Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Tom Starr, former Iowa State Sports Information Director, on the phone about the subject everyone seems to be talking about these days: Big 12 expansion. Starr boasts a wealth of experience in college athletics that is best summed up by the following paragraph in Cyclones.TV’s The SIDs- Five Decades of Cyclone Athletics documentary:
A native of Newton, Iowa, Tom Starr served as Iowa State's sports information director from 1977-80. Starr graduated from Iowa and completed his course work for a master's degree at Iowa State while assisting in the ISU sports information office from 1971-72 under the legendary Harry Burrell. Starr worked at the Big Eight Conference service bureau for four years before replacing Burrell as the ISU head man in 1977. Starr was the football contact for a pair of bowl teams at Iowa State (1977 Peach Bowl; 1978 Hall of Fame Bowl). He helped promote ISU athletics in one of its most prosperous periods. Starr left ISU in 1980 and began a long career as one of the top bowl executives in the nation. He's been the chief executive officer of four different post-season college football bowl games. Starr has held the title of executive director of the Sun Bowl, the Armed Forces Bowl, the Freedom Bowl and the Heart of Dallas Bowl. He also was the senior executive director of the Independence Bowl. Starr has been named bowl executive-of-the-year twice and the Armed Forces Bowl named its Most Valuable Player Award the "Tom Starr MVP Trophy" in his honor.
In our conversation, Starr explained to me that he thinks the Big 12 would benefit from being proactive in this round of expansion. He also believes the Big 12 isn’t yet "a dead conference walking" like some SEC-focused writers seem to be convinced.
Below are Starr’s thoughts and opinions (written by himself) on teams who currently are and aren’t coming up in Big 12 expansion media coverage.
On his expansion philosophy...
These are simply my thoughts on the subject. Obviously the 10 athletic directors and Commissioner Bowlsby -- all good friends -- know a heck of a lot more than me; I'm just an armchair quarterback. My philosophy has always been that you might as well think big!
First of all, forget geography; the Big 12 simply needs to go after the best choices available, period. Regarding travel costs, a more lucrative television package (resulting from adding "big name" schools) would help member institutions offset the travel expenses of non-revenue sports. It is time for the Big 12 to be the aggressor... The "raider" instead of the "raidee" if you will. Football is king, and to me that should be the primary consideration. (Academically, I believe most of the universities being considered are fairly even.)
On his first option...
As you well know, all SEC, Big Ten, and ACC schools are untouchable because of impressive television packages; such is not the case with the Pac-12. Why not think big and go after USC and UCLA? Sit down with the networks and outline a scenario where you could offer powerhouses Texas, Oklahoma and the Trojans and UCLA in the same conference. Having the #2-ranked Los Angeles television market would be a coups. If you want to increase to 14 members, add Arizona and Arizona State, too. I admit that it might be a stretch to steal away USC and UCLA, but at least try. If that would not be successful, still try to bundle Arizona and Arizona State, who sometimes feel like long-distance forgotten relatives in their current league. Plus, they are both somewhat in the Big 12 footprint. Phoenix is also the #12 TV market.
Editor’s Note: Arizona and Arizona State rumors heated up yesterday on Twitter:
Hearing rumors that Arizona & Arizona State could be serious contenders to join the Big 12.— Joe Summers (@joesummers) August 9, 2016
And in this Cyclone Fanatic "insider" article:
Last but not least, a WILD Big 12 expansion rumor that has to do with Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Colorado State.
On his secondary choices...
Brigham Young: Has a national following due to the Mormon population; Cougars average 60,000 per home game; have a good history with a national championship under its belt; and Salt Lake City is in the top 35 television markets.
Central Florida: A sleeping giant with an enrollment of 60,000. Other than last year's lackluster season, the Knights average over 45,000 per game, which would increase with Big 12 competition coming to town. Stadium expansion to 67,000 is on the drawing board and would be certain to be completed with Big 12 membership. Orlando is the #19 TV market. This would give the Big 12 a beachhead (pardon the pun) in the talent-rich state of Florida for recruiting purposes.
South Florida: Another sleeping giant with an enrollment of 49,000. The Bulls play in Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers play (capacity of 66,000). Tampa is the 13th-largest TV market. Same scenario would apply as UCF above -- large crowds thanks to Big 12 competition; and another way for the Big 12 to gain access to Florida recruits.
San Diego State: I don't believe anyone has mentioned the Aztecs. I would say that this is the West Coast version of a "sleeping giant." They have never played in a major conference and I think if given a chance, they would have impressive attendance figures playing in 70,500 capacity Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego is a college football town when the competition is good; the Holiday Bowl fills the stadium on an annual basis. The TV market is 28th. This would present the Big 12 with an entrée into recruiting in California, which is also loaded with talent.
Houston: I have some concerns regarding the Cougars, because it is a commuter school for the most part. They do have a new stadium, but if they don't win, you might see 15,000 in the stands (though probably not with Big 12 competition). Yes, it is the 10th largest TV market, but I believe the Big 12 owns that town already. However, Houston does have a good football history and has a relationship with most of the current Big 12 member institutions.
On the rest of the potential expansion schools...
Boise State: A great Cinderella story in the past, but I believe the glass slipper is falling off. The stadium only holds 36,000 and attendance is 33,000 per home game. Student enrollment is only 22,000 and Boise is way down in the TV market sweepstakes at 112.
Cincinnati: I am not as enamored with the Bearcats as others. Some people say that they would be a good travel partner for West Virginia, but I don't think that should be a reason to add a school. They average 35,000 attendance in a good year, playing in a 76-year old stadium that holds 40,000. The college football fans who are in Cincinnati are enthusiasts of that school up north -- THE Ohio State University -- more than they are Bearcat supporters. If basketball is a consideration, obviously they have a good name. TV market: 34th.
Colorado State: The Rams have only averaged 24,000 per home game in a facility that only holds 34,000. What can CSU contribute to the Big 12 Conference?
Connecticut: I just don't think it's a fit. UCONN only averaged 28,000 per home game, and despite what I have read, the Huskies don't command the New York market (which isn't much of a college sports city anyway). This is my one exception to the geography remark that I made earlier... It is very far away from the current Big 12 schools. Again, I have heard about them being a geographical partner for West Virginia, but that doesn't hold water with me. Like Cincinnati, an excellent basketball name, however.
Memphis: The Tigers averaged 50,000 in Liberty Bowl Stadium last year, and that was impressive, but it is not a huge TV market and as I said, I just can't see adding schools to simply say, "we have 12 - or 14 - members now." Another basketball power, nonetheless.
New Mexico: The Lobos have been plagued by attendance problems, averaging approximately 22,500 at home games last season. The UNM stadium holds just over 39,000. The Albuquerque TV market is ranked #44. I just can't see what the Lobos would add to the league at this time.
Tulane: I'm not sure what the Green Wave would bring to the table. Tulane has a new stadium, but it only holds 30,000, and average home attendance last year was around 24,000. They also have a small enrollment of 13,500. New Orleans television market is not in the top 50.
Big thanks to Tom for sharing his thoughts and time with WRNL. It’d be a homerun to lift some of those West Coast schools out of the Pac-12... Simultaneously silencing the Big 12 doomsday crowd while solidifying the conference with qualified candidates is the dream scenario that Big 12 supporters everywhere are hoping for.