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Big 12 Expansion: Impact to Softball Programs
If you follow college sports, you’ve probably heard that the Big 12 is looking to expand. At first they wouldn’t expand and everyone thought the expansion talk was dead. Then in 12 media days, Bob Bowlsby announced that he was allowed to begin testing two or four potential expansion candidates.
We all know that money and football drives the decision to expand a conference. With the current television contracts, ESPN and Fox must pay each Big 12 school about $25 million more. Although this seems to be an issue with the TV rights holders.
So they add two or four teams? Who will those teams be? No one knows at this point, but speculation is running wild and the list is growing daily.
We know that football will be the biggest factor in which teams are selected, but we decided to look at it from a softball perspective and see what each potential candidate brings to the table in terms of their softball program.
At this point, almost every school that is not in a power 5 conference is a candidate. We’ve narrowed down to these seven because we consider them to be viable options.
BYU is probably the team that gets mentioned the most when Big 12 expansion is talked about. Currently independent in football, their other sports are in the West Coast Conference (WCC).
Coach: Gordan Eakin (14 years)
2016 Record: 36-21 (12-3 in WCC)
Conference Championships: 12 – Last in 2016
The Cougars have dominated whichever conference they’ve been a part of for the past 10+ years. They have won eight straight conference championships in four different conferences (WCC, Pacific Coast Softball, WAC, MWC). They went to the NCAA Regionals 11 straight seasons and advanced to the Super Regional in 2010 against Arizona. Add to that the fact that BYU has the fourth largest softball facility on campus in the NCAA and BYU is in line with other Big 12 schools.
Another team that is often mentioned is Houston. Their location in Texas and the recent success of their football team has helped boost their reputation.
Coach: Kristin Vesely (season 1)
2016 Record: 27-29 (9-9 in AAC)
Conference Championship: 0
Although Houston has never won a conference championship, they have been to the NCAA regionals 7 times. With their last appearance in 2014. The two times they have advanced to the Super Regionals, they lost to Oklahoma State in 2011. Houston plays its home games at the 2,000 seat Cougar Softball Stadium. New coach Christine Vesely took over in 2017, but has been a part of the program for several years. Before Vesely, the Cougars were coached by Kayla Holas, who went 563-376-1 in 16 seasons. In 2016, Houston played four Big 12 teams and went 3-4 in those games. Given a little more time and the financial support of a Power 5 conference, Houston could become an annual contender in the Big 12.
University of South Florida:
If the Big 12 expands, many people think they’ll want to enter the Florida market and have mentioned USF as one of those options. The Bulls, coached by Ken Erickson, play in a new stadium and have postseason history.
Coach: Ken Erickson (20 years)
2016 Record: 45-16 (15-3 AAC)
Conference Championship: 5
Coach Erickson has led USF to the NCAA Regionals 12 times. Twice they have advanced to the Super Regionals and they have one Women’s College World Series appearance. In 2011, USF’s Bulls Softball Stadium opened. The history and facilities are comparable to other Big 12 teams. With its location in Tampa, the Bulls have access to plenty of talent to continue to compete.
University of Central Florida:
UCF is almost always mentioned along with USF because they are only an hour apart. The addition of both schools will give the Big 12 a solid presence in the state of Florida. Not to mention, it makes planning and travel a little easier for both schools. UCF is the second largest university in the country with 63,000 students.
Coach: Rene Luers-Gillispie (15th season)
2016 Record: 38-22 (12-4 in AAC)
Conference Championship: 4
The Knights have been to the NCAA Regionals six times, including in 2015 where they were eliminated by the Florida Gators. In March 2006, they opened the UCF Softball Complex, which at the time was one of the best facilities in the AAC. The program has come a long way under coach Renee Luers-Gillispie, who started the program in 2002. Competing every weekend in the Big 12 could be a challenge for the Knights for a few years. With time and a commitment to softball, they could become a competitive team in the Big 12.
The Tigers have recently gained support as a candidate for Big 12 expansion, largely due to the support of Fedex. The company has pledged millions of dollars in sponsorships to the Big 12, but how that will affect the Big 12’s decision remains to be seen. From a softball standpoint, the Tigers are struggling to reach the top half of the conference.
Coach: Natalie Poole (6 seasons)
2016 Record: 26-31 (7-11 in AAC)
Conference Championship: 0
The Tigers have one NCAA Regional appearance in 2011. They have never won a conference tournament. However, they have only been playing softball since 2006. They are 258-291 overall in that time. Their current roster is filled with kids from all over the southeast and a few from the west coast, so the Memphis brand is spreading. It begs the question, what is the university’s commitment to sports? Given the large $12, that commitment can grow.
State of Colorado:
Colorado State has gained some momentum as a potential addition to the Big 12 Conference. Some of this has to do with location and the Denver area, which has a large number of Big 12 alumni. The Big 12 lost Colorado to the Pac-12 and could easily replace them with the Rams and take back Denver’s television market.
Coach: Jen Fisher (6 seasons)
2016 Record: 22-24 (8-12 in MWC)
Conference Championships: 4 – Last in 2004
The Rams have been an average MWC team since joining the conference in 2000. They finished 1st place only once, 2nd place three times and 3rd place three times. They took 4th place and worse 14 times in the 9-team conference. It’s hard to be consistently good at softball in Colorado. If added to the Big 12, they would have the same problems that Iowa State currently has in the conference. The Cyclones have finished last in five straight seasons and have never won more than four conference games.
The Bears weren’t shy about reaching out to the Big 12 about wanting to join. Many people believe that they are supported by Oklahoma President David Boren. The downside from a softball perspective is that they don’t currently offer the sport. Can they in the future? Maybe. Currently the Big 12 has only 7 of 10 teams playing softball. TCU, West Virginia and Kansas State also don’t play softball.
Whoever the Big 12 adds will have an impact on current softball programs. How big the impact remains depends on how much and who they add. So we sit and wait like all of you.
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