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Conference realignment to get political in Texas this week

Like any Texas politician worth his smoked brisket, State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) knows the hot-button issues.

"When you combine education and football," Branch said Sunday night by telephone, "it gets a lot of attention in Texas."

College football -- and college athletics in general -- will get the full attention of the higher education committee of the state's House of Representatives on Wednesday morning. That meeting, thanks to a five-day public-notice law, will come a day after the Texas and Texas Tech boards of regents meet to discuss whether their respective schools should stay in the Big 12 or leave for the Pac-10. While some believe the regents will vote on moves Tuesday, Branch, the chair of the higher education committee, believes the schools will wait until after Wednesday's hearing.

"To make a final decision before Wednesday," Branch said, "would not be wise."

Branch said the chief executives of Texas (Bill Powers), Texas A&M (R. Bowen Loftin) and Texas Tech (Guy Bailey) already have accepted their invitations to testify before the committee. Branch also hopes to have representatives from Baylor, Rice, Southern Methodist, TCU, Houston, North Texas and UTEP. Branch also has invited several economists as well as the commissioners of the Pac-10, SEC, Big 12, Mountain West and Conference USA.

"I think we'll have some of [the commissioners]," Branch said. "We may have all of them. I'm starting to hear that some of these people realize it will be in their best interests to be there."

Of particular interest are potential moves by Texas and Texas Tech to the Pac-10 and by Texas A&M to either the SEC or Pac-10. Legislators also will want to know how those potential moves might affect other schools in the state.

This won't be the first time members of the Texas government have discussed conference alignments. In the mid-'90s, when the schools from the soon-to-be-defunct Southwest Conference helped form the Big 12, then-Gov. Ann Richards made sure her alma mater, Baylor, made the cut. In the early '90s, when Arkansas decided to leave the SWC for the SEC, Texas and Texas A&M nearly joined the Pac-10, but government pressure kept them tethered to their fellow state schools.

Since you've probably been asking since you clicked on this column, Branch has a law degree from SMU. He received his bachelor's degree at Oklahoma Christian, which doesn't have a dog in the fight. Branch said the impetus for the hearing came from concerned constituents.

"If you call hearings, then you're micromanaging," Branch said. "If you don't call hearings, then you're letting it be done in smoke-filled rooms. We erred on the side of letting the public have an opportunity to hear about the proposed realignment and let the people that have been directly involved -- the presidents -- make the case for why change is going to be a good thing not only for their institutions but hopefully also for the state."

Who knows where the situation will stand when the committee convenes Wednesday? Several news outlets reported Sunday a resurgence of hope that the Big 12 can survive as a 10-team league. Meanwhile, Texas A&M president Loftin issued a statement that casts doubt on the viability of the league, which already has lost Colorado to the Pac-10 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.

"As [athletic director] Bill Byrne and I have said on several occasions, our desire is for the Big 12 conference to continue. With the departure of two universities from the conference last week, the Big 12 is certainly not what it was," Loftin said in the statement. "We are aggressively exploring our options, one of which is for the Big 12 to continue in some form. We have also had extensive discussions with other conferences over the past two days. We continue to evaluate our options in a deliberate manner as we work toward a decision that is in the best long-term interests of Texas A&M."

Sunday, a jet owned by Oregon superbooster -- and one-time athletic director -- Pat Kilkenny ferried Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott to Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Texas, according to a story by Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard columnist and frequent SI.com contributor George Schroeder. A day earlier, the jet took Scott to Oklahoma City, where he disembarked for visits to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Whether Scott returns to the Lone Star State on Wednesday to answer legislators' questions remains to be seen. Still, Branch is confident no school will act before the hearing.

"These are big public institutions," Branch said. "They come in every two years for their budgets. I think we have a good working relationship. ... I think the public higher education community is interested in maintaining a good relationship with the legislature."

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