Old joke: What's the N on the side of a Nebraska football helmet stand for? "Knowledge."
New joke: Same N today? "Not."
As in "not Notre Dame." But "not the worst consolation prize for the Big Ten."
And, most importantly, "not interested in staying in the Big 12."
The unstable world of big-time college athletics in America is about to explode. Or maybe not. But if it does, as appears likely, it could well take the Big 12 Conference with it, which would be a shame.
The great irony is that the University of Nebraska, which has chafed for years under what it may perceive as a Big 12 bias toward the glitzier University of Texas, holds the key to keeping the conference alive.
The Big 12, a shotgun marriage in 1993 between the old Big Eight and remnants of the dearly departed Southwest Conference, struggles to hold on amid shifting tectonic plates.
Some people predict that those plates could grind toward four mega-super-jumbo conferences: bigger Big Ten, swollen Southeastern, pumped-up Pacific 10 (to 16) and some ACC/Big East amalgam. This syndicate would control so much power that it could ditch the NCAA and call its own shots.
And on that road, the Big 12 becomes a prime target for cannibalization.
This is where Nebraska wields tremendous influence. The Big Ten desperately wants to add forever-independent Notre Dame and its millions of "subway alumni." Notre Dame listened but wanted the Big Ten to limit expansion to, well, Notre Dame. (That actually would have given the Big Ten a 12th school, since Penn State joined in 1990 but the conference kept its maiden name.)
Meanwhile, Nebraska waited around as the Big Ten's next-best choice and may have its coveted invitation. Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado were the three Big 12 schools that wouldn't swear allegiance, till death do they part.
Sensing an opportunity, the Pac-10 prepared to offer membership to half of the Big 12: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado or Baylor.
We'd hate to see the Big 12 ripped apart this way, just when it was growing on us. Obviously, it would be better for Texas to have UT and its closest rivals in the same league. If UT and OU wound up in some Pac-16 East, it could ensure their annual October trip to Dallas.
And we would ask for some consideration on those late West Coast starts.
All in all, it might have been superior to leave things as they were, for Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado to stay in the conference they helped birth 16 years ago and for Texas to recognize that being the biggest fish in a mid-America pond beats a bunch of plane trips to the coast.
Tradition is something all the TV money in the world can't buy, but, sadly, tradition doesn't pay the bills.