The Big 12 staff gathered at Ed Stewart's house Saturday night for the annual office Christmas party. The wife of the one-time Big Eight defensive player of the year had prepared an Italian-themed dinner.
It was time to lighten the mood and lighten the load. The last year and a half had not been kind to the Big 12. Conference realignment had already cost the league its commissioner and four teams, not to mention the peace of mind of that staff.
But when Baylor's Robert Griffin III flashed across the screen it started to become clear he won the Heisman not despite that divisive realignment, but because of it.
"I think you've hit on something there," said Stewart, the league's associate commissioner for football and student services.
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The league didn't recover so much as caught a break of seismic and karmic proportions last week. There was no master plan, although there was great planning. Football on Dec. 3 was skillfully orchestrated by the league but without a Heisman particularly in mind.
It just ... happened to a league and a school that desperately needed something good to happen.
Had the conference not come close to collapsing (twice) in the last 17 months, there would have still been a conference championship game in place on Dec. 3. That's the day that opened up for Griffin to make his final Heisman statement against Texas.
For the first 15 years of the league's existence, the first Saturday of December was reserved for that lucrative title game. But when Nebraska and Colorado bolted, the decision was made to go to a one-division, round-robin format. If the championship game was still around, Griffin mostly likely wouldn't have been playing in it. This year's third-place finish was considered a major accomplishment for a program that had won 15 conference games in those first 15 years.
If the Baylor-Texas game was not moved from Oct. 22 to Dec. 3, the public's last image of Griffin would have been a hit that knocked him out at halftime of the Texas Tech game on Nov. 26. That's no way to win a Heisman. In fact, it would have been all but impossible.
"He [Griffin] set the stage," said Tim Allen, the Big 12's senior associate commissioner in charge of scheduling. "You hope that the pieces fall into place. It ended up being a great puzzle for him."
Because Baylor's quarterback did make that final emphatic statement in beating Texas 10 days ago, Griffin got the boost he needed to win the Heisman. As part of the athletic directors' agenda with the help and approval of ABC/ESPN, the game had long since been moved to the first week of December. It was basically a way to get Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on the same Saturday to conclude the season. (Iowa State-Kansas State on Fox regional was moved as well.)
For a tormented league, it will go down as one of the most significant days in Big 12 history. Baylor beat a traditional power to complete its best season in 25 years. Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma in what became a de facto league championship game.
Both Stanford and Alabama had chances to play on that last weekend. But Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson couldn't get their teams there. Instead, the quarterback from the third-place team in the Big 12, going head-to-head on TV against the SEC owned the moment.
"It seemed like the script was written for us to go out and win this award," Griffin said. "To have those guys not in a game, to have us playing a big-time opponent the last week, it was huge. It seemed like God wrote it that way and we had to go out and fulfill it."
Following the conclusion of Baylor's 48-24 win over the 'Horns, Heisman ballots were due in less than 48 hours. Projections, to that point, had Luck and Richardson (in either order) at the top as the favorites.
Baylor-Texas was the second-lowest rated major-college game of the weekend. Its 2.3 rating going against that SEC championship game was 1.2 ratings points lower than the season average on ABC. Didn't matter.
All the sudden, Griffin owned the airwaves as well as the moment. Analysts needed a Heisman hook with Richardson and Luck having completed their seasons a week earlier. The kid with his degree in hand, master's in his future and law school as a possibility was the perfect candidate in an otherwise stained college football season.
"Your thesis is right," said Chris Bevilacqua, a noted sports television consultant. "It's not so much the game itself, it's the news cycles, the highlights, Facebook and Twitter. He basically had the stage to himself the whole week."
Was that enough to overtake two more highly-publicized players from higher-ranked schools, basically at the last minute? Chris Huston who runs the respected Heismanpundit.com had projected Luck as the winner going into the weekend.
"[TV] ratings were one thing but it's also who is watching," Huston said. "I'm sure a lot of Heisman people were watching ... How many Heisman voters are Neilsen [ratings] watchers?"
"It's now the combination of television and social media," Bevilacqua added. "You can change the tide so quickly now. Those two, in a key moment like that, can have a multiplier effect."
The Heisman winner himself had the proof immediately on Saturday night, telling reporters he had 43 emails and 146 text messages blowing up his phone.
This has all been somewhat of a head rush for Griffin, Baylor and the Big 12. Three months ago, Baylor president Kenneth Starr was threatening lawsuits to slow Texas A&M's migration to the SEC. Oklahoma and Texas had one toe in the Pacific, ready to transfer to the Pac-12. In a 45-day period Missouri went from pledging its loyalty to the Big 12 to joining the SEC.
Fast forward to Saturday. The Heisman telecast was the second-highest rated since ESPN got the rights in 1994. On Monday alone, Griffin appeared on CNN, Dan Patrick, Scott Van Pelt and Colin Cowherd. And, yes, that was RG3 doing his own Top 10 List on Letterman.
Now jump back in time to June 2010. Nebraska and Colorado had left. ESPN and Fox had pledged to honor their contracts with the Big 12 even though two teams had left and the conference championship game had been scrapped.
The conference ADs and TV executives had the same idea: While the Big 12 title game was going away the conference wasn't going to cede that last Saturday of the season. That fall of 2010, the last with 12 teams, discussions began on occupying that last Saturday of 2011 with games.
"We didn't want to lose the Saturday when everybody else was playing a championship," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said. "It was a conversation the ADs had about, 'Let's not give up that Saturday.'"
That's why you saw more than half of the league -- Iowa State-Kansas State, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Texas-Baylor -- on TV the last day of this season. The philosophy came down to a core issue of why the Big 12 exists today. Any league with Texas and Oklahoma in it was worth saving.
Part of the Heisman, then, goes to Dave Brown. Yes, that Dave Brown whose high school aspirations for the Longhorn Network broadcast in June kicked off more Big 12 instability.
As ESPN's former college football vice president for programming and acquisitions, Brown's background is matchmaker. He moves games around, marries the participants in great non-conference games. Think LSU-Oregon in September. His energies are now mostly devoted to being the Longhorn Network's vice president for programming.
Part of the Heisman belongs to D.W. Rutledge. He's the executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association who gave his blessing for the Baylor opener against TCU to be played on a schoolboy Friday.
Given the stage to itself, Baylor defeated TCU 50-48 for what was then called the biggest win in school history.
"Not knowing that Robert would be in the Heisman race, the first game was the coming out party," said Baylor AD Ian McCaw, "and the last game was putting closure on winning the Heisman."
Part of the Heisman belongs to Allen. Because of realignment issues, this year's schedule wasn't finished until late February or early March. It was his job to build in a nine-game schedule for the first time. He helped shepherd teams into those schedule changes that ended up in Heisman bronze.
"He's a smart kid," Allen said of Griffin, "It's his athleticism and his savvy. That had as much to do with it as the scheduling. He is far smarter than the guys doing the scheduling."
Part of the Heisman even goes to Dodds. It was easy for one of the most powerful men in college athletics to move the Baylor game to the last day of the season. It couldn't have been easy to watch his Longhorns lose it.
"I think it turned out to help Griffin," he said before adding. "We beat them more than they beat us. If you play the game, you're going to get beat sometimes."
Part of the Heisman goes to Stewart. The man played the game at the highest level with Nebraska. He says Griffin reminds him of Charlie Ward and Kordell Stewart, similar dual-threat quarterbacks from his day. As the staff football liaison, he interacts with coaches and players.
Stewart didn't have a vote but he saw a Heisman winner develop and school become football relevant.
"That's pretty cool isn't it?” Stewart said. "That speaks to the strength of our league."
The seafood lasagna was pretty good too.