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September 28, 2011

Powered Up: It's time to go



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For 16 months, we've dealt with realignment here in the heartland. And for nearly 16 months, I've consistently thought a stable and secure Big 12 is the best place for Missouri to play its sports.

That still may very well be the case. But there's a problem: A stable and secure Big 12 only exists in the world of those who see double rainbows (if you don't know what I'm talking about click here).

I grew up with the Big Eight. Kansas City was kind of the heart of that conference. You had the basketball tournament there every year. Four of the eight schools in the league were within a three hour drive. Only Colorado took a trip of more than about six hours. I loved the Big Eight. Great, great basketball players and teams. Oklahoma, Nebraska and the six dwarves for the most part in football, at least while I was growing up. It was an awesome conference.

I can't say I ever really felt the same about the Big XII. It probably has as much to do with me growing up as anything. But it was also a league that ushered in the era of college sports maneuvering based on financial gain and television contracts and the like. It was a league that seemed more like a forced marriage or a wedding of convenience than destiny or love at first sight.

From the beginning, Nebraska and Texas didn't get along. Baylor was in the league due to politicians, not due to desire from the other members. The Longhorns came in from the disbanded Southwest Conference and started to throw their weight around and bully the schools from the league I'd grown up loving. Over time, Oklahoma, formerly a loyal Big Eight member and my second favorite team as a kid, began to look a whole lot more like Texas than it did Iowa State or Kansas.

Eventually, it was all going to boil over. It happened last summer when Nebraska and Colorado left for the Big Ten and PAC-10 respectively. Texas A&M took a year to gather up the intestinal fortitude, but eventually the Aggies bolted from big brother's shadow as well.

Twice in 15 months, Oklahoma and Texas have walked to the edge of the cliff, nearly dragging tag-alongs Oklahoma State and Texas Tech with them out of the league. Both times they have come back. Neither time have they done it with any thoughts of what is right for Tech or OSU or Mizzou or Baylor or anyone else. They've come back either because they never truly wanted to leave (both of them last year and UT this year) or it was the only option they had left (Oklahoma this fall).

And that all leads us to today. Eight of the nine teams left in the Big 12 are here to stay…at least for a while. And little Ol' Mizzou finds itself in a position of power.

It's an unusual position. Missouri is more prominent in the national landscape than Iowa State or Baylor. But it's not - and never will be - Oklahoma or Texas. This is the first time the Tigers have had much of a stick to swing in this whole process. It also will very likely be the last. And that's why, today, finally, I've reached the conclusion that the Tigers have to abandon this poor semblance of a league.

I won't proclaim to understand all the political moves or the financial implications or the legal possibilities of what could happen if the Tigers leave. That's for other people to figure out. I'm just telling you all those things don't much matter to me. The door is open and it's time for the Tigers to emphatically take those steps and walk through before it shuts.

Let's say Missouri stays in the Big XII. Let's say they sign the agreement to fork over first and second tier television rights for the next six seasons. Let's say the league adds some combination of BYU, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, TCU, Houston, West Virginia, Boise State or Air Force to get back to ten or 12 teams.

That's all well and good. But what happens in six years? Heck, what happens in six months if a more attractive option suddenly becomes available to Oklahoma or Texas? Those schools always have power. They'll always have options. They've proven they'll look out for themselves (and I'm not even saying they're wrong to do so…everyone has to look out for themselves first and foremost). But if the Big 12 proves to be as dysfunctional as it appears, Oklahoma and Texas are going to be fine. They'll have suitors lined up on every corner between Norman and Austin.

But Missouri? Maybe not. If the Tigers pass on a chance to bolt for the Southeastern Conference now, that's it. They're not going to get another one. Perhaps they would land in the Big Ten if the Big XII does indeed blow up at some point. I'm pretty sure Mizzou would be safe and land somewhere inside a major conference. But it wouldn't have choices. It wouldn't be the aggressor. It wouldn't hold its fate in its own hands.

Right now, Missouri controls its own future. I understand that it would be harder to compete in football and baseball and softball and gymnastics in the SEC (though I would counter that by asking how many Big XII championship trophies are floating around campus). I understand rivalries with Oklahoma and Kansas and K-State might go away forever (but ask Nebraska fans if they'll be pining away to play Mizzou when they're sitting in Madison this weekend). I understand that people fear change.

But change, at times, is necessary. This league doesn't work. I've seen it called the Vampire League, the Zombie League, the league that just won't die. How long can you stay in that league?

If Mizzou does stay, we'll never officially know whether it had an option to leave. We'll hear that the goal was to keep the Big XII together and Missouri is happy and proud to have played a role in doing that. We'll hear about how the Big XII is the best place for Missouri. And we'll keep making road trips to Ames and Lubbock and Stillwater and the rest and we'll cover Missouri as thoroughly as we always have and you'll cheer for them as passionately as you always have.

And maybe all that will actually be true. But if they do it, they lose not only any leverage they may have forever, but also the right to complain about the inequities. Don't like the Longhorn Network showing high school games? Should have done something about it when you had the chance. Don't like that Oklahoma starts its own network with a national partner? Shouldn't be here. If Missouri stays, the Tigers don't get to complain anymore. They don't have a voice. Scream all you want, but nobody will listen. Nor should they.

This month, this fall, is a singular moment for the University of Missouri. It has options. It has leverage. It has power. It has a decision to make. From where I sit, it's not a very tough one.

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