New commish: Big 12 open for business amid realignment talk

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ARLINGTON, Texas — New Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark declared the league “open for business,” saying that while nothing is imminent all options will be considered as he takes over with conference realignment again shaking college sports.

Yormark made his introductory remarks Wednesday at the start of the conference’s football media days at AT&T Stadium. He was named Bob Bowlsby‘s successor two weeks ago. The next day it was announced Southern California and UCLA would be leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten in 2024, setting off all kinds of speculation about what moves might follow.

“We are exploring all options and we are open for business,” Yormark said, when immediately asked if the Big 12 was actively engaged in talks with any Pac-12 schools.

“Optionality is good, and we’re vetting through all of them,” he said, without being specific about schools. “I think it’s fair to say I’ve received a lot of phone calls, a lot of interest. People understand the direction of the Big 12, and we’re exploring those levels of interest.”

With the Pac-12 down to 10 teams, any further significant loss of members could deal a fatal blow to a conference that was officially founded in 1959.

The former Roc Nation executive and CEO of the Brooklyn Nets officially begins work Aug. 1, but he has already been plenty busy with Big 12 business.

“What excites me most about joining the Big 12 is the transformative moment in front of all of us today,” he said. “We have an opportunity to grow and then build the Big 12 brand and business. … Moments like these do not happen often, and we must seize them and make the most of them.”

Along with realignment, Yormark emphasized adding revenue streams and the opportunity to nationalize the Big 12 brand, be more aspirational and appeal to youth culture “to get younger and hipper.”

He also mentioned “seeing the true professionalization of college sports” at a time when name, image and likeness compensation for athletes is going into its second year.

The Big Ten’s move West was another seismic shift in conference realignment, much like when it was revealed a week after Big 12 media days last summer that Texas and Oklahoma were moving to the Southeastern Conference no later than the 2025 season.

“I’m certain that Brett is just deeply appreciative of the way he was welcomed into the Big 12 Conference with, once again, conference realignment at the top of the list of things to deal with,” said Baylor president Linda Livingstone, part of the Big 12 board’s three-person executive committee that headed the search.

Livingstone spoke to Yormark by phone a couple of days after he was named, which was after the news about UCLA and USC.

“Well, welcome to college athletics, and you thought working for Jay-Z was really exciting,” she told him.

Yormark described himself as actively engaged in realignment, with input from throughout the conference.

The Big 12 is going into its 12th and final season as a 10-school league. BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF all join next summer after being approved for membership last September.

The pending departures of two of the Pac-12’s biggest brands came as a huge surprise, just like a year ago with the Big 12’s only national champions in football deciding to bail on the conference.

Yormark said the possible addition of more teams to the Big 12 wouldn’t necessarily have an impact on any decision involving the Longhorns or Sooners leaving before the expiration of the league’s media rights deal that has three more football seasons.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a moment in time where we’re going to sit down, discuss the future,” Yormark said about Texas and Oklahoma. “But any situation like this, I always look for a win-win scenario. That being said, it’s important that whatever happens is in the best interest of this conference.”

Yormark plans in August and September to visit the current Big 12 schools and the four coming on board next summer.

Livingstone said Yormark rose to the top of a strong pool of candidates during the search process.

“We could tell that with his experience in professional sports and sponsorships, and in media, in entertainment, given where college athletics is going, and all the changes taking place, with our media rights negotiation coming up, that Brett, in combination with the really strong athletic directors we have across the conference, would be a great combination to position us really well for the future,” she said.

This is will be Yormark’s first job in college athletics, though he said it is a career path he often thought about taking.

The 55-year-old was an executive on the commercial side of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation after previously working with the Nets and running Barclay Center, their home arena, for more than a decade. He was NASCAR’s vice president for corporate sponsorships before that.

“I always had a vision to be in college sports. Candidly, I thought it might have been an AD, I wasn’t sure,” Yormark said. “But I was enamored with the space. It was fueled during my time at Barclays Center. When this opportunity presented itself, I said, let’s give it a great shot, and thankfully it all worked out.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.