While the Big 12 waits on a final declaration from Missouri about its plans to move to another league, Louisville has mounted a last-minute push to try to secure the spot that conference officials indicated will belong to West Virginia.
A day after multiple Big 12 sources said they were prepared to invite West Virginia to become the league’s 10th member, assuming a departure by Missouri, some league administrators spent Wednesday pitching Louisville — and touched off a political firestorm.
There is speculation that the Big 12 might now invite both schools as a compromise measure to minimize dissension within the ranks and to enhance league credibility going forward. One league source called that a “logical” next step, although it has yet to be discussed in a group setting.
One thing is certain. The Big 12’s expansion efforts have gotten political. In a big way.
League sources confirmed a New York Times report about a lobbying effort led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, as a factor in the current state of flux. The newspaper reported that McConnell lobbied Oklahoma President David Boren, a former senator, to include Louisville in its expansion plans.
A spokesman in McConnell’s office in Washington, D.C. said: “We do not have a comment on that.” But as expansion momentum cooled Wednesday, with as many as four league schools expressing continued interest in Louisville, both senators from West Virginia took matters into their own hands by issuing issued separate statements about why the Mountaineers belong in the Big 12.
“The Big 12 picked WVU on the strength of its program — period,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. “Now the media reports that political games may upend that. That’s just flat wrong. I am doing and will do whatever it takes to get us back to the merits.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., suggested in his statement that a Senate investigation might be in order “if a U.S. Senator has done anything inappropriate or unethical to interfere with a decision that the Big 12 had already made.”
In a news conference Wednesday evening, Manchin said: “I would expect McConnell to lobby for Louisville, but not after the Big 12 makes its decision. The Big 12’s commitment was stronger than just verbal to WVU.”
That apparently depends on semantics. In Tuesday’s acknowledgements of a contingency plan to invite West Virginia as Missouri’s replacement, Big 12 sources said no official invitation had been extended — and would not be — until Missouri took steps to leave the league.
League sources reiterated that stance Wednesday while raising questions about the next step. During a Wednesday luncheon in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma State booster Boone Pickens told reporters: “I’ve got to be convinced on West Virginia.”
A league source told The Associated Press that calls from politicians have been frequent throughout the expansion process — not just in regard to the West Virginia/Louisville flap.
“Everybody’s politicians are calling,” the source said. “I don’t mean that in a negative way No one has tried to coerce anybody into anything.”
Multiple league sources have said Big 12 television partners favor West Virginia as the league’s 10th team if Missouri departs and envision the Mountaineers joining the league, with or without Louisville.
If both schools were to be added and the Big 12 expanded to 11 members, it could be a significant blow to the Big East’s expansion efforts. But in terms of financial implications for the Big 12, the difference between 10 and 11 members would be only $1.5 million per year for each school based on projected TV revenues.
An 11-team configuration, which the Big Ten maintained for years, could lead to adding a 12th team — likely Brigham Young. Or a unique, two-step approach for a 12th team: Notre Dame in all sports but football, with BYU in football only.
Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760