WASHINGTON — Please don't leave us.
That's what Nebraska's U.S. senators are hearing from their Kansas colleagues at the Capitol. The Kansans fear that a Big Red departure from the Big 12 could spell the league's doom and leave their beloved Kansas Jayhawks and Kansas State Wildcats shivering in the cold without a major conference to call home.
If that happens, at least two lawmakers — one from Kansas, the other from Iowa — suggested that congressional action is possible.
On Tuesday, Sen. Pat Roberts, Wildcat Republican, buttonholed Sen. Ben Nelson, Husker Democrat, addressing him in a hallway just off the Senate floor.
“Don't be the domino that blows college football up into four major conferences and gets rid of the NCAA,” a World-Herald reporter heard the Kansas senator tell Nelson. “It isn't going to do anybody any good when those dominoes start falling.”
Roberts added, in apparent reference to Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne: “He doesn't want on his tombstone ‘He ruined the Big 12.'”
Nelson, for his part, deferred: “I just have a lot of confidence in Coach Osborne to make the right decision, ultimately.”
Roberts then asked about the timing of Nebraska's decision.
“He didn't give me a time frame,” Nelson said.
“Well, even Turner Gill is saying ‘Hey, don't do this,” Roberts said. Gill, a former Nebraska quarterback, now coaches the football team at Kansas, Nebraska's oldest football rival. The two teams have met 116 times, marking the country's third-longest series — and longest continuous one in college football's top division. That streak could end if Nebraska leaves for the Big Ten.
Roberts later told The World-Herald that if the Big 12 falls apart, Congress could act.
“There's going to be a lot of litigation, and then Congress will probably try to stick its nose into it,” Roberts said. “I would prefer that that not be the case, but there have always been antitrust concerns.”
Roberts suggested a Big 12 break-up could result in only four major conferences and even the demise of the NCAA.
“I think the big concern here that Congress could take a look at is how the network television contracts are driving different schools to consider different conferences to attract the money — and those that will be in those big conferences, or super conferences, will get the money and others won't,” Roberts said.
Roberts planned to call Osborne himself Tuesday afternoon. Osborne, who served six years in the House of Representatives before becoming NU's athletic director, did not respond to a World-Herald request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Roberts' home-state colleague, too, has lobbied for Nebraska to stay put. Sen. Sam Brownback is a Republican with Jayhawk and Wildcat degrees.
The two wrote a joint press release Tuesday, saying, "Students, fans, and alumni on both sides of the Kansas-Nebraska state line take great pride in competing against Big 12 Conference members within a three and a half hour drive from the home field, close enough for family, friends and fellow students to be able to attend the game."
Rep. Adrian Smith, Husker Republican, said, "Nebraska may have never been as appreciated by Kansas as we are now."
Sen. Mike Johanns, a Husker Republican — though he graduated from St. Mary's University and Creighton — said he'll root for Nebraska regardless of the conference in which it competes.
"This is a decision that should be weighed carefully by individual universities and not subject to meddling by the federal government," Johanns said. "I reached an agreement with Tom Osborne a while back — I won't tell him how to run the football program if he doesn't tell me how to be senator."
A Big 12 break-up could be bad news for the Iowa State Cyclones, too.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, put in a pitch for the Huskers staying put when he saw Smith at Tuesday night's White House congressional picnic. "He just said ‘I urge you to stay,'" Smith said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a (Northern Iowa) Panther and (Iowa) Hawkeye Republican, said the situation bears watching by Congress.
“It seems premature for the federal government to intervene at this point, but there is precedent to get involved in sports matters,” Grassley said.
Roberts isn't just twisting Nebraska arms on the issue. He has urged Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to give Longhorns football coach Mack Brown a call.
And Roberts plans to ring up Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, who previously held the same position at K-State.
His message: “Look before you leap.”
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