Documents show Big 12 flirting with Houston, Memphis, others

ByJake Trotter ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 11, 2016

With Big 12 expansion back on the table, officials from the University of Houston, the University of Memphis, University of Central Florida and Colorado State University have been lobbying members of the Big 12's composition committee, according to documents has obtained.

West Virginia president Gordon Gee is one of three Big 12 presidents on the committee, which is charged with exploring expansion candidates. Documents reveal that Gee has been busy in that role in recent months, which has included a trip to the University of Houston in late November.

Documents show that Gee flew to Houston on Nov. 29 to tour the school's athletic facilities and speak with top officials. According to an itinerary outlining the visit, Gee met with Houston president Renu Khator for more than an hour the morning of Nov. 30, then was taken on a tour of the athletic facilities by athletic director Hunter Yurachek and football coach Tom Herman. Gee finished up by having lunch with Khator, three of the school's regents, vice chancellor Eloise Stuhr and Camden Property Trust CEO Ric Campo, who reportedly played a major part in the city of Houston landing the 2017 Super Bowl.

Khator followed up by forwarding Gee a spreadsheet of the Houston football team's TV ratings in the Houston market during the 2015 season.

Khator, however, isn't the only Big 12 expansion president that Gee has been in contact with.

On Feb. 24, Memphis president David Rudd penned a letter to Gee and copied Oklahoma president David Boren and Baylor president Ken Starr, the other two members of the composition committee, as well as former Big 12 board chairman and Kansas State president Kirk Schulz. In the letter, Rudd pledged that Memphis will make a $500 million investment in academic and athletic infrastructure over the next five years. Rudd also enclosed a letter from FedEx chairman Fred Smith, who stated that the delivery services giant headquartered in Memphis will be behind the school's Big 12 campaign.

"We strongly support the university's efforts to become a member of an expanded Big 12 athletic conference," Smith wrote to Rudd in a letter dated Feb. 23. "In support of [Memphis'] Big 12 aspirations, we have researched college conference sponsorships and are prepared to become a major Big 12 sponsor of football and basketball."

Smith also wrote that FedEx would be prepared to sponsor a Big 12 championship game.

"We believe the University of Memphis and the Big 12 are a great fit and hope our support will contribute to the University of Memphis becoming a member of this storied athletic conference in the near future," Smith wrote.

Other documents gathered show that the presidents at Colorado State and Central Florida also sent brochures to Gee promoting their schools to the Big 12.

"I appreciate very much our [phone] conversation, and I appreciate the information you sent me," Gee wrote UCF president John Hitt on Oct. 6. "Be assured that the University of Central Florida is very much on our radar screen. The future of expansion is very much uncertain, but I also know that we are looking at these issues very carefully given the tumultuous nature of college athletics."

Gee also praised Colorado State in a July 21 letter to president Tony Frank.

"Indeed, Colorado State is making a statement and moving swiftly into the forefront of universities, not only in your region but nationally," Gee wrote. "Be assured that my colleagues in the Big 12 and I will take careful notice."

Boren has pushed Big 12 expansion back into the limelight, repeatedly calling the league "psychologically disadvantaged' without 12 teams, a championship game and a conference network.

The Big 12 presidents and athletic directors will meet again May 31 in Irving, Texas, where the topic of possible expansion is expected to be discussed heavily.