Anyone who has changed schools knows how hard it can be to fit in as the new kid in class. Making friends with people who you share little to nothing in common with can feel challenging if not downright hostile, especially when it’s you walking onto their turf.
Conference realignment feels a lot like starting over again in a new school. There’s names to memorize, traditions to learn and a new way of doing things that might feel unfamiliar, even uncomfortable.
For example, we’ve already learned how strongly Big 12 fans feel about keeping the men’s basketball conference tournament in Kansas City, a place they deem the crown jewel of American nightlife and entertainment ... as opposed to Las Vegas.
Ok kick them out. They’re done https://t.co/kOYBAZGEiK— Matthias Schwartzkopf (@MatthiasWRNL) August 4, 2023
They’ll come around.
Building bonds with universities and fanbases that have been together for decades (or in the case of BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston, for weeks), won’t come naturally. There will inevitably be some mutual distrust to overcome.
Ultimately, change is something to endure, not resist. We’re confident the Big 12 will get to liking Arizona and vice versa.
To break the ice a little, we’ve put together a list of things to know about each of Arizona’s new conference members. We’ve left out the other Pac-12 Corner Schools joining the Big 12, as familiarity with Salt Lake City, Boulder and most of all Tempe, runs deep.
Baylor is a distinctly 21st-century athletic program, with all five of its NCAA national championships coming since 2004 (one in men’s tennis, one in men’s basketball, three in women’s basketball). While the Bears’ success on the hardwood is well-documented, the Bears also boast a perennially strong women’s volleyball program.
In eight seasons under head coach Ryan McGuyre, Baylor has finished second or better in the Big 12 six times. Baylor’s best finish came in 2019, when it won the Big 12 with a 15-1 conference record, then went on to the national semifinals match where it fell to Wisconsin. Baylor has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons.
With Texas leaving the Big 12 next year, Baylor undeniably has the conference’s top women’s volleyball program.
It’s no secret BYU has one of the top athletic programs out west. The Cougars consistently finish ahead of Arizona in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings for best athletic department.
A big driver of BYU’s success is its cross country programs, which have won a combined six national championships, five of them on the women’s side. Provo’s high elevation makes BYU advantageously positioned for cross country, a sport that fellow Big 12 members Iowa State and Oklahoma State also excel at.
BYU’s women’s cross country team has finished in the top 10 at NCAAs every year since 2018 and won the 2021 title, while the men’s program won their first title in 2019.
Softball is the youngest program at UCF, having been around since only 2002. Despite being relatively new to campus, softball has become one of UCF’s top sports, as the Knights have made the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the last 18 years.
UCF had its best season ever in 2022 when it went 46-12 in the regular season, earned the No. 16 national seed and advanced out of regionals for the first time. The previous year, UCF stunned No. 2 Arizona with a 2-0 shutout victory in Orlando, marking the end of a 23-game Wildcats win streak.
With Oklahoma and Texas departing the conference, UCF should help fill their shoes (okay, no one can fill the shoes left by OU) as one of the Big 12’s premier softball programs.
If you had to guess which programs in the Big 12 have the second-most Final Four appearances behind Kansas, you’d probably be surprised to learn one of them is Cincinnati (the other being Houston). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Bearcats were one of college basketball’s top programs. They made the Final Four every year between 1959 and 1964 and won it all in 1961 and 1962.
Hall of Fame point guard Oscar Robertson was a part of two of those Final Four teams but was in the NBA when Cincinnati won back-to-back titles.
Cincinnati basketball displayed success well into the 70’s before declining in the 80’s. The program was restored under Bob Huggins and successor Mick Cronin, but the Bearcats haven’t made the Big Dance since Cronin left for UCLA.
When Lute Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983, Phi Slama Jama was in full swing. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexle, Houston would go on to a third-straight Final Four in Olson’s first year in the desert, falling to Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in one of the most memorable title games of all time.
In Olson’s next 23 years coaching Arizona, Houston never made it past the NCAA Tournament first round and only reached the Big Dance three times. Houston’s decline as a basketball power only makes the program’s resurgence under Kelvin Sampson all the more spectacular. Under Sampson, Houston four straight NCAA Tournament Regional appearances including a 2021 Final Four.
Sampson has turned Houston into a top-10 program over the last decade despite facing resource disadvantages playing in the American Athletic Conference. Now that Houston is in the Big 12, the program should benefit in terms of recruiting and visibility.
Iowa State offers fewer sports than many of its Big 12 peers (no baseball, swimming or tennis, for example) but one sport the Cyclones have that most others don't is wrestling. It’s also the sport the Cyclones have won the most national championships in – eight.
Iowa State was the most dominant wrestling program in the U.S. between 1965 and 1977, winning six championships. The rest of the country gradually caught up to the Cyclones, but under present head coach Kevin Dresser Iowa State is once again competing at a national level.
Iowa State and the rest of the Big 12 wrestling programs should benefit from the addition of ASU, which regularly finishes in the top 20 at NCAAs. Expect to hear a lot more about wrestling in the future.
Like Arizona, Kansas is a basketball-first school trying to get its football program up to respectability. The Jayhawks might have the right coach to get there.
The success of Kansas football under Lance Leipold became one of college football’s top stories in 2022 as the Jayhawks started the year a perfect 5-0. Despite losing six of its next seven games, Kansas managed to make a bowl game for the first time in a dozen years, and the school rewarded Leipold with a monster contract extension that pays an average $5.3 million through 2029. Kansas also announced plans for $300 million in football facility upgrades.
With Texas and Oklahoma leaving the conference after this year, Kansas hopes to be one of several programs jostling for top dog in the revamped Big 12 order.
Kansas’ closest competition on the gridiron is right down I-70 in Manhattan, where Chris Klieman led the Wildcats to an improbable conference championship in 2022. The fourth-year coach took the KSU job in 2019 after winning four titles at North Dakota State in five years. Winning is most certainly in his blood.
Before Klieman, KSU’s football program was largely synonymous with one man: Bill Snyder. The now-retired ball coach led KSU from 1989-2005 and again from 2009-18. KSU was a model of consistency under Snyder, making 19 bowl games appearances between 1993 and 2017.
Kleiman has carried the torch and then some. KSU was voted second in the Big 12 preseason poll behind Texas, bolstered by the return of senior quarterback Will Howard. Whether the Wildcats can repeat as Big 12 champions remains to be seen, but Klieman and KSU aren’t going anywhere.
Oklahoma State has won the sixth-most national championships of all time at 52, with 34 coming in wrestling and 11 in men’s golf. The men’s golf program that has produced the likes of Rickie Fowler, Viktor Hovland, Scott Verplank and recent U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark (Clark finished college at Oregon).
How did a school in Stillwater become a national power in golf? OSU’s dominance in the sport runs back decades, but it helps to play on one of the most popular public courses in the country – Karsten Creek Golf Club. Designed by legendary golf course architect Tom Fazio, the course was named Best New Public Course by Golf Digest Magazine upon opening in 1994. Karsten Creek hosted the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship in 2003, 2011 and 2018.
TCU’s most dominant sport this century is one you probably didn’t know is sanctioned by the NCAA. The Horned Frogs are three-time national champions in rifle (2010, 2012, 2019). Though rifle is a co-ed sport, TCU became the first program to win the title with an all-female roster. TCU has come oh-so-close to adding a fourth title in recent years, finishing runner-up the last three seasons. TCU still has a ways to go to catch up to Big 12 opponent West Virginia, which has 17 rifle titles.
Nevertheless, TCU’s consistency in rifle is worth respect. Under coach Karen Monez, TCU has recorded a top-three national ranking in 14 of the last 17 seasons. As the saying goes, don’t get in between a horned frog and its firearm.
Arizona and Texas Tech used to play each other every year in football as members of the Border Conference. Texas Tech beat up on the UA back in the day, winning 13 straight contests between 1946 and 1958. Arizona won in 1959, only for the schools to take a dozen-year hiatus from playing one another. When they resumed, so did Texas Tech’s dominance. The Red Raiders won seven of eight games between 1971-78 (Arizona wisely stopped scheduling them after that).
Neither program has experienced sustained success on the gridiron over the last couple decades, though Texas Tech had its moments under Mike Leach. The Red Raiders are presently coached by Joey McGuire, a longtime Texas high school coach. In year one under McGuire they went a promising 8-5.
Of all the original Big 12 schools, Texas Tech is the one Arizona has the most in common with, both regionally and historically. Let’s hope the series becomes less lopsided over time.
West Virginia is consistently one of the Big 12’s top women’s soccer programs, having won the conference championship five times. Under longtime coach Nikk Izzo-Brown, the Mountaineers have made the NCAA Tournament in 22 of the last 23 years, their only miss coming in 2021. WVU was the national runner-up in 2016 when it lost to USC in the title game.
Izzo-Brown all but built the WVU program when she became the program’s first head coach in 1995. She has a career 383-132-68 record.
Big 12 women’s soccer has gotten more competitive in recent years, with four different teams winning the league in the last five seasons.