The University of Houston should already be in the Big 12.
That’s the stance of the school’s powerful billionaire board of regents chairman, who this week fired the latest shots in the Big 12 expansion discussion. Two weeks before conference’s presidents will meet to further consider adding teams, Tilman Fertitta spoke to CBS Sports this week advocating strenuously for his school.
“I’m kind of disappointed it’s not even an automatic — that they’re even considering other schools,” said Fertitta, chairman of the Landry’s restaurant corporation. “Houston’s come a long way.”
In an expansion discussion that includes plenty of power brokers and egos, Fertitta has to be considered a significant figure. His net worth of more than $2 billion makes him the 235th richest person in the country, according to Forbes.
The Fertitta name carries clout. Tilman’s cousins, Frank and Lorenzo, own Ultimate Fighting Championship out of Las Vegas as well as the Station Casino franchise. Tilman says he owns five casinos.
His alma mater is one of about eight or so schools mentioned as a Big 12 expansion candidate. It is the only one in Texas.
“Do you think … Texas fans are going to get excited about playing … Connecticut or Cincinnati,” Fertitta asked, “or are you going to get more excited about playing Houston?”
Good question. Houston played football in the old Southwest Conference with current Big 12 members Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and TCU from 1976-95. During that time, the Cougars won at least a share of four SWC titles. Andre Ware won the Heisman Trophy in 1989.
Houston didn’t make the cut when those four schools were folded into the Big 12 in 1996. It has spent most of the last two decades playing in Conference USA before recently moving to the American Athletic Conference.
Even now, Houston is far from the first media option in a city crazy about its Texans, Astros and Aggies. But it has shaken its image as a commuter campus.
More recently, Houston has significantly upgraded its facilities with a new football stadium and basketball practice complex. Its football fortunes are at an all-time high since the SWC days.
The Cougars won 13 games last season finishing the season ranked eighth. They defeated Florida State in the Peach Bowl for their seventh win over a Power Five school since 2011. Houston is widely expected to start the season in the preseason top 10 and be a dark horse contender for the College Football Playoff.
The Cougars open the season against playoff participant Oklahoma at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Will those schools be future Big 12 mates by then?
Houston president Renu Khator has met with nine of the 10 Big 12 presidents, according to a source. Fertitta was a driving force behind getting coach Tom Herman a new contract that pays him $3 million per year with the Cougars. That figure is among the highest ever paid to a Group of Five coach.
“If you’re a school out there and you see what Herman did with that he had, step up,” Fertitta said. “The thing about it is you want to be an SEC conference. You want every team to be powerful — where one of your teams is in the final game every year.
“By adding Houston to the Big 12, all it does is make the Big 12 a power conference.”
School officials are proud to point out recent local TV ratings that show Houston as the hottest college football brand in the market. Only the Alabama-Clemson CFP National Championship was rated higher Houston’s Peach Bowl win over Florida State.
Only the SEC Championship Game was rated higher than the AAC title game in December. Only Alabama-Auburn outdid Houston’s key game against Navy in November.
“When it comes to eyeballs, all you have to do is look at what we did at the end of the year,” Fertitta said. “What I don’t like — and I’m concerned about — as a Houstonian is that the SEC is starting to own Houston. … There’s more talk about the SEC than there is the Big 12.
“I just don’t understand the Big 12 not wanting to own Houston, Texas, which is soon to be the third-largest populous in the United States. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’m just kind of disappointed and shocked it’s not an automatic.”
Fertitta was reminded former SWC rival Texas — for one — might not be agreeable to giving Houston a leg up into a power conference.
Texas has been coy about taking a stance on expansion. The issue was more clearly defined two weeks ago when a Texas source told the Austin American-Statesmanif the school gets rid of the Longhorn Network, “it will be to change conferences.”
The LHN is considered one of the biggest hurdles to Big 12 expansion. The network’s operation in its current form makes it difficult for the league to consider adding teams to create more game inventory that would populate a conference network.
“That’s kind of disappointing that Texas with their big budget fears the University of Houston,” Fertitta said. “For other schools in the Big 12 to keep them out because they’re scared of them, men need to be men.”
There’s also the reality that the Big 12 has its office as well as four of its teams in Texas. The conference might be slipping in recruiting, but it isn’t necessarily because it doesn’t have a member in Houston.
The desperation at Houston — and for any Group of Five conference school being considered — is palpable. This may be the last chance to grab the riches and profile of being in a Power Five conference.
If it joined the Big 12, Houston’s media rights cut would go from approximately $1.6 million in the AAC to $23 million in the Big 12.
“I think this goes back to when we were in the Southwest Conference and we won,” Fertitta said. “Our basketball teams won and our football teams won. That’s where it all comes from.
“I’ve never feared competition. It’s disappointing schools in the Big 12 fear competition.”
Fertitta was present in late November when West Virginia president Gordon Gee toured the Houston campus. Gee is part of the Big 12’s three-person composition committee studying expansion.
At that time, Gee was not on official Big 12 business but rather consulting with the school’s vice president for advancement.
“I was the person that basically hosted that meeting,” Fertitta said. “[Gee] was very reserved. I think he was very impressed.”
Fertitta wasn’t aware that another well-heeled booster — FedEx chairman Fred Smith — was reportedly trying to buy Memphis into the Big 12.
“Money talks. … I don’t have a problem with people stepping up and doing whatever it takes,” Fertitta said.
For all the factors going against it, Houston does have the look of TCU when it was invited to the Big 12 in 2011: Texas school in a large market, recent success, football investment.
“If you want to keep us out, keep us out,” Fertitta said. “Don’t keep us out because you’re scared to compete.
“TCU did a great job and stepped up their athletic programs, showed consistency, spent money. I congratulate them. I think they deserved to get in.”
Asked what he would tell Big 12 presidents later this month at that key presidents meeting, Fertitta said, “Look at us from a scholastic standpoint, students living on campus. Looking at the buildings we’ve built and the tradition of Houston. …
“Help make the Big 12 [as great as the] SEC. Go ahead and take Houston.”