With decades of work and $1 billion invested, four new Big 12 schools are finally ready for their close-ups

Terry Mohajir estimates he’s been part of the conference realignment process seven times in his 26-year administrative career across stops at FAU, Arkansas State, UMKC, and Kansas. Twice there was Sun Belt shuffling at Arkansas State. The same during a pair of stops at Kansas. Mohajir experienced both the birth of the Big 12 in 1996 and the near collapse of the league in 2011.

All of it came before he settled in as the UCF athletic director two years ago in place of Danny White, who had left for Tennessee. The Knights’ assimilation into the Big 12 this year makes it Realignment Experience No. 7 for Mohajir.

“The only thing I’ve learned that is inevitable is change,” the 52-year-old native Kansan said. “And you have to be ready.”

College football as a whole is ready this week. On Wednesday, the Big 12 kicks off “Talkin’ Season,” the flurry of conference media days in July that serves as the de facto beginning of the 2023 season. If nothing else, this week will serve as an introduction for the 14 schools that changed conferences on July 1.

That total represents more than 10% of FBS and the most ever across a single season since the start of the realignment era in 1992.

The Big 12 in particular is a reminder that, if you stick around long enough, realignment will ultimately touch you. Big 12 membership is changing for the third time since 2011. A league-record 14 teams will compete this year as BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF have been admitted a year before Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC. In 2024, only six of the original teams from the inaugural Big 12 will remain.

No major conference has welcomed this many teams in such a short period of time with this much at stake in the realignment era. Three Group of Five schools (Cincinnati, Houston, UCF) and an independent (BYU) have spent close to a $1 billion combined in preparation for making the leap this season.

The move will lead to significant changes within those universities. Their additions may have saved the Big 12 as a whole.

The ACC added seven schools (all Power Five and Notre Dame’s non-football sports) from 2004-14. The Big Ten added four from 1990-2014. The SEC added four from 1992-2013. The Big East came and went in football.

For the Big 12, this is everything, everywhere all at once.

“We’d have given our left testicle to get in two years ago,” Houston AD Chris Pezman said. “Now, we’re in a better spot.”

It is all a reminder of the massive undertaking these schools have taken to get to this point.

UCF has been working at it since the mid-2000s about the time George O’Leary arrived, won 81 games in 12 years and set Scott Frost up for that self-proclaimed national championship in 2017.

Since about 2005, according to Mohajir, the school has raised more than $200 million in private philanthropy to build state-of-the-art facilities to entice the likes of the Big 12. (The state of Florida doesn’t allow the use of public funds for athletic facilities.)

Recruiting has needed to improve for the four new schools. UCF coach Gus Malzahn landed a top-100 prospect in defensive lineman John Walker, who has been called the best recruit in school history. It wouldn’t have happened, Malzahn said, without Big 12 membership.

“We needed to get bigger,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We did a whole study on what our team looked like and what Big 12 teams look like. … As a whole, the bodies going out [of the program], the bodies coming in look better. They’re just bigger.”

Houston has spent $300 million over the past decade in preparation for this opportunity. It has a nine-year old home (TDECU Stadium) where the school has sold a record 25,000 season tickets. Holgorsen is a veteran at this sort of thing having moved up to the Big 12 twice — once at West Virginia in 2012 and now again 11 years later.

“No offense to Temple, you’re not going to play Temple [in the AAC],” said Ryan Dorchester, Holgorsen’s right-hand man as head of Houston football operations. “You’re not going to play South Florida, which has the worst defense in the country. … There’s no layup in [the Big 12]. It’s why the SEC is not getting rid of Vanderbilt. They want the bottom. That’s why the Big Ten brings in a Rutgers. They need the doormats. The big dogs need the layups. You look around the B12, who is the layup? There is no one.”

That’s a key question about the new Big 12. Who rules the league once Texas and Oklahoma leave? On one hand, the Big 12 needs a dominant team or two to keep from becoming the Pac-12, a league that is out of the playoff race annually because everyone has two losses by Nov. 1. But with the expanded playoff debuting in 2024, access is the glue that holds the entire sport together.

That lessens the impact of the SEC and Big Ten, both in the process of attempting to run away from the rest of college athletics — at least in terms of revenue.

“The Big Ten and SEC have always had more money than other leagues,” Mohajir said. “It doesn’t always equate to championships. Would you say the Big Ten has separated themselves from the SEC? So, the SEC is one [spot] ahead of us.”

So, this new Big 12 is feisty, too.

BYU was once a national program. It definitely still has a national championship standard. BYU won it all in 1984. Never mind the school has a global following the guarantees a rooting section at every road game. It would be nice to get back in the big time, too.

“BYU got into the Power Five and the Big 12 because of LaVell Edwards, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer and the rest of them,” said BYU AD Tom Holmoe, rattling off a list of Cougars greats.

All four schools gained entry to the Big 12 because the time was right. Seven years ago, the league went through a lengthy expansion process basically vetting the same four teams only to stand pat. Then with Texas and Oklahoma leaving, it became imperative to shore up the league.

Those same schools became a lifeline, making perfect candidates for expansion this time around.

The last 12 years have been a sort-of limbo for BYU. It went independent for scheduling flexibility and having its own network (mostly ESPN) to show its games. In the playoff era, it lost access to the postseason because of a lack of schedule strength. But the program stayed competitive five times winning at least nine games in a season.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake is ready having previously been an assistant at Utah in 2011 when it transitioned to the Pac-12. Sitake has won 62% of his games and gone 29-9 in the last three seasons.

“I think the independence was a mixed bag,” Holmoe said. “It gave us the opportunity to play whoever we wanted, whenever we wanted. During that time, we played a lot of big-time programs in their stadiums. With a national fan base, we gave access to our fans. Cougar Nation got bigger. Revenues increased. … We learned about what we are and how we can be.”

Like BYU, Cincinnati has set a competitive standard. The Bearcats earned a spot in the College Football Playoff two seasons ago. Like West Virginia, Cincy was once in the Big East, which was once considered a power conference.

The Bearcats have switched coaches (Luke Fickell to Scott Satterfield) and opened the purse strings getting ready for Big 12 membership. Cincinnati has invested more than $100 million since September 2021. That initiative included adding more than a dozen staff positions. Ground has been broken on a new indoor facility. 

“We’re going to try to outperform our resources,” Cincinnati AD John Cunningham said.

That might as well be the marketing slogan for the New Four in the Big 12. Mohajir’s “Mission 12” slide deck offers perhaps the most detailed look at where the Big 12 fits in college athletics and where UCF (and the other three schools) fit in the Big 12.

“I launched this about a year ago in February,” he said. “I wanted our fans to see the progress. … This is huge for our university, for our region. Not only are we a destination city for vacations, we’re an Autonomy Five school. We’re a Power Five school.”