The face of the Big 12 right now is actually a mullet.
Mack Brown, Art Briles and Bob Stoops left the conference in near succession over the past four years, taking 10 of the last 12 Big 12 championships with them. In a league of 10 teams, this leaves only three coaches as true veterans of the league -- Kansas State's Bill Snyder, TCU's Gary Patterson and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy.
Snyder turns 78 in October and spent his offseason battling throat cancer. Patterson is a masterful technician but doesn't have the interest or the skills in being the Big 12's public ambassador. "I just think we need to keep doing what we're doing as a league," Patterson said Monday. This leaves Gundy alone as possible Big 12 ambassadors, and it's not a stretch to say his choice of hairstyle has the highest approval rating for anything connected to Big 12 football at the moment.
That's a problem.
While the SEC, the ACC and the Big Ten can let its football do the talking, the Big 12 needs someone to climb on their soapbox and argue for the brand of football played in the southern midwest region of this country (plus, uh, West Virginia). It's no secret this is the only Power 5 league to miss the College Football Playoff twice in three years. It's also no secret this conference lags behind its peers both in importing and exporting high-level football players.
Art Briles was willing to stand on his stump for the Big 12. "My opinion, since people are asking? I think the committee needs to be a little more regionalized with people that are associated with the south part of the United States," Briles said upon Baylor's 2014 CFP snubbing. "I'll say that. I'm not sure if there's a connection on there that is that familiar with the Big 12 Conference. To me, that's an issue."
Briles was willing and able, but he's no longer here. Perhaps you've heard something about that.
This is where Tom Herman and Lincoln Riley come in.
It's not an exaggeration to say the key to the entire conference's survival lies on these two concurrent eras living up to their considerable potential.
When people do argue for the Big 12, the argument usually goes something like, "We're the only league that plays a full round-robin, and people don't appreciate how tough that is because the Big 12 is as deep as any conference in the country."
And that may very well be true. Heck, it probably is. But even if it is, nobody cares. The ACC can credibly argue its supremacy not because of how good its 7th- and 8th-best teams are, but because Clemson and Florida State have been as good as anyone in college football over the past four seasons. The SEC became king for nearly a decade because four of its schools contributed to its streak of seven straight national titles. The Big Ten is healthy because Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are healthy.
With Nebraska and Texas A&M gone, the Big 12 needs Texas and Oklahoma to be good -- not 10-win good, but CFP good -- even more than the Big Ten needs Ohio State and Michigan and more than the ACC needs Clemson and Florida State. Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU each made their own runs at the national championship this decade, to be sure. But Oklahoma State got passed over in 2011 for an Alabama team that didn't even win its own division, and Baylor and TCU were jumped by Ohio State at the last minute for the final spot in the first Playoff. There's no other conclusion to draw from that other than that brand matters, and the Red River rivals are this conference's only answers to the national brands from the powers from beyond.
And here's the crazy, only-in-college-football facet to this argument: in the event Herman and Riley are failures at Texas and OU, each school will survive. It'll be painful, sure. But each brand will endure -- and the rest of the Big 12 might not. People have argued for the inevitability of a Big 4 Super-Conferences future for decades, and it's never been closer to a reality than it is today. The Big 12's media agreements expire in the middle of the next decade, which means discussions will resume right around the time the verdicts on the Herman and Riley tenures crystallize. If Texas and OU are down five years from now, it's not hard to squint and imagine each school bailing for another league and leave Iowa State, Kansas State and the rest to fend for themselves.
This is a conference that from the beginning has fought with itself to define what it is and what it stands for. They had a One True Champion, and then they named TCU and Baylor co-champions while the CFP selection committee shook its heads and jumped Ohio State over both of them. They were expanding, and then they weren't. Now, after watching its favorite lose in the championship games five times over a decade and a half, the Big 12 has a championship game again.
So, yeah, it would help if one of its coaches could take it upon himself to tell the Big 12's story to the rest of the nation. Here's what Herman and Riley said about the state of the Big 12 and their place in it.
"Is it my job to take care of the Big 12? No," Herman said. "It's none of our jobs to take care of the Big 12. You know what our job i to win games, graduate players, represent the University of Texas really, really well at a very, very high, elite level, and in turn that takes care of the Big 12."
"I think that's something where you've got to take care of the small things, and hopefully we can have that impact," Riley said Monday. "We've just in the past two years been in the top five and been in the Playoff once, and honestly, we're one game away non-conference-wise from almost being in again last year. So I think, if we continue to do a good job on our part, it will be great for Oklahoma and great for the Big 12."
Now contrast those two answers with these two.
"I read so much about the big 12 not being as prolific and strong, et cetera, et cetera, I don't think the Big 12 Conference is in any jeopardy whatsoever and not nearly as weak as some would portray in the media," Snyder said, unprompted, in his opening statement on Tuesday.
And here's Mike Gundy when asked about hisrole as the conference's ambassador: "I think we're all responsible for that. I'm in the state of Oklahoma. We have Oklahoma State, and we have Oklahoma.... I've always said, when we play Oklahoma, I want them to be 11-0.
"I think as a conference we're stronger than what the national media or our fan base might think. We play a litter different style of football. It's an exciting game of football. And I think we all want each other to win when we're playing non-conference games, and we'll continue to get better and better."
For the Big 12 to play to its potential, for it to keep pace with its four peers, for it to survive through the next decade and beyond, Herman and Riley need to represent Big 12 football on a national stage -- if not with their words, but certainly with their actions. Until then, Gundy will volunteer himself as the face, the voice, and the hair of the league.
Which is fine. For now.