ST. LOUIS -- Amid bubbling uncertainty about its future conference affiliation, heightened by reports that the University of Nebraska is about to leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten, the University of Missouri Board of Curators will convene for two days of regularly scheduled meetings Thursday in Columbia, Mo.
Although the topic is not on the public agenda, the board is expected to discuss the rapidly changing college athletic scene in closed session today — including the matter of where Missouri will end up.
The school, considered a prospective expansion target of the Big Ten, faces a June 17 deadline to pledge its loyalty to the Big 12, which is trying to solidify its future with the potential loss of Nebraska and a pending offer from the Pac-10 Conference to six of its members, including Texas and Oklahoma.
Whether Mizzou's prolonged silence on the prospect of joining the Big Ten — and thereby substantially enhancing its athletic revenue and academic standing — is a reflection of discretion or of having nothing in hand to discuss remains a matter of conjecture to all but a select few. The chancellor's office and athletic department declined to comment again Wednesday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
But the meetings come as months of expansion speculation, spurred by the Big Ten's announcement in December that it was exploring doing so, seem to be yielding to actual developments.
Just three weeks after Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said a decision on expansion was months away, Nebraska apparently intends to accept an offer to join the Big Ten in what may prove the catalyst to the dismantling of the Big 12. The Nebraska Board of Regents has added discussion of "conference alignment and consider a resolution on the subject" to the agenda of Friday's previously scheduled meeting. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Big Ten would extend an invitation of membership to the school, and the Omaha World-Herald said the Cornhuskers would accept.
Nebraska's departure could prompt Texas, Oklahoma and other Big 12 South schools to accept an offer from the Pac-10, which is "locked and loaded" to act, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But one well-connected college administrator questioned why those schools wouldn't stand pat rather than accept the offer, which while potentially lucrative because of a bigger television contract for football could pose significant logistical challenges in the non-revenue/Olympic sports.
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said Wednesday that his school has not met with the Pac-10, has no offer to go and continues "to work diligently to keep our conference strong."
Castiglione, formerly athletic director at Missouri, also questioned the logic of domino theories that college football is headed toward four 16-team super conferences.
"I'm still trying to get my mind around why that's better than what we already have," said Castiglione, who laughed and added, "I've never understood why people don't see that if super teams come together to make a super conference, they don't all stay super every year."
The Big 12 could hold steady with 11 schools and petition to maintain a championship game in football, or it could seek to add one or more schools.
But with Colorado's regents having met Tuesday to discuss legal issues pertaining to a potential move to the Pac-10, and Texas and Texas A&M holding a joint meeting to discuss their future Thursday, the stability of the Big 12 figures to be a question for months to come.
And if the conference ultimately splinters and Mizzou has no Big Ten offer, Missouri would be left in limbo.
As unlikely as that scenario seems, there is no definitive way to see the Big 12's future or handicap MU's Big Ten candidacy.
In many ways, the school has a similar profile to Big Ten institutions, including being a member of the 63-school Association of American Universities. And MU's most high-profile sports, football and men's basketball, apparently would be competitive fits in the conference.
Lending further cause for optimism for MU fans, a source involved with past Big Ten expansion studies said he would "find it hard to believe the Big Ten would take Nebraska by itself."
Some believe the 11-team league would need to increase to 14 schools to add enough value to generate enough additional revenue to justify the extra mouths to feed. Delany told the Post-Dispatch on Sunday that the league could do its expansion in phases. So the reported invitation of Nebraska could just be the first step.
The Big Ten's overall revenue and philosophy of dividing it equally are appealing to Missouri, which received less than $10 million from the Big 12 last year in contrast to the $19.9 million Illinois got from the Big Ten.
The uneven revenue sharing in the Big 12, as well as perceived Big 12 slights in several of MU's football bowl assignments, are at the core of MU's displeasure with the Big 12.
That in turn has created rancor with MU in the Big 12, with several sources expressing anger at Mizzou for letting it be known it was interested in the Big Ten — which some in the Big 12 don't believe is reciprocating.
"Now Missouri potentially has burned bridges in two places," said one conference source, though noting that there's no reason there can't be reconciliation.
Although Delany mentioned the possibility of expanding in "stages," the question becomes if not now, when for Missouri?
One way or another, it's all certain to be a topic for the curators, who would have to approve any conference change.