In the fall of 1996, I enrolled at the University of Texas for two reasons. The first was a Longhorns backfield that featured Ricky Williams. The second was the Big 12, a brand-new conference that started play that season. One of those things bent the arc of college football. The other was the Big 12.
But in ’96, that wasn’t obvious. After dropping my stuff in my dorm room, I bought a Big 12 T-shirt. I’m serious. As was my style at the time, the T-shirt was white. It was one or two sizes too large. The back of the shirt was covered with the unfamiliar logos of UT’s new conference pals. I made a note to find out why the Iowa State Cyclones were represented by a cardinal.
That fall, I wore the T-shirt all over campus. And I wore it with a mid-’90s, pre-internet pride of purchase. It was like the frat boys wearing University of South Carolina “Cocks” hats. Look at me, I was saying, with a hormonal smile. I’m a member of a megaconference.
Twenty-five years later, the most absurd thing about that shirt is the idea of Big 12 pride. Imagine that. Before Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving for the SEC this summer, the Big 12 was college football’s easiest punch line. The conference was described as “psychologically disadvantaged” by one of its own university presidents. During one of the many Big 12 defections, a source told a reporter the conference was “looking inward,” as if describing to People how a celebrity was holding up after a divorce.