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Big 12 back on its feet Chuck Neinas was able to help find solid ground.

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, May 31, 2012, at 7:51 a.m.

— Chuck Neinas says a vacation is in his near future. Nobody in college sports will be more deserving of some down time.

Saving a conference is tough work under any circumstance, but Neinas accomplished the feat in less than a year, and turned 80 years old in the process.

“For him to come in and provide the leadership we really needed, I don’t know if I can come up with enough superlatives to recognize the job that he did,” said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione.

Remember where the Big 12 stood the week it announced Dan Beebe had been fired as commissioner and Neinas would become the temp.

In about a 3 ½ week span, Texas A&M announced it was bolting the league for the Southeastern Conference, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State threatened to join the Pac-12, Baylor held out the possibility of suing the Aggies, Texas looked at its options with Texas Tech in tow, and Missouri was in contact with the SEC.

This happened during the first month of the 2011 football season. Before September had ended, Beebe was out and Neinas was in, guided by a simple philosophy.

“The main thing was to solidify the conference, get them working together and moving forward together,” Neinas said.

Herding cats may have been an easier task. But Neinas brought several advantages.

First, a deep knowledge of college athletes’ inner workings. Neinas spent the 1970s as the Big Eight commissioner after working for the NCAA. He later became executive director of the College Football Association, which negotiated television contracts after the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that schools and conference could get their own deals.

That meant, Neinas knew everybody.

“I want to say at least eight of the 10 athletic directors knew him directly,” said Kansas’ A.D. Sheahon Zenger.

Neinas likely had a hand in hiring most of them. In 1997, he created Neinas Sports Services, a Colorado-based consulting firm, which among its many accomplishments helped organize and develop Conference USA.

Throughout his travels, Neinas has been the boss to several of today’s top college sports’ officials, like BCS president Bill Hancock, former Big 12 commissioner and National Football Foundation president Steve Hatchell. And Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds.

“He’s been my mentor since the mid-70s,” said Dodds, an assistant Big Eight commissioner under Neinas. “I’ve always admired him, and he’s always stayed ahead of the game. And he has a way of keeping things together, keeping a family together.”

The friendship may have been a key for calming the league’s choppy waters. Texas and its lucrative Longhorn Network were cited by other schools as advantages that created a competitive imbalance. Texas A&M and Missouri took their exceptions public last summer and eventually relocated to the SEC.

A perception that Texas ran the Big 12 existed and that the Longhorns would leave the demise of the conference persisted.

If that was the impression before Neinas took over, it has faded over the months.

“Nobody has been more cooperative in moving the conference forward than DeLoss Dodds,” Neinas said.

The onward push started with replenishing. On Nov. 6, Missouri became the fourth Big 12 to announce its departure. By then, the Big 12 had signed up TCU and announced West Virginia would join the league once it settled with the Big East.

“It’s been nice to be involved with two institutions that are demonstrably pleased to join to the Big 12,” Neinas said.

It’s meant the hemorrhaging had stopped, and although Neinas and other Big 12 officials said Wednesday during the league’s annual meetings in Kansas City that the conference is satisfied with 10 members, it now operates from a position of strength and has options. Other schools, like Florida State, could be interested in exploring a Big 12 membership.

The Big 12 then fired a shot heard around college football when it announced along with the SEC a postseason game that will match the league champions if they’re not in national championship playoff. With the Champions Bowl as a working title, the game will be bid out and controlled the by the conferences.

The very existence of the game has prompted some to take a second look a new college football postseason structure. After conference commissioners announced options for a new order in late April, a four-team playoff became the favorite option.

Big 12 meetings — To summarize the highest profile issues on the first day of the annual Big 12 meetings in Kansas City: No on expansion, and yes to a four-team college football playoff involving the highest rated teams.

Neither position could be categorized as a shocking development.

Big 12 acting commissioner Chuck Neinas and four athletic directors who met with reporters, reiterated the conference’s satisfaction with 10 teams.

“We feel we’re really well positioned at this time with 10,” said Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard. “We’ve come to appreciate the position we’re in right now by not having a championship game.”

Over the years, the Big 12 lost four shots at playing for the national championship, including Kansas State in 1998 and Missouri in 2007, because they fell as better ranked teams in the Big 12 title game.

“At the same time we recognize the landscape continues to change, and we’ll all wait to see what happens with the BCS,” Pollard said.

College football’s postseason structure is poised to change, and on Wednesday the Big 12 aligned itself with the Southeastern Conference by supporting a playoff of the four highest ranked teams, regardless of conference affiliation. Neinas said the Big 12 favors a selection committee to select the teams “to bring the human element into play … Strength of schedule must — underscore, must — be included in any analysis.”

The four strongest teams concept stands in opposition to the expressed ideas of other major conferences, like the Big Ten and Pac-12, which prefer the champions of the four highest rated conferences.

Neinas said the Big 12 would prefer playing national semifinals outside the bowl system.

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