“David Boren is a 3-D chess player in a world of checkers players,” Tom Cole, a Republican congressman whose district includes Oklahoma’s campus in Norman, said.
Boren’s apparently counterproductive statements had their motives, he said: to try to sway a fellow Big 12 member, Texas, from committing to its own sports network in partnership with ESPN, which — as Boren predicted — has hindered the Big 12 in a variety of ways; to urge conference members to consider expanding the league at a time Boren thought that wise; and to reject that expansion when many thought it was a fait accompli.
Known for that C-suite skill of running a great meeting, Boren has unabashedly exploited his political savvy as well as his institution’s strength. He gained a special opportunity to flex these muscles last year when he served as chairman of the Big 12’s board of directors as the conference prepared to consider adding a football championship game, which it did, and when it discussed expanding beyond its 10-institution membership, which it did not.
That first championship game will be played Saturday at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., between No. 10 Texas Christian (10-2) and No. 2 Oklahoma (11-1), for whom a win will cement a spot in this season’s playoff but a loss will most likely end any hope of qualifying. However, since the game is a rematch of the conference’s two best teams — unlike most other leagues’ title games, which feature the winners of two divisions — it could backfire. Boren stands to absorb the credit or soak up the blame depending on the outcome.
But the decision not to expand the Big 12 is the one that will prove momentous. It quietly enhanced Oklahoma’s enviable position in a shifting landscape. Should there be another round of conference realignment, Oklahoma, one of college sports’ most valuable brands, may possess more leverage than any other institution, and for that it can thank someone who understands power — who has it, and how to exert it.
“What was my responsibility as a senator?” Boren said in an interview in September. “Look at the long-term national interest, but certainly look after Oklahoma — and realize that every other senator was looking after their states.”
A Pivotal Chairmanship
At a Big 12 meeting in Kansas City, Mo., in 2010, as rumors about conference realignment swirled, each member’s representatives were asked to declare whether their university was in or out, recalled R. Bowen Loftin, who was president of Texas A&M at the time.
Credit Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
The Big 12 was already a Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together in the mid-1990s as an arranged marriage of the fragile Big Eight and four Texas teams from the disintegrating Southwest Conference. Now it was trying to navigate a wave of conference restructuring fueled by billions in television money.
Nebraska would depart, its representatives indicated at that meeting. The Cornhuskers’ move to the Big Ten effectively kicked off the musical chairs of the years that followed, in which the Big 12 lost four members — all massive public universities with esteemed athletic pedigrees — to other leagues.
Though most of the Big 12’s chief executives attended the meeting, Boren did not. “He later told me he wished he had been there,” Loftin said.
While it is a running joke around campus how much Boren talks up the number of National Merit Scholars who enroll at Oklahoma (The most of anywhere! More than Harvard!), Boren, who remembered attending the 1957 game in which Notre Dame snapped Oklahoma’s 47-game win streak, considers athletics important as well. George Lynn Cross, the Oklahoma president from 1943 to 1968, saw football as a means to lift state pride after the Great Depression, and Boren shares the outlook that sports can help the university and state punch above their weight; a copy of Cross’s personal history of Sooners football, “Presidents Can’t Punt,” holds a prominent place on a table in Boren’s office in Evans Hall, from which one can hear bells playing the title song from “Oklahoma!” on the hour.
When Boren assumed the presidency in 1994, the Sooners were coming off their first nonwinning season in almost 40 years. But since the hiring of Bob Stoops as head coach in 1999, Oklahoma is 201-49, with a national title. Boren’s handpicked athletic director, Joe Castiglione, is in his 20th season, and a transition from the retired Stoops to his former assistant Lincoln Riley this season has gone smoothly, with Oklahoma 11-1, with wins over the highly ranked teams Texas Christian and Ohio State.
But if Boren was engaged in Oklahoma athletics, which has also achieved notable success in basketball, gymnastics and softball, conference business was beyond his ken.
“To be honest, the daily details of running the conference don’t fascinate me,” Boren said.
That changed after that fateful 2010 meeting. Boren dived into conference business: Soon he was deliberating over invitations to Oklahoma from other leagues; trying in vain to keep Texas A&M and Missouri from heading to the Southeastern Conference; helping decide whom to add to the Big 12 from a number of eager prospects in the Atlantic Coast Conference and elsewhere, at one point fielding a call from his former Senate colleague Mitch McConnell asking that McConnell’s alma mater, Louisville, be considered for Big 12 membership.
When the realignment music finally stopped, the Big 12’s 10-team composition made it the smallest of the Power 5 conferences, and this stature — and related lack of a championship game — kept its co-champions out of the inaugural playoff in 2014 (prompting Boren’s “psychologically disadvantaged” remark) and, according to a widely reported consultant’s advisement, would continue to weigh down its champions’ playoff chances.
Boren was most interested in adding teams for the same reason Texas’ Longhorn Network made him queasy: He wanted a cable channel for the entire league, along the lines of the successful Big Ten Network and the SEC Network — and the key, he realized, would be volume: the more teams, the better.
“We should’ve done it,” Boren said, expressing regret at adding only two institutions — Texas Christian and West Virginia — when more were on the table in the early years of this decade.
The dominant question for Boren’s tenure as chairman would be whether to expand now that the suitors would be from outside the Power 5 conferences. In the summer of 2016, the Big 12 publicly pronounced itself open to the idea, and more than a dozen institutions from four time zones reportedly raised their hands. There were in-person pitch meetings from several finalists, including Houston, Connecticut, Rice and Cincinnati. But after all the storm and stress, the Big 12 announced last fall that it would remain at 10 teams, with Boren now saying, “Bigger is not always better.”
The main reason for this decision was that there was no institution attractive enough.
“We got to a place where there wasn’t a candidate school or a couple candidate schools that were capable of garnering the necessary eight votes,” Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, said.
It had also become clear to Boren and others that in an era of cord-cutting and digital streaming, the media rights landscape had fundamentally changed, and even 12 members might not ensure a network.
Credit Nick Oxford/Associated Press
“To have the inventory you need, you’re going to have to get up to 12,” Boren said. “But if you no longer want to have that anyway — the market’s taken away the network — is it so urgent then?”
The Uncertain Future
The same qualities that made the Big 12 amenable to poachers at the beginning of this decade — a short history, varied commitments to different sports, a central geographic location — could make it ripe for the picking again.
Like most other conferences, the Big 12 is held together by a so-called grant-of-rights agreement, in which individual members pool most of their media rights. Since those rights remain the ultimate moneymaker, they form a powerful center of gravity; Boren was not wrong to refer to the Big 12’s deal as a “handcuff” (another memorable quotation).
The Big 12’s expires in 2025, right around the time as do similar agreements among several other major conferences as well as the multibillion-dollar playoff contract with ESPN. The convergence may create a kind of free agency.
There is uncertainty about what will be best for a college sports program at that moment, given the potential unraveling of the amateur model, television’s future interest and the very viability of football.
“There’s questions about what kind of network we want,” Boren said. “What platform do we want? Should we be talking to Google instead of ESPN? I think both. The landscape is changing so rapidly. It’s frightening if you’re in the business.”
Some foresee a supernova for the Big 12 that, also like a collapsed star, leaves brighter things in its place. An expanded West Coast league with Texas, Oklahoma and others — the Pacific-16? — was on the table in the early 2010s, Boren and Loftin said. Seven power conferences consolidated into six in the 1990s, and those six reduced to five a few years ago. Four superconferences for 2026 is not far-fetched; some observers have even floated a single megaconference.
Yet no matter what happens, Oklahoma will still be Oklahoma. While no team can afford to lose forever, a few teams are the athletic equivalent of recession-proof. And Boren has never lost sight of that fact.
“In the midst of this,” the sports media consultant Lee Berke, who has advised Oklahoma, said, referring to business uncertainties, “nobody is creating another Oklahoma, nobody is creating another Texas, nobody is creating another Ohio State.”
If Oklahoma avails itself of new opportunities, last year’s decision not to expand the Big 12 — a decision shepherded by Boren — will prove crucial.
“If there had been expansion,” Boren said, “I think grant-of-rights extension would have almost had to have been a part of it.”
That is, a new agreement almost certainly would have bound the Big 12 together beyond 2025, tying Oklahoma’s hands at the very moment it may need to be free. (A Big 12 spokesman did not contradict this analysis, and said expansion could have led to extending or writing new broadcast deals.)
“I want the Big 12 to be here 10 years after I’m president,” Boren said.
He was acknowledging that it would not be up to him. But as the book title said, presidents can’t punt. And Boren didn’t.