For the second consecutive year, a university's flirtation with another conference has become a political football in Texas.
The Higher Education Committee of the state's House of Representatives has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, Aug. 16. The intentionally nebulous topic: "...to discuss matters pertaining to higher education, including collegiate athletics." Translation: Will Texas A&M leave the Big 12 for the SEC? And what does that mean for the rest of the schools in the state?
"This is to make sure the legislature has a chance to ask questions about whether any conference move is in the best interests of the state of Texas," said committee chair Dan Branch (R-Dallas). Branch said the meeting might not even be necessary, but if it is, he "would anticipate hearing from A&M and possibly the SEC." Wednesday, Texas A&M did nothing to dispel talk of a move when it released this statement: "President (R. Bowen) Loftin is committed to doing what is best for Texas A&M not only now, but also into the future," the statement said. "We continue to have wide-ranging conversations regarding all aspects of the university, including both academics and athletics."
The committee scheduled a similar meeting last year when it appeared Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech would join Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado in a move to the Pac-10. The meeting was canceled after the Texas schools -- along with the two Oklahoma schools -- elected to remain in the Big 12.
What can the legislature do to stop a move? Officially, nothing. Unofficially, legislators can apply pressure because they control schools' funding. And in a state the size of Texas, plenty of schools have voices in the legislature, and everyone wants to know how a move would affect their school. "Those implications have a broader effect on the schools in our state," Branch told SI.com on Friday morning.
The SEC sent an emissary in early 2010 to gauge Texas A&M's interest. At the time, Texas A&M also was in discussions with the Pac-10. In June 2010, the school had three options -- join the Pac-10, join the SEC or remain in the Big 12. After the school elected to stay in the Big 12, Aggies fans who had supported a move to the SEC deluged athletic director Bill Byrne with invective.
That sentiment lingered within the fan base and the anger bubbled to the surface again after Texas announced plans for The Longhorn Network, a joint venture with ESPN and IMG College that Texas hopes will gain the same wide distribution as the Big Ten Network. Those plans included broadcasting high school games involving high-profile recruits. (Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert said that wouldn't be allowed.) Those plans also included the possibility of Big 12 games being broadcast on the network. The Longhorn Network has already approached Texas Tech -- and been rebuffed -- regarding the Longhorns' football game against the Red Raiders. No one in the Big 12 wants to play on the Longhorns' airwaves. Least of all Texas A&M, which already must fight a perception that it is the little brother of the behemoth in Austin. A look at The Longhorn Network's contract with ESPN should terrify any conference rival.
To those who wanted Texas A&M to move east, the marriage of the nation's most successful football league in recent years and the Aggies would allow Texas A&M to forge a new identity. They believe recruits might look differently at A&M if the Aggies could sell a chance to play in the SEC. For the SEC, the attraction is obvious. The state of Texas has 25 million people and two top 10 television markets (Dallas and Houston). At the moment, Atlanta is the only top 10 television market in the SEC's geographic footprint. Having a member in Texas would allow the SEC to negotiate even more lucrative media rights deals than the ones it signed in 2009 with ESPN and CBS, which are worth $3 billion over 15 years. Though the SEC negotiated "look-ins" into those contracts that should allow for more money to reflect market changes, the recent deal signed by the Pac-12 suggests the SEC would be worth more now even as currently constituted.
Those who oppose a move to the SEC suggest Texas A&M -- which last won the Big 12 football title in 1998 -- would fall even further behind competitively in the conference that produced the past five national champions. Instead of facing national powers Texas and Oklahoma, Texas A&M would have to beat national powers such as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida to win a conference title.
If Texas A&M does move, it could be the first domino in a new wave of conference realignment. The SEC likely wouldn't stand at 13 schools, and the nine schools remaining in the Big 12 would have to decide whether they wanted to remain together or seek other conferences.
Last year, after the realignment dust settled, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott predicted the peace would be temporary. Scott said the idea of 16-team superconferences excited television networks -- whose money drives such decisions. "What you couldn't predict is what fan reaction would be, what media reaction would be and how the TV executives who would ultimately have to stroke some big checks would react," Scott told SI.com in July 2010. "That was the part that was very pleasing. I got contacted by every major TV network in the country. ... Something like that is bound to happen at some stage."
What's amazing is that the tectonic plates could begin shifting again so soon.