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End of the Big 12 era at hand

DENVER -- Before it grew as a result of college football's first big expansion, the Big 12 was the Big 8.

Very soon, it seems clear, the conference that gave us Billy Sims and Barry Switzer, Johnny Rodgers and Tom Osborne, Vince Young and Mack Brown, the Game of the Century and Fifth Down will be history — or at least a disintegrated shell of what it once was.

It could go the way of the Southwest Conference, which imploded in 1996, placing four Texas teams into the newly formed Big 12 and tipping the first major domino in what has become college football's unending search for conference title games, some semblance of reason in the crowning of a national champion and, of course, big money.

For most sports fans who grew up between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, the demolition of a conference that began as the Big 7 more than 100 years ago will mark a sad day. The idea of Nebraska in the Big Ten or Texas in the Pac-10 seems about as natural as Switzer and Osborne walking arm and arm through a stadium tunnel.

But reports say the Huskers could be bailing as soon as the end of the week.

And with that possibility swirling, Colorado couldn't take any chances. One of the weakest programs in the conference, facility and otherwise, Colorado saw the way the winds were blowing, saw other programs vying to take its place, and accepted a spot in the Pac-10 on Thursday — the first official defection in what will either be the ultimate dismantling or reconfiguring of a once-great collection of teams.

"An historic moment for the conference," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott called it. "The University of Colorado is a great fit for the conference both academically and athletically and we are incredibly excited to welcome Colorado to the Pac-10."

A great fit?

Well, it'll be a while before anyone determines whether Colorado-Arizona State is better than the Nebraska-CU game that has become a (sadly diminished) fixture on the Thanksgiving-week calendar. Or if anyone will clamor to see Oregon State play Texas A&M in anything. The Aggies, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are among the others reportedly being sought by the Pac-10.

Suffice it to say that the West Coast-based conference must view any addition as a great fit because it ensures survival in an era in which only the biggest will make it, even if they make very little geographical or historical sense.

A 12- or 16-team conference sets up the possibility of a football title game — an event that can generate multiple millions if it's done right (see the SEC) but can also turn into a disappointing bust if it's not (see the ACC).

It guarantees more "access" to the BCS oligopoly, more spots in the growing NCAA basketball tournament, more big markets and more TV exposure, both through the traditional networks and the newly mushrooming business of in-house conference networks on premium cable tiers.

It pays very little attention to one of the things that makes college sports great, or at least used to: history and tradition.

Officially, the Big 8 and Big 12 are separate entities, but all the expansion really did was add the Texas teams to a core of eight that had stood the test of time.

Soon, it seems, all those Big 12 stories will be lumped together and told in much the same manner as the Southwest Conference tales of yesteryear — as histories, not evolving dramas.

Kansas, the Big 12's only consistent mega-power in basketball, shouldn't have much trouble finding a home if the conference disintegrates. Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State might not be able to say the same.

The whole episode recalls the last great reshuffling in college sports, which played out seven years ago when the ACC was looking to scavenge a handful of Big East schools so it could turn into the mega-conference that the Big Ten and Pac-10 want to be now.

"The most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime," then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese ominously warned of that seismic shift.

It turned out to be less than that. The Big East picked off some teams from Conference USA, which did the same to the Western Athletic and Mid-American Conferences. And so on.

The moves brought more millions to the biggest schools despite their unpopular and amazingly dug-in resistance to creating a college football playoff. (For instance, this year, the SEC distributed $17.3 million to each team, a 58 percent increase over 2009.)

But those moves and the current ones bring no more clarity to college football's way of declaring a champion, no more justice to the little guys who get left out, no answers for those K-State and Iowa State fans who bought season tickets expecting to see Texas, but now might have to settle for TCU.

Oddly enough, through all these changes and reshufflings, the Rose Bowl has tried harder than anyone to hang onto one of the last bastions of tradition — a meeting between the Pac-10 and the Big Ten in a game played on New Year's Day.

More often than not, the Rose Bowl got its matchup, and it still might: Nebraska vs. Colorado. And when that — or something like it — does happen, the suits who pay lip service to tradition while pushing the expansion and mega-everythingization of college sports, will stand there and smile, knowing the next big check is in the mail.