Seismic athletic move by Oklahoma, Texas rattles political field in Kansas

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LAWRENCE — Disclosure of intent by the University of Oklahoma and University of Texas to bolt the Big 12 Conference became a political football in the state’s campaign for governor.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Colyer claimed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly was “asleep at the switch” and accused her of “fiddling while the Big 12 burns.”

A spokeswoman for Kelly, who is seeking re-election in 2022, said leaders of the University of Kansas and of Kansas State University were committed to placing the state’s largest public universities and the sports programs in the best position possible following notice Monday that UT and OU would decline to renew their Big 12 media rights in 2025.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican with degrees from KU and K-State, said it was a “sad day for sports fans and the end of the Big 12 as we know it,” but was confident both universities would come out of realignment “stronger than ever.”

In a joint statement, Sooners and Longhorns officials said notice was offered well in advance of expiration of the media rights agreement. The deal could be honored by the universities for the next four years or they could each pay an estimated $75 million penalty and depart with 18 months’ notice. If the maneuvering shattered the Big 12, there could be a different timeline for realignment of a conference formed 25 years ago.

“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” said Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12.

The Big 12 was created in 1996 with the merger of the old Big 8 Conference and the universities of Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech. Subsequently, University of Nebraska left for the Big Ten, University of Colorado departed for the Pac-12 and the University of Missouri and Texas A&M jumped to the SEC. To compensate, West Virginia University and Texas Christian University joined the Big 12 to bring the number of schools to 10.

Cheryl Harrison-Lee, chairwoman of the Kansas Board of Regents and an appointee of Kelly, said board policy required KU and K-State to obtain expedited approval from the board’s chairwoman and the board’s president before entering negotiations to change athletic conference affiliations.

She said the policy provided oversight by the Board of Regents and “protected the time-sensitive and confidential nature of these negotiations.” The public will be informed “at the appropriate time of any such request,” she said.

Colyer, who served as governor for nearly one year and lost the 2018 GOP nomination for governor to Kris Kobach, said he wasn’t aware of a discernible private or public strategy to secure the athletic viability of K-State and KU. The Kansas universities may slip out of the Power Five conference class, he said.

“This is a vital issue for our state,” Colyer said. “College athletics have a huge economic impact and are critical for the national prestige of our state and its institutions.”

Marshall, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2020, said “we will make the best of this” in terms of the future of K-State and KU, who have been fierce rivals in collegiate sports.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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