Big 12 teams have never had to muster enthusiasm to take on Texas or Oklahoma. The Sooners have won 14 Big 12 titles in the league’s 24 years, including the past six. The Longhorns won the first Big 12 title in 1996 before adding two more in 2005 and 2009, and Texas’ self-assuredness (school motto: “What Starts Here Changes The World”) and standing in college football history elicits strong emotions from rivals.
But on Saturday, the Big 12’s departing heavyweights will play their first conference road games since opting for the greener pastures of the SEC, which means the Sooners and Longhorns can expect even more hostility than usual.
“When you go on a trip, you just expect to arrive with the respect of who you are and what you represent,” said Jack Crowe, who coached against the Longhorns as a coordinator and head coach at Arkansas and later as an assistant at Baylor. “Good luck on that one, boys. When they line up to boo you from between the bus and the door, you’ll know things have changed.”
Crowe would know. He was the Arkansas head coach in 1990 and 1991 when the Razorbacks were in the same boat. Crowe didn’t know the Hogs would be leaving the Southwest Conference for the SEC when he took the job. Even further, he said he didn’t know athletic director Frank Broyles would announce on Aug. 1, 1990, that the Razorbacks were departing, just three days before the Southwest Conference’s annual media event.
Arkansas’ experience three decades ago — as well as a handful of others since — could be a preview of what Texas and Oklahoma can expect.
In the recent history of college football realignment, Arkansas’ move is probably the closest comparison to the Big 12’s predicament, leaving a football-driven conference that was already facing questions about its future viability.
Maryland was a founding member of the ACC in 1953 and announced its departure for the Big Ten in 2012, but it had won just one conference title in football since 1985, and basketball coaches in the league were most vocal about the switch. Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East in 2004, but both had been in the league a relatively short time and were the two best football programs in a legendary basketball league. Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 in 2010 and Nebraska went to the Big Ten in 2011, both dealing blows to the conference, but big-market star power still remained.
But the Razorbacks weren’t just leaving a conference. They were the only Southwest Conference school outside the Texas state lines, and their departure signaled the alarm that the conference could be in trouble.
If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because it’s a similar thought that’s been whispered about the fate of the Big 12 after losing its two most prominent members.
So how hostile can Texas and Oklahoma expect it to get?
At that media day in 1990, emotions ran so high that Baylor coach Grant Teaff compared the Hogs’ move to that week’s invasion of Kuwait.
“I’m now thoroughly convinced that the Southeastern Conference is the Iraq of the college football scene in America,” Teaff said.
Then-Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said that teams would be geared up to “get their last licks on Arkansas,” adding, “The fans will probably be more emotionally involved than the players.”
The players, for their part, were more insulated from it. They were already accustomed to fans taunting them. But the 1990 and 1991 seasons added a new wrinkle on the field.
“Players would hit you and say, ‘Take that to the SEC with you,'” said Quinn Grovey, Crowe’s quarterback in 1990. “There was a lot of trash talk.”
In the Big 12, fans are already looking for their chance to make themselves heard. On Sept. 11, during the only College GameDay appearance at a Big 12 site this year for the Iowa–Iowa State game in Ames, there were several “HORNS DOWN” signs in the crowd and another that said “TRAITORS” with the Texas and Oklahoma logos.
Fans tailgating in the Jack Trice Stadium parking lots took aim at Texas in particular.
“We brought them in [to join the former Big Eight] and they’ve been chaos with other schools,” said Joel Farley of Okoboji, Iowa. “I think we would still probably have an A&M in the conference, we would still have a Missouri, we would have a Colorado and even a Nebraska. We’re like, ‘Man, we just took everybody else’s problem.'”
On a day Cyclones fans were facing their biggest rival, they were already ready for Texas. What happens when the Longhorns actually have to go to Ames on Nov. 6?
“The booing might be deafening,” Crowe said. “The students will get their point across.”
Longhorns coach Steve Sarkisian has acknowledged the SEC move could stir up opponents.
“Our bull’s-eye got a little bit bigger,” Sarkisian said in August. “We can’t be naive to that. Whether it’s crowd noise, whether it’s yelling at us on the bench, whether it’s the ‘Horns Down’ signal, all those things are really irrelevant to our ability to execute and succeed at a really high level.”
Former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini wasn’t just worried about the fans heading into the Cornhuskers’ lame-duck season in the Big 12 in 2010. He was already convinced the Cornhuskers were getting a raw deal from the league.
The season before, Nebraska celebrated on the field after Colt McCoy threw an incomplete pass as the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Big 12 championship game. But following a booth review, officials put a second back on the clock, and Texas kicked the game-winning field goal.
Now the Huskers were spurning the league and heading north.
“The league office was not happy and now you’ve got to play a whole year like that,” he said. “I remember telling the team, ‘Don’t expect any help from the referees. We’re changing conferences and that’s just the way it is.’ That’s the way it turned out to be.”
Late in the season, the 9-1 Huskers, ranked No. 8, traveled to Texas A&M for a big game against the No. 19 Aggies. Nebraska was penalized 16 times for 145 yards. Texas A&M had two penalties for 10 yards. The Aggies won 9-6.
Pelini cited several calls he considered puzzling. A pass interference call on A&M was waved off by officials. A player got called for what he considered an errant late hit. Another was flagged for targeting when Pelini said the film showed the player hitting the quarterback in the middle of his back.
“We didn’t get any breaks from the referees, I tell you that,” he said. “In my opinion, we got ripped off. It was a joke.”
And getting to and from the games could be a little less hospitable, Crowe said.
“You depend on a lot of people when you go on the road that aren’t your people, and it’s gonna be different,” he said. “And you’re gonna feel it.”
He recalled walking into Texas’ Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and being left at the entrance by the state troopers who normally escort coaches before and after games.
“The highway patrolmen walked out of the locker room and sort of stopped there for a second. One of them looked at me and said, ‘Well, this is as far as we go, Coach,'” Crowe said. “Literally, they didn’t want to be seen with me.”
Grovey, the quarterback, said fans were even more animated than usual.
“It was already difficult for us when we went to go play in Texas but [the impending move] intensified it a little bit more,” he said.
Both Pelini and Crowe don’t believe it’s sustainable for Texas and Oklahoma to remain in the conference until their grant of rights are up in 2025, as officials at both schools have indicated so far.
Pelini said even a 2023 departure would be tough.
“Two years of it?” he said. “That’s crazy. You’re dealing with bad blood. You have to answer questions all the time about ‘This is gonna be the last time of this and the last time of that.’ It gets old.”
Pelini said it affected his focus in recruiting, too. Some players he was recruiting in Texas or California, two places Nebraska typically had fared well, didn’t want to play in the Big Ten.
That’s not likely a problem for either Texas or Oklahoma since their regional rivalries will remain intact, but there’s still the issue of trying to explain when and if the current players or recruits will play in a different league. Crowe just thinks that two of the sport’s blue bloods won’t want to deal with the tension if they don’t have to.
“I don’t think either one of them’s egos can stand to go down that path,” Crowe said. “It ain’t that much money [relative to the programs’ finances] and when you put it in the hands of people that can make big things happen … they won’t let that go long.”
Still, Crowe said it might be worth hastening the exit strategy for competitive reasons. Crowe was fired just one game into his third season after Arkansas joined the SEC. He took a job at Baylor and said it didn’t just feel like all of Texas was plotting against him at Arkansas, but it could have actually been a coordinated effort.
“I was told by a Southwest Conference coach, ‘Jack, it was sort of an unwritten rule that whenever you played Arkansas, every other school would help you with their information to put their game plan together,'” he said. “Normally, conference people don’t do that. But you’re not in the conference. They wanted to make sure every week you played every school.”
Texas will head to Fort Worth on Saturday to face TCU, which is 7-2 against the Longhorns since joining the Big 12. The Horned Frogs already had a chip on their shoulder after being left behind when the Southwest Conference dissolved and had to claw to get back to equal standing, working their way through Conference USA, the WAC and the Mountain West to earn a Big 12 invite.
Oklahoma has its own challenges, facing Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, where the Wildcats stunned the Sooners two years ago 48-41 before beating OU again last year in Norman 38-35.
While both Texas and OU are favored this weekend, Crowe preached caution.
“You’ve drawn a line with every other state [in the Big 12] that you’re about to throw ’em out,” he said. “You can be their undoing. You’re taking some of their pride with you, because it won’t be the same. Those other teams know it’s never gonna be any better than it was.
“Good luck, Texas and Oklahoma.”
ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.