By Brent Blum, CycloneFanatic.com Columnist
Last Friday night, I was sitting at one of the local Norman watering holes checking out the scenery. It had the expected memorabilia any campus sports bar would have. A Sam Bradford # 14 jersey, a picture of Blake Griffin dunking on some poor stooge, an Adrian Peterson Vikings #28 and even a retro Edjuardo Najera jersey, which I delightfully mocked most of the night. (Mr. Najera is somehow still earning an NBA paycheck with the Charlotte Bobcats. That has to thrill Tyler Hansbrough.) I was hoping to see the glass-encased cell phone that Kelvin Sampson used to illegally recruit, or the bags of cash used to pay former Sooner QB Rhett Bomar, but sadly those were nowhere to be found.
Amongst the rest of the Sooner swag were the 12 helmets of the Big 12 conference. The Texas helmet was upside down of course. And best of all, the Nebraska and Colorado helmets were set apart from the rest and had giant duct-taped X’s plastered on their logos.
For really the first time since the Big 12 missile crisis ended this summer, it dawned on me that this is the future of the conference. Iowa State and its nine comrades.
They had assembled the 10 helmets in alphabetical order, not broken up in the traditional divisions. So there was the I-State helmet sandwiched between Baylor and Kansas. It looked strange.
Let’s hit the rewind button back to the ’90’s.
Ever since the Big 12 was first formed in an office board room back in 1994, something was amiss. It never felt as if everyone was in the same conference. It was like seeing one of your parents remarry and having four new step-brothers move in to a separate wing of your house.
At first it was great, "Oh awesome, Texas has a bunch of money and all sorts of new Playstation games that we can play with. Whoa! Texas A&M’s fantastic at band, maybe I can get a buzz cut just like them. Baylor is really nice and has good manners, so there’s that. And Tech…well Tech is strange, but I bet they could score us some X rated movies."
But over time it became apparent that things weren’t all that they were cracked up to be. Texas became way too popular at school, was way better than you at everything you both did and started dating the girl you were trying to hit on in science class. Worst of all, your parents gave Texas all of the attention, allowance money and seemingly forgot about you.
To make matters worse, you rarely saw any of the step-brothers, except for at the annual family gathering. And at these gatherings, the step-bros kept displaying bizarre hand gestures that made no sense. It was always very awkward.
There was destined to be issues. And there certainly was. The rest is history. The Big 12 will now become 10.
Fast forward to next year.
That separation will no longer exist. The conference will be under one roof. Iowa State now has a choice in front of them. Long for the past of the Big 8 Conference and continue to fret about how difficult it will be to compete in the new conference… or embrace the challenge and make the other nine members take notice in the future.
After the OU game, I saw a lot of the former mindset. I witnessed numerous posts on the CF message boards that Iowa State is destined for failure playing against Oklahoma and Texas every year. We can’t compete with them. They have too much money. They get all of the good athletes. They have the better stadiums. Their fans drink beer better. (The last statement is not true. Just making sure you are paying attention.)
One poster even suggested that Iowa State should have more seriously considered the Big East option this summer.
I am as guilty as most of having a defeatist attitude, but seeing that made me cringe. I’m sure the trip to Rutgers is very scenic this time of year, but is this the reaction we can expect every time Iowa State gets beaten up by a superior conference team? I certainly hope not. That can’t be much fun.
Why not embrace the fresh start and make yourself relevant against the best in college football? Believe it or not, Iowa State controls its own destiny in this sense. If they start winning in a conference as strong as the Big 12, respect/tradition/money will automatically follow. And I don’t believe it is as impossible as some would lead you to think. In fact, the new conference may actually create an easier road for Iowa State to be consistently successful in football. (95 percent of you just said, "Blum must be drunk again." Stay with me.)
Let’s break this down Ron Jaworski-style.
The new conference will have 10 teams. Each team will play nine conference games. So there are 45 wins and 45 losses to be had every year. (Miraculously, I was not a math major in college. Shocking.) With the schedule balanced and each team playing one another, nobody will have a schedule advantage.
This has been a striking factor in the Big 12’s history, especially for the North schools. No North team that played both Texas and Oklahoma in the same regular season has made the Big 12 championship game. Iowa State of course had their best runs in ’00, ’01, ’04, ’05, and ’09 without OU or Texas on the schedule. But the same can be said for KU, who went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in ’07. They avoided OU and Texas and didn’t meet a team in the top 20 until they lost to Mizzou at the end of the year.
The other four North schools have probably been the most consistent programs, thanks in part because they only meet one of the big two each season.
Now everyone will be in the same boat. Put up or shut up.
The way I see it, at least six of the 10 schools will make a bowl game each season.
We know that Oklahoma and Texas, barring something catastrophic, will always be at the top of the conference standings. Chances are, they will each consistently be around seven or eight wins in the conference, each year. The fight for Iowa State isn’t with Texas and OU. It is the battle to get into spots 3-6. The Cyclones don’t have to climb Mt. Everest right away, they just have to get halfway up a hill.
Missouri and Oklahoma State have solidified themselves as the squads in the #3 and #4 spots with where their respective programs are currently. The Cyclones should target them first.
With that said, there is an interesting correlation that Iowa State and others should take note of.
The longest tenured coaches in the conference are as follows:
Mack Brown (Texas ’98), Bob Stoops (OU ’99), Gary Pinkel (Mizzou ’01), Mike Gundy (OSU ’05).
See the correlation.
The rest of the coaches began at their respective schools 2008 or later. They also are the programs with the most question marks moving forward.
Of these six remaining schools, perhaps only Baylor has more stability than Iowa State. And that is arguable at best.
Mike Sherman is under fire at Texas A&M and Bill Snyder can’t coach too much longer. (I admire Snyder for his coaching ability, but that guy’s personality makes Gene Chizik seem lively in comparison. Smile once in a while old man.)
The other two coaches–Turner Gill and Tommy Tuberville have severely underperformed in their opening years.
So if Iowa State can remain steadfast with Paul Rhoads and continue to lay bricks on the foundation he has started to build, there is no reason they can’t consistently be in the middle of the pack of the conference. Middle of the pack=probable bowl game.
As mentioned, there are 45 conference wins to go around. So even if OU and Texas combine for 15 wins, there are still 30 to be had.
The key for Iowa State is to avoid attrition and staff turnover. If you look at the most successful non-traditional powers in recent years, they have one thing in common: consistency. Iowa State saw firsthand with Iowa (same basic staff since 1999) and Utah (Head Coach Kyle Whittingham has been on staff since 1994) what a stable program can mean.
The opportunity is there to become a player in the new conference. With the state of flux several of the schools are in, or will undergo soon, the Cyclones may actually be in a good position moving ahead. No longer will there be the fear of the schedule turning over and ruining any momentum Iowa State generated. Everybody is on equal footing.
There is no reason to be afraid of or envy the other nine schools in the conference. Embrace the fresh start. We are under one big house now. Might as well make ourselves known.
As my man Tommy Callahan said in Tommy Boy, "Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers gotta hug!"