Jeff Jacobs: Seen From Both Sides, Lew Perkins Can't Predict What Big 12 Will Do

Lew Perkins pulls out a business card. It's for USA Boxing. He's on the Board of Directors.

"Talk about daily drama," Perkins said Saturday, breaking into a laugh after we spent 15 minutes at Rentschler Field discussing the daily drama of Big 12 expansion.

Big Lew didn't know much about the wild world of boxing when he accepted the invitation from the sport's amateur governing body earlier this year. That didn't matter. He knows marketing. He knows administration. Still doing sports consulting work at 71, Perkins was once a heavyweight in the heavyweight world of big-time college athletics.

At his best, his supporters will tell you, he knows how to move mountains. At his worst, his critics will tell you, he knows how to take dark shortcuts.

We hadn't had a meaningful conversation since he abruptly slipped out of Storrs for Lawrence in 2003. Embattled, he would retire from the University of Kansas of the Big 12 in 2010.

Yet this day wasn't about leaving UConn or leaving Kansas. This day was about returning to Rentschler Field upon the invitation of UConn and athletic director Dave Benedict and taking part in the pregame coin flip. This day would be to seek Perkins' observations about Big 12 expansion and the course of UConn athletic history.

Perkins walks out from one of the luxury suites at halftime of UConn's 13-10 victory over Virginia, extends a big hand and says, "Where you want to sit?"

"Anywhere you want, Lew. You built this place."

"Nah," Perkins said, "nah, that's not true."

It's not false either. For years, he pushed — pushed hard — for UConn to move from I-AA to I-A football, to move up to the big-time and take advantage of the Big East's offer to compete in a BCS conference. He pushed governors. He pushed legislators. Rentschler Field, which opened a few months after he left UConn, in many ways, is his legacy.

Big Lew got us into this, so it seems appropriate to ask him where he thinks UConn and the Big 12 are headed.

"I haven't been involved in this, so this is all me talking — my opinion," Perkins said. "Academically, Connecticut is as good as anybody the Big 12 is looking at. I know how the presidents in that league think. That's important. UConn has been around for a long time. They run it right. They do it right. They're committed.

"The issue is travel. I listen to some guys in the Big 12 now, going to West Virginia, that's a tough trip. They're going to have to figure that out. Personally, and I just listen, I don't know if they're going to expand. If you're at Kansas, Kansas State or Iowa State [which don't get nearly the third-tier media money as Texas or Oklahoma], why do you want more people in the league? You're going to have to share. One thing they have to do, whoever they bring in, they have to bring in revenue. Connecticut is going to have to show how they can do it. They can do it in basketball. Honestly, I think they can do it in football."

If you are in the business of predicting what the Big 12 will do, you're already out of business. The Big 12 is expanding. It's not expanding. The Big 12 is adding four schools. It's adding two. It's adding none. The Big 12 reached out to about 20 schools, interviewed only about half of them, and the serious candidates are half of that. It has been turned into an uncomfortable game show.

The Big 12 presidents meet on Oct. 17, and one would expect something concrete by then, but, hey, you never know. It's the Big 12. It's divided. It's dysfunctional. It's daffy.

"The Big 12 respects UConn basketball, there's no question about it," Perkins said. "I also know the Big 12 basketball coaches don't want to expand. It has nothing to do with Connecticut. They were told six-seven years ago to increase their schedule. They'll play Kentucky or Duke or somebody like that already. They'd have to add four more games. They don't want to do that. I know that's an issue. UConn's men's and women's teams would be a major plus for the Big 12. But that's not driving it. It goes back to what I said 30 years ago. Football. Football. Football."

Perkins said he spent a lot of time with Benedict last week. The new UConn AD, he said, also called him three or four times to discuss things.

"I've got to tell you they hit a grand slam home run hiring Dave," Perkins said. "I think he's wonderful. I really do. He has worked with some great people. He gets being an athletic director."

The prevailing wisdom is if the Big 12 expands, Houston and Cincinnati have the best shot. UConn seems to be hanging in there. After protests from the LGBT community, BYU's chances as a football-only entry could be waning. After Oklahoma president David Boren raised the specter the other day, no expansion sounds almost equally possible. It's speculation. All speculation.

"Connecticut has just as good a chance as anybody," said Perkins, sounding more optimistic than another former UConn AD, Todd Turner, did last week. "One thing they have is basketball. They're ahead of everybody else on that front. But football, like I said, is the big issue. The big thing here I think is they've got to start drawing. You've got to win.

"You look at the other schools. Houston is interesting. The Texas schools want them, but they don't want them. They kept them out a long time. They've also got things going down there. They're going to have trouble keeping them out. BYU? Who knows? To me, they're like Notre Dame. Stay away from them. Memphis. They're out already. Cincinnati? Who can say? There's no consensus. So why not Connecticut?"

Asked about the football-only concept for BYU or even — as some speculated — UConn, Perkins said, "When we were in that league, we were so far against that concept. That's five years ago. So I don't know what they're saying. I just can't see it happening."

Nobody can foresee if Texas and Oklahoma will even want to be part of the Big 12 when the television contracts expire in 2024-2025. Right now ESPN and Fox don't want Big 12 expansion. They don't like revenue potential of the new inventory. After Houston drew big TV numbers in beating Oklahoma — something AAC commissioner Mike Aresco pointed to Saturday at the Rent — it seems like the Cougars' candidacy has gained big-time momentum. But, then again, schools like TCU, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State reportedly have balked at Houston.

"You put the Texas schools together, they control a lot of things," Perkins said. "They liked our basketball at Kansas, so they kept us involved. Texas schools hold a lot — a lot. Oklahoma is always trying to do something; they hold a lot, too.

"Those Texas schools, boy, the whole football thing culturally is so different. When I went from here to [Kansas], it even caught me off guard. The university has to be totally committed to it. You can't just say we're going for it and let the athletic department on its own. It can't happen. You've got to have everybody from the governor to legislators, everybody has to be committed."

There may come a day, if UConn can't crack a Power Five conference, that people become convinced football is the reason for hemorrhaging money. Those fears already have led some to pine for the return to the Big East in basketball and other sports and to let football fend for itself in the MAC or USA or as an independent or even be dropped.

"Way back when we talked about this stuff, they didn't have the Power Five conference," Perkins said. "But it's turned out the way I predicted 30 years ago. You look at all the schools in the country, they're trying to move up. If you're not playing [big-time] football, you have no chance. I was working with a league, at a lower level, all last year and we did everything we could to help. We improved it. But it's not the same.

"I'm not saying the non-football guys can't win at basketball. That's a whole different animal. But how much at the end of the day did Villanova make off winning the national championship? After all their expenses and everything, not a lot. I said a long time ago the Catholic schools [in the Big East] were going to go their own way. [UConn] is not a Catholic school. Right now, the Catholic schools are very happy with what they have. They're not going to start letting schools like Connecticut influence them. If UConn wasn't playing at the highest level of college football, where would it be? The Atlantic 10."

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