BY SCHUYLER DIXON
IRVING, Texas — There are many things Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden has experienced that most college football players haven't. Like talking to late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
The former pro baseball player was New York's first pick in the 2002 draft, a pitcher taken in the second round. He said Steinbrenner called after Weeden signed out of high school for a $565,000 bonus.
Weeden remembered playing rookie ball in Tampa, Steinbrenner's hometown, and being around "The Boss" when the big league club was in the midst of a long losing streak.
"He was not a happy camper," said Weeden, who is taking over for Zac Robinson and will turn 27 in October. "Rookie ball, it's different. You don't have any fans. You're just sitting around watching games. Everybody sees 'The Boss' and everybody kinda scoots this way, 'I don't want him sitting by me.' He was an intimidating guy."
Weeden was later traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization before abandoning baseball in 2007 and joining the Cowboys.
"He signed my paycheck for two years, so I can't complain," said Weeden, who has another year of eligibility remaining.
THOMAS RUNNING FOR GLORY: Quick, name last year's Big 12 rushing leader.
It might be easier in four months than it is right now.
Kansas State's Daniel Thomas was the only player in the conference to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in 2009. In a league dominated recently by big-name quarterbacks, Thomas thinks he can help lead the way back to the days of Ricky Williams, Adrian Peterson and Darren Sproles.
"It's pass-happy now," said Thomas, who led four 1,000-yard rushers in the Big 12 with 1,265 last season. "But I feel like this year, there are four or five guys that are probably the best running backs around. So I feel like this will be the year of the running backs again."
The reserved Thomas was peppered with phrases such as "face of the team" and "top of the draft board" Tuesday during Big 12 media days. He didn't flinch and smiled throughout, but kept his answers short.
"Yeah, I'm ready. I'm ready to play, to be honest," Thomas said. "Coach (Bill) Snyder told me to expect that coming in from last year."
Two years ago, Thomas was sidelined by academic problems after signing with Kansas State out of junior college. He was a quarterback in high school and junior college before Snyder moved him to running back when he came out of retirement last year.
"Daniel will be Daniel. He's a humble young guy. He's going to be the best player that he can be," Snyder said. "What the numbers are, I don't know. He doesn't care about what those are."
Nine of the 10 leading rushers in the Big 12 are expected back, including two other 1,000-yard rushers in Alexander Robinson of Iowa State and Roy Helu Jr. of Nebraska. As a result, the odds are better that the league's offensive player of the year could be a running back — instead of a quarterback — for the first time since Colorado's Chris Brown in 2002.
MIZZOU'S MOMENTUM: Missouri's streak of five consecutive winning seasons is the school's longest in nearly 30 years, and coach Gary Pinkel has a chance for the most sustained success since the Dan Devine era in the 1960s.
The Tigers slipped to 8-5 last year after winning at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. But Pinkel didn't see that as a huge step back. He figured the young 2009 team was capable of winning nine games, which would have happened if Missouri hadn't lost to Navy 35-13 in the Texas Bowl.
"It's lessons learned," Pinkel said. "We have more expectations for our football team this year. What you want to do is win at a high level on a consistent basis, and that's what our goal is."
A year ago, Pinkel was trying to ease the pressure on quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was replacing Columbia cult hero Chase Daniel. Gabbert held his own as a sophomore, throwing for more yards than Colt McCoy (3,593) with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Now, Gabbert's a year older and senior running back Derrick Washington (865 yards, 10 touchdowns) brings experience as well.
"We know we can win at a high level," Gabbert said. "Last year, we definitely could have won more games than we did."
Missouri's high point under Pinkel (12-2 in 2007) still fell short of a conference title, something Devine did twice during a stretch of 12 consecutive winning seasons. But Pinkel is still around, getting ready for his 10th season.
"I think we've made a lot of progress," Pinkel said. "I just want to continue to build our program and raise the standards of winning."
WHAT'S IN A NAME: The second question of a lengthy media session for Dan Beebe, commissioner of what will soon be the 10-team Big 12, was about the league's name. He immediately thought of his counterpart from what will soon be the 12-team Big Ten.
"Yeah, I'm in communication with commissioner Jim Delany now about a swap," Beebe said.
It's easy for Beebe to joke around now that he knows he'll have a job in a year. The serious answer was that conference executives and members will spend the next nine months or so figuring out what to call the league. And they haven't ruled out "Big 12."
"It may be our brand is significant enough that we don't want to change it," Beebe said. "I think we need to look at not just whether we change our name or our brand. What are the messages we want to convey going forward?"