disappointed by the creation of superconferences. The poll was commissioned by Baylor University, however, which has managed to keep Texas A&M from leaving the Big 12 for the SEC with the threat of legal action.
That plan Texas A&M to the SEC was the one that triggered the latest round of conference realignment furor.
Yet a Pac-16 seems much more likely to survive than the old WAC, in part because travel costs would not be quite so staggering no Hawaii in the league, for one thing and its high-profile members all have massive athletic budgets that will be fueled by a $3 billion broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox Sports.
In fact, incorporating Texas' new television network with the new deal the Pac-12 recently reached with ESPN and Fox might be one of Scott's biggest challenges in making a 16-team league work for everybody.
The American-Statesman reported that any deal to add the Big 12 schools to the Pac-12 would allow the Longhorns to keep the network and most of its revenue "along the same lines" of their 20-year deal with ESPN that will pay Texas $300 million. The Longhorn Network effectively would become one of the regional networks the Pac-12 has been planning as part of its new Pac-12 Network, the newspaper said, by adding Texas Tech and including some other content from around the league.
That might not be an easy sell for some existing Pac-12 members, for the same reason it chafed rivals in the Big 12 who feared the Longhorns were gaining an unfair advantage.
Even Oklahoma's Boren hinted at it Monday, saying that the Sooners will insist on playing in a league in which television revenue is shared equally.
"Our goal is to be an equal partner in any network, and we think it ought to be the goal of every other member of any conference that we're a part of to be an equal member of that conference," Boren said. "We all ought to value each other every single member of that conference and none of us should seek to play a stronger leadership role than anyone else."
Scott also figures to encounter some resistance to the structure of the league, especially from schools that don't want to head east to play. Colorado president Bruce Benson recently complained about the prospect of getting "shorted out of the West Coast" if the league adds the Big 12 teams and splits into east and west divisions.
The Buffs joined the Pac-12 along with the Utes last summer, and made no effort to contain their relief at trading the Big 12 for a league whose footprint includes most of its alumni.
In any case, the Pac-12 isn't expected to make any formal moves until the Big 12 schools request or apply for membership.
Meanwhile, Scott is expected to seek opinions if not approval from the existing Pac-12 presidents, after reportedly meeting for three hours with Texas' Powers in Los Angeles over the weekend, in conjunction with the Longhorns' game at UCLA.
Whenever it all ends, the Utes could wind up with even more of a sporting treasure than they anticipated.
Staff writer Tony Jones and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
From Pac-10 to Pac-12 to … Pac-16 Conference?
If the Pac-12 Conference adds four teams from the Big 12 Conference, it could be split into four "pods" for scheduling. The idea would be to preserve regional rivalries but also allow teams exposure to other markets in the league, especially Southern California.
Here's one way the alignment might look, with each member's football team playing the other three in its pod every year, along with two members of every other pod on a rotating basis to form a 9-game conference schedule: