AUSTIN, Texas -- The 2011 conference realignment tilt-a-whirl produced three distinct headlines Monday. Each one seemed rife with meaning. But as night fell in Texas, nothing had really changed. Texas A&M continued its slow march toward the SEC.
Still, an accounting and an explanation of Monday's newsworthy events seems to be in order.
• The Higher Education committee in the Texas House of Representatives postponed -- or possibly just canceled -- a meeting scheduled for Tuesday that would have required Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin to answer questions about why the Aggies might leave the Big 12 for the SEC. That's why you see an Austin dateline on this column; I was seated on a plane about to take off when the meeting was canceled. (This seems to be a trend. Last year, I was aboard a plane bound for Austin when the Big 12 was saved from certain destruction.)
• The Texas A&M Board of Regents voted to empower Loftin to negotiate and make decisions regarding the Aggies' athletic conference affiliation. This was the day's most important event, and Loftin's interview afterward shed some light on the courtship.
• CBSSports.com reported that NCAA president Mark Emmert has contacted conference commissioners and school CEOs that could be involved in some sort of realignment. Details were sparse, and the NCAA's statement on the matter was typically vague. "President Emmert has had conversations with a number of presidents and commissioners related to recent conference realignment issues and these discussions mirror many of the topics raised last week during the [Division I] presidential meetings," the statement said.
At the end of the day, Texas A&M remained a likely new SEC member. Even though Loftin said Monday that staying in the Big 12 remains a possibility, that option is an absolute last resort. (And at this point, that might cost Loftin his job.) It will be up to the lawyers to decide how long the process of changing leagues will take. As an insider put it Monday evening, the case resembles a divorce in which the squabbling couple has nine children. It's that complicated.
So what did each of Monday's events mean?
The postponement of the hearing seemed puzzling at first. Had the committee decided it needed more information? Did it want more time to gather witnesses? Or had representatives realized that any such hearing would be perceived to be an attempt to block a move by Texas A&M -- and therefore unnecessary government meddling -- and simply scrapped the plan? No matter the reason, the parties involved considered the postponement of the hearing to be a positive move. So they kept moving.
Texas A&M considering SEC, staying put for now
Shortly after the postponement of the hearing, Texas A&M's Board of Regents empowered Loftin to make a decision regarding the Aggies' conference affiliation. Though Loftin, a mustachioed, bow-tied academic who looks like the president of Central Casting U, would later hint at the possibility of remaining in the Big 12, the second sentence of his press conference spoke volumes. "It's not what's wrong with the Big 12," Loftin said. "It's what's right with Texas A&M and where we want to go in time."
Yes, you read that correctly. The president of a major university dropped an "It's not you, it's me" on the head of a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Loftin went on to reveal that he had contacted SEC commissioner Mike Slive on the afternoon of July 21, shortly after a meeting of the Board of Regents to discuss the long-term ramifications of The Longhorn Network, the soon-to-be-launched cable channel that is a partnership between the University of Texas and ESPN.
Loftin refused to say that Texas A&M will seek membership in the SEC, but he did say that he had not communicated with any other conferences. Asked whether legal and semantics issues would require Texas A&M to leave the Big 12 to receive an invitation to join the SEC, Loftin offered a lesson in recent history. "I recall in particular the letter sent to us [in 2010] by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln," Loftin said, "which said simply that 'If we are extended an invitation to join the Big Ten, we would then withdraw from the Big 12.' ... I haven't done anything like that at this point in time, nor thought about it very seriously, but clearly that's a model of last year's event that we can look to and say that's how one school chose to couch their specific termination approach to the Big 12."
There would be several issues if Texas A&M sent such a letter. First, the Big 12 beefed up its exit penalties after last year's near-implosion. The conference likely would expect Texas A&M to pay a whopping fee to leave that could reach as high as $30 million. This is where the lawyers come in, and this is what might take some time. Texas A&M can argue that Texas officials sold the other nine league members a bill of goods when they described the scope of The Longhorn Network and that the network in practice would be a far different entity. Such an argument would hinge on what Texas officials pitched during the meetings in June 2010 that ultimately saved the Big 12. If they described the network accurately, then the other schools with options were suckers for signing up for the new Big 12. If they didn't describe the network accurately, then a school with a wish to depart might have a valid reason to leave with minimal penalty. At any rate, Loftin hopes that even if the Aggies leave the Big 12, they can continue their annual Thanksgiving rivalry with Texas in football. "We see no reason," Loftin said, "why it could not continue under a different conference arrangement."
Also at issue is ESPN, a company whose tendrils penetrate every side of this deal. ESPN runs The Longhorn Network, but its rights deal with the Big 12 also makes it a partner with Texas A&M. ESPN also has a massive rights deal with the SEC. How important is the SEC to the Worldwide Leader? Last month, the network began selling SEC on ESPN-branded clothing on its Web site. It's possible that ESPN may have to step in to keep all of its partners happy. (All the while reporting on the festivities.)
Meanwhile, the continued search for more lucrative conference affiliations continues to undercut the NCAA, where school presidents last week affirmed their commitment to the principle of amateurism. Every time a school or conference moves to lock up more television money, the presidents look more like hypocrites for their support of a system designed long before anyone dreamed of multibillion-dollar deals to televise college sports.
Emmert's calls probably will have no effect, since the governing body of college sports can't tell a sovereign university with which conference it should align itself. Such interference could result in a fat antitrust lawsuit, and a current Big 12 member (Oklahoma) and a current SEC member (Georgia) already kicked the NCAA's butt in such a suit in 1984. So maybe Emmert, whose hand-picked presidents pledged last week to streamline the bloated NCAA rule book, should concern himself with issues the NCAA can actually control. John Infante, the author of the excellent Bylaw Blog, pointed out one such issue Monday -- a proposed rule change that would enhance the lives of all the NCAA's dedicated student-athletes:
"(h) Fruit, Nuts and Bagels. An institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels [including bagel spreads (e.g., butter, peanut butter, jelly, cream cheese)] to a student-athlete at any time. ... Estimated Budget Impact: Will vary by amounts and types of spreads provided."
And while the NCAA haggles over cream cheese, a school will continue working its way through a divorce and toward a marriage while millions of dollars hang in the balance.