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Respect for the dreamers pitching Big 12 expansion

John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

This is a land of opportunity, a nation that promotes the virtues of big dreams and bigger success. University athletic departments presenting expansion plans to the Big 12 Conference represent the very ideals of the American Dream.

Or, at the very least, they’re Squints stealing a kiss from Wendy Peffercorn at the community pool.

The Big 12 will not grant Power Five membership to Arkansas State, East Carolina, New Mexico or Northern Illinois. The best-case scenario: Of the 18 schools Big 12 brass plans to interview — yes, 18 — maybe four get that golden ticket into the top tier of college football.

Making that effort isn’t worthy of snark. These schools should be lauded.

Decision-makers in college sports, particularly football, have made it clear that the next decade-plus will be shaped by the power conferences. That might include the Big 12; it might not. The league’s solvency has felt tenuous since realignment’s wheels started turning in 2010.

If adding a few new partners saves the Big 12, however, the newcomers have a pretty important place at the table.

Even the least likely candidates have something to offer, too. That includes New Mexico.

Yes, that’s New Mexico — not New Mexico State, as suggested on a graphic tweeted Friday afternoon by Sports Illustrated. However, New Mexico State making its case for the Big 12 would have made sense. The Aggies fit geographically more than most candidates. They need a conference for their football program after splitting with the Sun Belt. The basketball program has a far richer NCAA Tournament history than, say, TCU.

Speaking of basketball, New Mexico’s famed arena, The Pit, is a regular home to the NCAA Tournament and the host of the 1983 Final Four. Albuquerque fully embraces college basketball, the second of the revenue-generating sports, with an intensity rivaling Big 12 cities such as Ames and Lawrence.

When the Lobos are competitive — and often when they’re not — fans pack The Pit and make it one of the most daunting venues in the West. Don’t believe for a moment that those same fans wouldn’t support Lobo football with a similar ferocity in the Big 12, given the resources that come with membership.

If you’re the Big 12, though, why bank on one of the lowliest football programs in FBS (formerly Division I-A) history? West Virginia’s had a difficult enough time integrating, and it ended its Big East tenure by scoring 70 points in the Orange Bowl.

To that end, Northern Illinois isn’t attractive simply because it appeared in the Orange Bowl the year after WVU did. It sure doesn’t hurt, though, especially given the Huskies’ track record over the last 13 years.

Northern Illinois ranks among Alabama, Oregon and fellow Big 12 pitch-program Boise State as one of the most successful programs of the last decade-plus. Northern Illinois also has a much more recent win over Alabama than most of the current Big 12 membership (and some of the SEC).

If that doesn’t rankle the SEC enough for the Big 12’s liking, consider Arkansas State. ASU employed three premier names in the coaching ranks — Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin — and has continued its success through the ongoing tenure of Blake Anderson.

The Sun Belt program has grown quite steadily over the last half-decade, though the RedWolves cannot seem to thaw an ancient freeze put on by their in-state counterparts from Fayetteville.

Living well is the best revenge, and playing the Razorbacks’ former Southwest Conference foes such as Texas would certainly be living well for Arkansas State.

And East Carolina… well, East Carolina does not make a ton of sense geographically, other than as a travel partner for West Virginia. Yet, with some recent success, a 50,000-seat stadium, and the best-looking helmets in college football, the Pirates have something to offer.

These athletic departments aren’t just looking out for their financial futures. They represent every time one of us wanted to talk to that attractive woman or man at the bar before last call, but lost the nerve. They represent that promotion we deserved but did not push our bosses for.

They are the American Dream.

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