DALLAS – The Houston billionaire began: “It was painful.” Soon he said, “The whole thing doesn’t even make any sense, okay?” Soon after that he said, “People are just sick of it all.” Soon after that he said, “They really put mud on their face.”
A drowsy news conference in the middle of the country Monday evening managed to shovel pain around the vast land through Tuesday. The pain flared from Houston to the Wasatch Front in Utah and back over to Cincinnati, with dollops left over for places such as Connecticut. It congealed into anger, fear, ridicule and then barbs lobbed back toward Dallas.
College football remains one influential beast.
Sometimes, the pain only simmered at first. When the Big 12 Conference announced Monday that it would not expand after spending three months enticing expansion candidates, Tilman Fertitta felt “disappointment.” Then Fertitta, chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Houston system, magnate restaurateur and host of a CNBC reality show called “Billion Dollar Buyer,” felt disappointment yield to umbrage.
“You know what they don’t realize?” he said by telephone Tuesday. “They’re dealing with people’s emotions. You start talking about alumni and administrations and students. You’re talking about a million people, and you just sat there and you didn’t even think anything about their emotions. … Think about all the students and alumni involved. People feel dejected and disappointed and have a horrible taste in their mouth.”
Among the 11 so-called finalists the Big 12 might or might not have considered to elevate to the so-called Power Five conferences, Houston was the splashiest. Its candidacy brimmed with logic. It rests in the soon-to-be third-largest American city. It employs a scalding-hot coach. Forty thousand of its fans went to Atlanta last December to watch it make a chew toy of Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
When it opened on Sept. 3 before 71,016 in an NFL stadium and left Oklahoma outthought, outplayed, outcoached and outscored, the atmosphere triggered quite a thought: Half the Big 12 itself could never muster this.
Now the American caste system had struck again, and the cool clique from high school had struck again, and the eternal oddness of college football had struck again. Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated reported last week that the Big 12’s TV partners might just pay it not to expand.
“How could you not want a team that could be a consensus top-10 team?” Fertitta said. “It’s almost like they want to be at the bottom of the Power Five conferences. Like they want to have less schools and less ranked teams. Why would you want to be number five of the five?”
He had heard the talk, even from the legend Barry Switzer, about the league shying from Houston for fear of how Houston could recruit Houston. “You know, I would hate to think it’s the fear factor,” Fertitta said. “That’s pretty scary, if Oklahoma and Texas are afraid of the University of Houston.” He brought up Texas A&M, which bolted the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012: “A&M jumped ship and said, ‘We’ll go play LSU and Alabama every single year, because we’re the Aggies.’ ” He has seen it boost those Aggies: “You’re damn right it did.”
He remains convinced Houston will reach the Power Five somewhere, especially with all its fresh attention. He just had that feeling flooded Tuesday – “I guess it soaked in,” he said – especially with an ESPN report that Big 12 leaders may have masked some dissension with manufactured unanimity.
“That’s what happens when you have poor leadership from the commissioner’s office, the University of Texas and Oklahoma,” said Fertitta, 59, sole owner of the Landry’s restaurant empire. “Poor leadership. Nothing happens.” He closed: “Why did you go through the process? Okay? Why did you go through the process? Why didn’t you vote to expand [or not] three months ago?”
Almost 1,200 miles northwest, a former Brigham Young defensive back (2005-07) began his radio show Monday by advertising a local golf club’s “four-person scramble with horrifying hole locations,” then reaching for the bile.
Because BYU, former national champion, also sat outside the “big-boys’ club,” as Ben Criddle put it, he went graphic: “Ripped your heart out. Brought you to the temple of doom. The lava. The Big 12 was leading your heart away with fantastic dreams of riches and to be involved with something you haven’t been involved with, ever: a bigger conference, a big-boys’ club, and then they just ripped out your heart again as a BYU fan.”
He started comparing Big 12 characters to “Game Of Thrones” characters – “incestuous,” “inconsistent” – and said of University of Oklahoma President David Boren, formerly of the U.S. Senate: “Never trust anything Boren says. He’s a liar.”
Boren, in June 2015, to the OU Daily, had doled the Big 12 the deathless phrase “psychologically disadvantaged,” owing to its smallish-ness. Now, as the Big 12 would stick with 10 teams – another weird normalcy of the weirdest game – the many souls of the sub-Power Five occupy a wilderness of worry, with the landscape always a threat to rumble further.
Fourteen-hundred miles east, the University of Cincinnati had found $86 million to upgrade its Nippert Stadium. “It felt big; it felt worthy of the Big 12” when it opened, said Lance McAlister, radio host on the institution WLW and on ESPN.
Now, the university president and athletic director’s statement tried to bolster the bummed: “Stand with us as we fight on and seek the highest.” Now, said McAlister: “The general sense, it’s very clear, this fan base certainly feels hosed, played, toyed with and then dismissed. I think yesterday’s news jolted them to a position of anger. After all of that? Nothing?”
About 700 more miles up to Connecticut, pain was less sharp, per radio host and play-by-play man Joe D’Ambrosio, who said, “I think the fans had come to expect what was going to take place.” It had been harder watching a raft of former conference brothers – Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College, West Virginia, Rutgers, Louisville – gain acceptance to the lushest greenery.
“I don’t think it’s as painful because, unlike other times, there was nobody else taken this time,” D’Ambrosio said, on a Tuesday of both pain measurement and pain management.