Journey to the Big 12: How four teams prepared for the jump to Power 5 football


There are few truisms when it comes to conference realignment. Every school is uniquely positioned, from geography to facilities and right on down to the size of the checks their alumni cut. Athletic history can be rich just as easily as it can be checkered. And the priorities of athletic administrators are as varied as the personalities that shape them.

Yet if there is one simple question every school must answer when changing conferences: What do you do with the logo? 

Several schools will be dealing with this in 2024, when USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon jump to the Big Ten, while Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado join the Big 12. But for the four schools that are set to join the Big 12 this fall, the time for logo deployment is now.

Joel Klatt looks ahead to the next wave of conference expansion

Joel Klatt looks ahead to the next wave of conference expansion

At Houston, the entrance to the Athletics-Alumni Center — the central hub of most of the school’s teams — has been emblazoned with a massive, stylized ‘XII’ since last year. Cincinnati began slapping it on the court of Fifth Third Arena in mid-March, shortly after hosting a men’s NIT game.


Out in Provo at BYU, there were even some initial thoughts of painting the new logo on or near the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium for the 2022 home opener against future rival and then-reigning Big 12 champion Baylor. As a football independent at the time, it would have been a novel idea even if it was mostly a jestful concept.

Now, though, the Cougars have the recognizable conference logo everywhere. Football players making their way from the training area to fall camp practices must dodge one giant blue and white Big 12 logo hanging out in the hallway — a leftover from the school’s celebrations last month when all four programs officially became members.

Finally, out at the new eastern outpost of the Big 12, the updated branding is equally ubiquitous in Central Florida, as the logo is prominently displayed outside the program’s practice fields, a daily reminder for players as they park nearby. The Roman numerals belonging to the league even garner a fancy animation to accompany UCF’s fundraising slogan for the move to the big leagues — ‘Ready to Launch’ — on the video board leading into the Wayne Densch Sport Center.

“When I took the job, I knew there was a great chance we were going to be in a Power 5 (conference), I just didn’t know it would be the Big 12,” said Knights head coach Gus Malzahn from his office, naturally full of conference-branded decorations. “That’s just been part of the progression of our program. Our trajectory is really just an upward trend. This place has played really good football against Power 5 opponents before I got here, so I would like to think our learning curve may not be what some programs have been in the past.”

In truth, though, the work it takes to transition to a new conference goes far beyond when and where to update your logos.

UCF: A steady build toward this moment

Malzahn is not dipping into the coaching clichés when speaking about his program’s ascendent path to this season. After all, few universities have embodied the memorable line from the 1989 classic Field of Dreams — “if you build it, they will come” — more than UCF.

The school itself turned 60 this summer, a baby-faced institution in the world of academia that opened its doors several years after planning commenced for the nearby Walt Disney World resort, which helped put Orlando on the map for millions. The student body has more than doubled in the past two decades, and Central Florida is more than proud to boast that it’s now home to the second-biggest undergraduate enrollment in the nation (future colleague Arizona State is a few thousand ahead as of last year).

Football at the school is equally youthful, with the Knights’ first game taking place in 1979, making it the youngest Power 5 program and 11th youngest overall across FBS. After humble beginnings on the field, the team has embarked upon a rise through the ranks that is unprecedented — becoming the first and only program to claim a history in all the designated levels of NCAA college football, from Division III to the Autonomy Five.

It helps that the school started from scratch and has methodically invested over the years with the goal of rising through the ranks. The on-campus athletics complex can best be described as sprawling, with additions changing the face of the area on a seemingly annual basis. UCF had the first (and, until recently, only) indoor practice facility among Florida’s college programs and opened an on-campus stadium in 2007.

And more is coming, as the school looks to take advantage of the momentum behind the move to the Big 12. Athletic director Terry Mohajir, who was on the football staff during Kansas’ first season in the league back in 1996, has been instrumental in pitching civic leaders to spend tourism revenue to help accelerate a facilities revamp. Plans are in place for more than $250 million worth of upgrades in and around FBC Mortgage Stadium — known colloquially as the Bounce House — that include everything from additional premium seating options to a new football building to an attention-grabbing lazy river.

“This place is a gold mine. The sky’s the limit and I think our best days are ahead of us,” said Malzahn, who guided Auburn to the final BCS Championship Game and was on the opposite sideline with the Tigers as the Knights capped off an undefeated 2017 season in the Peach Bowl. “We have one of the bigger enrollments in the country. There’s no NFL team in Orlando and there are some of the best brands in the world right here. We’re in the 16th largest TV market in the country. I mean, everything is lined up.

“We’ve just got to win.”

To help do that, Malzahn elevated former UCF quarterback Darin Hinshaw to offensive coordinator this offseason. As a result, the Knights’ first game wearing a Big 12 jersey patch will see the school’s former all-time leading passer calling plays. It’s a fitting connection with the past for a program that has been inspired to reach this moment ever since its inception.

BYU: Following a unique blueprint

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake did not see his name litter the record books at his alma mater back in the day as a player, but the former fullback will nevertheless relish being in charge when the Cougars take the field in Week 1 as a member of a conference for the first time in 13 years. Not just any conference, but a Power 5 one, which was important to the fan base, the administration, and the church that guides them both.

The sojourn into football independence had offered up plenty of highlights since the program surprisingly departed the Mountain West back in 2010, ranging from an infamous beatdown of Texas in a muddy downpour to stunning Nebraska on a last-gasp Hail Mary. And who could forget the hastily scheduled trip to Coastal Carolina that seemed to embody the chaotic nature of the COVID-impacted 2020 campaign?

Yet despite independence aiding the stated goals of bringing the BYU brand to reaches of the country not typically exposed to the MWC, the school still held hopes of getting into a major conference. Such aspirations were harbored long before the initial flirtations began with the Big 12 back in 2016 and seemed rooted in the mentality running through the program ever since being passed over several times when the school was a member of the WAC.

Having spent his first seven seasons as a head coach dealing with the distinctive challenges of being a football independent, Sitake arrives at this crossroads with some unique (and beneficial) positioning, having gone through a similar conference transition before. As an assistant under Kyle Whittingham up the road at “Holy War” rival Utah, he saw first-hand how to take a team from the Group of 5 to the Power 5 level.

The Utes won eight games their first season in the Pac-12, delighting plenty around Salt Lake City as much as it stressed those BCS-busting days were no fluke to their new western peers. However, a pair of 5-7 marks the next two years, with fewer conference wins each time out, underscored that building a roster equipped to handle the rigors of the Power 5 had to be carefully sketched out.

“The goal is, okay we need to get more depth,” Sitake said amid a picture-perfect day on the Wasatch Front. “Now, there’s ways to develop depth and there’s ways to have depth that has been proven on the field before. It’s the unproven depth that I think is where you can get into trouble with. That’s one of the main lessons we learned at Utah.”

Sitake and his staff have gone about emulating some of the best parts of Utah’s blueprint ever since receiving official word about their new home. While still leaning heavily into developing high schoolers, the number of players transferring in from other Power 5 programs has steadily increased in a bid for that proven depth.

This year’s class features nearly 60 newcomers to the roster, including those in line to start such as quarterback Kedon Slovis (USC/Pitt), guard Paul Maile (Utah) and offensive tackle Caleb Etienne (Oklahoma State).

“Now that we’re in the Big 12 (recruits) are like, ‘Hey let me look into this and see what they’re about.’ They start to explore a little bit more and realize you do have a good brand of football here, we have great passionate fans, we’ve got an amazing education, and the culture on our team is unique and different,” Sitake remarked. “And a lot of them think, ‘That’s where? I want to go check out that place.’ So yeah, it’s opened the door quite a bit in recruiting for us.”

In addition to the modern-day roster turnover that every coach in college football has to deal with, the head coach at BYU also has to work around the distinctive dynamics of seeing many of his players go off on two-year missions across the country and around the world. This has been a careful balancing act not just in terms of hitting scholarship limits and ascertaining potential weak spots with certain position groups, but also reintegrating players when they return.

“We have a lot of guys who are going on missions, so they knew that they would sign with us, go on a mission, come back, and play in the Big 12,” added Sitake. “And then there’s a lot of guys that came in last year that knew that they play one year and then would be in the Big 12. There’s a lot of guys that came here this year because of the Big 12 and knew that this was going to be the year.”

Houston: A ‘dream come true’ for a long time

The transition to the Big 12 has been a surreal, yet exciting, moment for many connected to Houston, which memorably got left behind when the old Southwest Conference broke apart. While old rivals Baylor and Texas Tech were able to join the state’s two flagship university systems in what became the Big 12 back in 1996, the Cougars made do in Conference USA before jumping up to the AAC in 2013.

While the school’s location alone in the country’s fourth-biggest city made perfect sense for outsiders whenever the Big 12 expanded, the path to receiving an invite two years ago has been part of a multi-decade effort by university leadership to elevate UH into the big leagues and overcome some of the natural in-state bias that complicated their entry.

A newly built on-campus football stadium has been massive in helping overcome the longstanding regional perception it was a commuter school, and millions more have been spent on either constructing or renovating additional facilities. Basketball coach Kelvin Sampson was brought in to make hoops relevant for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama days, and a series of contract extensions have made him one of the highest paid in the country.

Billionaire booster, Houston Rockets owner and former university board chair Tilman Fertitta has been central to many of the moves in elevating the school, even beyond writing a few checks to help cover costs on major capital projects. Most notably, he turned heads by helping lure football coach Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia in 2018.

At the time, it was basically unheard of for any coach to drop from a Power 5 program to the Group of 5 level, but the school’s calculating search was conducted with one aim in mind. While on-field results have been mixed, the contractual realities spelled it out quite clearly in giving Holgorsen a $1 million bonus and significant raise should the Cougars be invited into the Power 5.

“This is a special deal. I’ve been a part of the Big 12 Conference for 17 years and been a part of this (as a head coach) for seven years. The last four years have been a little different for me, being in the American [Athletic] Conference, and it really makes you appreciate a conference like the Big 12 by now being back,” Holgorsen, who also led the Mountaineers from the Big East into the league, said in July. “We all know the history about 28 years ago when the Big 12, this great conference, was formed, and Houston not being a part of that … This has been a dream come true for a lot of Cougars for a long time, and we’re excited about being in the Big 12 and what’s going to come, not only this year but for years to come.”

Houston athletic director Chris Pezman, who was a captain on the football team during the program’s last taste of success in the old SWC, has not stood still while trying to capitalize on just such excitement. The university launched a $150 million fundraising campaign last year ahead of joining the league and plans for a new nine-figure football building are already being discussed with incoming recruits. Despite being picked 12th in the preseason Big 12 football poll, season ticket sales reached record highs and the newly built out stadium suites — with a minimum commitment of $100,000 moving forward — were gone in hours.

Cincinnati: The timing was right

For Houston’s fellow AAC refugee Cincinnati, the path to the Big 12 shares similar euphoria and comes after a long line of upgrades were squeezed into the compact urban campus just to the north of the Ohio River — all of which were designed to allow the Bearcats to effortlessly transition (back) into a major conference.

Nippert Stadium, once the smallest in the old Big East over a decade ago, was given a massive facelift in 2015. Basketball and volleyball’s home at Fifth Third Arena was redone to the tune of nearly $90 million. A new football complex will open in 2024 while recent staffing hires have beefed up support in areas such as nutrition, sports psychology and academics.

Most notable of all for UC was the simple good fortune of having impeccable timing. As the Big 12 began to reexamine expansion following the exit of Texas and Oklahoma for the SEC, the Bearcats were reaching a level of success that made them the envy of a good chunk of the sport, fresh off a Peach Bowl appearance and eventually becoming the first, and so far only, Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff.

Excitement is tempered somewhat, however, by the simple fact that the Bearcats are themselves locked in a state of transition. School president Neville Pinto started his job after the school missed out on the conference move five years earlier, and new athletic director John Cunningham had only one full season on the job before he wound up becoming a pitchman to the new league. Men’s basketball coach Wes Miller is a relative veteran on campus going into Year 3, as the Bearcats will feature at least five new head coaches across multiple sports for their initial foray into Big 12 play.

Most notable of all, football coach Luke Fickell left in the offseason for Wisconsin and was swiftly replaced by Scott Satterfield. Unlike his predecessor, however, the ex-Louisville coach will not get much of a honeymoon period to settle in and begin a multiyear rebuilding effort.

“I think all four schools are outstanding football programs. I do think all four schools will be competitive in this league,” Satterfield said at Big 12 Media Days. “I think one of the great things about this conference is the parity from top to bottom. From the teams that are last year, some of the teams that were at the bottom could beat the teams that are at the top. You’ve just got to show up and play on that particular day.”

That’s a sentiment shared by many, whether they are getting their first taste of traveling to the unique confines of Morgantown, Lawrence and Fort Worth, or they are old pros who don’t flinch when tortillas reign down after the opening kickoff in Lubbock.

“This conference is crazy,” added Holgorsen. “There’s just so much parity in this league. Without getting too much into it, there used to be a few lay-ups back in the day. There aren’t any lay-ups. The parity is good, the coaching is unbelievable, the facilities are spectacular, and the support is unbelievable.”

The Big 12: Preparing to do it all over again in 2024

The lead-up to this campaign has also been exhilarating for the conference itself.

Adding four schools and swelling to 14 members in 2023 was already a swift logistical challenge for the Big 12 office in Irving, but it’s a process that has been years in the making.

Though the scheduling component is the most public-facing component of the onboarding checklist, the incoming four schools have also had a seat at the table for many behind-the-scenes meetings for much of the past two years as they prepare to hit the ground running. At industry events and gathering places where such league meetings take place, it hasn’t at all been out of the ordinary to see Texas and Oklahoma representatives sitting outside in a hallway chatting at the same time representatives from the new members walked in after getting shown the door in their own American Athletic Conference or West Coast Conference meetings.

“Our belief and approach was similar to when TCU and West Virginia joined, in that we wanted to give them a chance to get to know us and know the difference from the conference they were in previously versus the one they were getting ready to join,” Big 12 Deputy Commissioner Tim Weiser said in an interview conducted several months before the recent additions of four Pac-12 schools. “Just like each institution has its own unique culture and fit, so do conferences. There are different ways that you do things.”

Maybe just as unbelievable to many, the Big 12 is going to turn around and do it all again with four others next season, too. 

At least they’ll have a good idea of how it will all transpire prior to officially joining the Big 12 — and where to place the new logos, of course.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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