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Big 12 Expansion: Impact to Softball Programs
If you follow college sports, you’ve probably heard that the Big 12 is looking to expand. At first they weren’t going to expand and everyone thought the expansion talk was dead. Then, in the Big 12 press days, Bob Bowlsby announced that he had been given the go-ahead to begin researching two or four potential expansion candidates.
We all know that money and football are driving the decision to expand the conference. With the television contracts in place, ESPN and Fox will have to pay roughly $25 million more for each school the Big 12 adds. Although this seems to be a problem with TV rights holders.
So will they add two or four teams? Who will those teams be? At this point, no one knows, but speculation is running wild and the list seems to grow every day.
We know soccer will be the biggest factor in deciding which teams are added, but we decided to look at it from a softball perspective and see what each potential candidate brings to the table in terms of their softball program.
At this point, almost all schools that are not in a power 5 conference are candidates. We limit ourselves to these seven because we see them as the most viable options.
BYU is probably the team mentioned most often when talking about the Big 12 expansion. Currently independent in football, its other sports are in the West Coast Conference (WCC).
Coach: Gordon Eakin (14 years old)
2016 record: 36-21 (12-3 in WCC)
Conference Championships: 12 – Last in 2016
The Cougars have been dominant for the past 10+ years in whatever conference they’ve been a member of. They have won eight consecutive conference championships in four different conferences (WCC, Pacific Coast Softball, WAC, MWC). They have gone to the NCAA Regionals for 11 straight seasons, advancing to the Super Regional in 2010 against Arizona. Add in the fact that BYU has the NCAA’s fourth-largest softball facility on campus and BYU would fit right in with the other big 12 schools.
Another team that gets mentioned often is Houston. Its location in Texas and the recent success of its soccer team have helped raise its profile.
Coach: Kristin Vesely (1st season)
2016 record: 27-29 (9-9 in AAC)
Conference Championships: 0
Although Houston hasn’t won any conference championships, it has been to the NCAA Regionals 7 times. With their last appearance coming in 2014. They have advanced to the Super Regionals twice, losing to Oklahoma State in 2011. Houston plays its home games in the 2,000-seat Cougar Softball Stadium. New coach Kristin Vesely takes over in 2017, but she has been a part of the program for several years. Before Vesely, the Cougars were coached by Kyla Holas, who went 563-376-1 in 16 seasons. In 2016, Houston played 4 Big 12 teams and went 3-4 in those games. With a little time and the financial backing of a power 5 conference, Houston could become an all-year contender in the Big 12.
University of South Florida:
If the Big 12 is going to expand, a lot of people think they want to get into the Florida market and have mentioned USF as one of those options. The Bulls, led by Ken Erickson, play in a new stadium and have postseason history.
Coach: Ken Erickson (20 years old)
2016 record: 45-16 (15-3 AAC)
Conference Championships: 5
Coach Erickson has led USF to the NCAA Regionals 12 times. They have advanced to Super Regionals twice and have one appearance in the Women’s College World Series in 2012. In 2011, the Bulls opened USF Softball Stadium. The history and facilities would compare well to the other Big 12 teams. With their location in Tampa, the Bulls have access to a lot of talent to keep them competitive.
University of Central Florida:
UCF is almost always mentioned along with USF, since they are only an hour apart. Adding both schools would give the Big 12 a strong presence in the state of Florida. Not to mention, it would make scheduling and travel a bit easier for both schools. UCF is the second largest university in the country with 63,000 students.
Coach: Renee Luers-Gillispie (Season 15)
2016 record: 38-22 (12-4 in AAC)
Conference Championships: 4
The Knights have been to the NCAA Regionals six times, including in 2015, where they were knocked out by the Florida Gators. In March 2006 they opened the UCF Softball Complex, at the time, one of the best facilities in the AAC. The program has come a long way under coach Renee Luers-Gillispie, who started the program in 2002. Competing every weekend in the Big 12 could be challenging for the Knights for a few years. With time and a commitment to softball, they could become a competitive team in the Big 12.
The Tigers recently began to gain support as a candidate for the Big 12 expansion mainly due to Fedex offering their support. The company has pledged millions in sponsorship dollars to the Big 12, but how that will affect the Big 12 decision remains to be seen. From a softball perspective, the Tigers would have a hard time making it to the top half of the conference.
Coach: Natalie Poole (6 seasons)
2016 record: 26-31 (7-11 in AAC)
Conference Championships: 0
The Tigers have one NCAA regional appearance in 2011. They have never won a conference tournament. However, they have only played softball since 2006. At that time they are 258-291 overall. Their current roster is filled with kids from all over the Southeast with a few from the West Coast, so the Memphis brand is spreading. The question is what is the university’s commitment to sport? Given the big 12 bucks, that commitment could grow.
Colorado State has started to build momentum as a possible addition to the Big 12 conference. Some of it has to do with the location and the area of Denver that has many Big 12 alumni. The Big 12 lost Colorado to the Pac -12 and they could easily replace them with the Rams and win back the Denver TV market.
Coach: Jen Fisher (6 seasons)
2016 record: 22-24 (8-12 at MWC)
Conference Championships: 4 – Last in 2004
The Rams have been a middle-of-the-road MWC team since joining the conference in 2000. They have finished first just once, second three times, and third three times. They have finished fourth or worse 14 times in the nine-team conference. It’s hard to be consistently good at softball in Colorado. If added to the Big 12, they would have many of the same challenges that Iowa State currently has in the conference. The Cyclones have finished last for five straight seasons, never winning more than four conference games.
The Bearcats have not been shy about reaching out to the Big 12 about wanting to join. Many people believe they have the support of Oklahoma President David Boren. The downside from a softball perspective is that they currently don’t offer the sport. Could they do it in the future? Maybe. Currently, the Big 12 only has 7 out of 10 teams that play softball. TCU, West Virginia, and Kansas State also don’t play softball.
Regardless of who adds the Big 12, there will be an impact on current softball programs. It remains to be seen how big the impact will be based on how many and who they add. So, like all of you, we sit and wait.
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