We spent the past few months looking at the Golden Dome when our eyes should have been upon Texas. Notre Dame doesn't hold the key to conference expansion. The Longhorns do.
Don't believe me? Just ask Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. Well, don't ask him. We did that at the BCS meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April, but he didn't offer a straight answer. Instead, he spent much of that time chastising Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune for "inaccurate" reporting that -- in light of the e-mails between Delany and Ohio State president Gordon Geeobtained Thursday by the Columbus Dispatch -- turned out to be 100 percent accurate.
In one e-mail, Gee references a conversation with Texas president Bill Powers. "I did speak with Bill Powers at Texas, who would welcome a call to say they have a 'Tech' problem," Gee wrote to Delany on April 20. Presumably, a "Tech problem" refers to the possibility that political forces in Texas may attempt to bundle Texas and Texas A&M -- two Association of American Universities members with robust athletic programs -- with fellow public-school Big 12 member Texas Tech. In an April 19 e-mail also obtained by the Dispatch, Gee encouraged Delany to be the hare in the expansion process. "...we control our destiny at the moment, but the window will soon close on us," Gee wrote. "Agility and swiftness of foot is our friend." Delany responded to the April 20 e-mail. Contained in his response was this nugget: "We are fast-tracking it." That calls into question Delany's assertion that the Big Ten will adhere to a 12- to 18-month timetable to examine expansion.
Not long after that news broke and just a day after Orangebloods.com reported that Texas is one of six Big 12 schools that could receive an invitation to join the Pac-10, Texas' Powers was scheduled to hold a joint press conference with Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe. Beebe spoke. Powers suddenly had a plane to catch.
Which brings us back to this recent quote from Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. "If we need to finish it, we'll finish it," Dodds said recently. "We're going to be a player in whatever happens."
In other words, Texas won't make the first move. Nor should it. As the most lucrative college athletic program in the country, Texas has earned the right to be courted.
Texas is the 10 standing at the corner of the bar. The Big 12 is her less-than-ideal boyfriend. Sure, he's good looking, but he has a lousy job, and frankly, he can't treat her as well as some other guys can.
Sitting at the bar are the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the SEC. Each has something that makes him more attractive than the Big 12, but none wants to make the first move. At some point, one of them will approach Texas -- pick-up line at the ready -- and the game will be afoot.
So which one will Texas choose?
The Big Ten can boast that it distributes more money to its members than any other conference. The Big Ten Network is a certified juggernaut, and the addition of Texas would allow the conference to place the network on the expanded basic tier of all the cable systems in the state of Texas, which has 24 million citizens. If that boils down to eight million cable subscribers paying 70 cents a month for the Big Ten Network, then the conference could rake in another $5.6 million a month.
But what about Texas? Sure, the Longhorns would benefit from that largesse, but they also would be subsidizing Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue even more than Ohio State and Michigan already do. Texas is exploring the idea of launching its own cable network (see a sample programming schedule here) that would include football coach Mack Brown's TV show and other Longhorn-related programming, but all of that inventory would have to go on the Big Ten Network if Texas joined. Also, the idea of giving Texas a sweetheart deal may not sit well with megapowers such as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Texas doesn't have to leave the Big 12, and Dodds has been quoted as saying the Longhorns would prefer to stay there as long as the conference remains viable. But what constitutes viable? Is it a Big 12 without Missouri, which would bolt for the Big Ten in a second? Is it a Big 12 without Missouri or Nebraska, another Big Ten candidate?
The loss of those two programs could force the Longhorns to move. And without Texas, there is no Big 12. Consider this. On Friday, the Big 12 announced that the conference split $139 million in revenue for the 2009-10 school year. The Texas athletic department made $138.5 million in 2008-09. Obviously, that figure includes about $12 million in revenue from the Big 12's sharing plan, but the subtext is obvious. Texas is almost as big as the entire Big 12.
To keep Texas, the Big 12 would have to guarantee it could make significantly more from its next TV deal. It also would have to keep giving Texas a disproportionate share of the conference take. That might push Missouri and Nebraska into the arms of the Big Ten, which would force Texas to move. That puts Beebe in an impossible position. So maybe that's why Beebe sounded a little like "Baghdad Bob" Friday when he said he was "encouraged by the discussions" at the Big 12 meetings. He may as well have said, "Tanks? What tanks?"
Or maybe Beebe is playing possum. Maybe he has an offensive of his own in mind that would beef up the Big 12. Maybe it's time to invite USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal. Don't count on it, though.
First-year Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott was hired from the Women's Tennis Association not because of his deft handling of the Maria Sharapova grunting debacle, but because he made bold moves that made that organization a ton of money. If the Orangebloods.com report is anywhere close to true, Scott is contemplating a seriously bold move. Adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado would give the Pac-10 a massive footprint and a lineup that would make any network executive salivate.
Also, the Pac-10's television contracts expire soon. The league will sit down early next year with network executives, so it would like to have a lineup in place. The timing makes the league a blank slate. It can adjust its deal to accommodate the needs of any new members, so it's reasonable to believe the Pac-10 could cut Texas an attractive deal. That could mean the freedom to form a cable network, a favorable revenue split or both -- depending on what existing conference members would agree to.
The Pac-10 might also be more attractive to Texas for competitive reasons. Keeping in mind that football is the only sport that matters, Texas would face only two real alpha-dogs (USC and Oklahoma) in an expanded Pac-10. Should Texas join the SEC -- a move that also probably would cause the SEC to grab Texas A&M, Oklahoma and someone else -- it would have to compete with five (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma).
SEC commissioner Mike Slive was smart enough Friday to duck the question when I asked if he'd had any expansion discussions with the leader of any school that isn't a current SEC member. He also was smart enough to offer an expansive answer Thursday when I asked about SEC programs' ability to sell their own multimedia rights.
"When we were weighing the benefits and burdens of a channel versus licensing our rights, one of the very important aspects of the decision to sell our rights was because our institutions could maintain their own multimedia packages and monetize them to their own respective abilities," Slive said. "The totality of our media rights is really CBS, ESPN and all of our local packages. Sometimes when people are making a comparative analysis between conferences, that very important element gets lost."
In other words, if Texas wants to join and form its own cable network, go ahead.
Thanks to its blockbuster 15-year deals with CBS and ESPN that began this past year, the SEC's revenue jumped from $132.5 million last year to $209 million this year. Each school received about $17.3 million, and that figure doesn't include local rights. (For example, Florida receives about $10 million a year for its local deal.) Without revealing specifics of the SEC's deals Friday, Slive said most TV contracts include a clause that allows them to be renegotiated if a conferences adds or loses members. So if the SEC expands, it isn't locked into a dollar figure from its TV deals. Still, it doesn't offer as easy a path to the conference title -- and the national title game -- as the Pac-10 would. It also has just two AAU members (Florida and Vanderbilt) compared to the Pac-10's seven (Arizona, Cal, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington). Texas is a proud AAU member. So is Texas A&M.
In many ways, the SEC is like Texas. It's powerful enough to sit back and wait for everyone else to make their play, but it won't let a desirable potential partner go without a fight. Florida president Bernie Machen sounded an awful lot like Dodds on Friday. "We don't want the world to change," Machen said. "But we don't want the world to change around us."
If any school could pull off going independent, it's Texas. The Longhorns are a national brand, and they probably could command a football TV deal similar to the one Notre Dame has with NBC. The issue is the other sports, which would need to play in conferences. Notre Dame enjoys a unique situation with the Big East, which has eight football members and 16 members in all other sports.
It would be geographically inconvenient for Texas to join the Big East in other sports, and if Texas leaves, what's left of the Big 12 probably wouldn't welcome the non-football Longhorns. The Mountain West, Conference USA or the Sun Belt would make geographic sense, but Texas might consider itself above joining one of those leagues in any sport.
So what will Texas do? We'll probably have to wait a few months to find out. When the Longhorns do finalize their plans, Dave Curtis of The Sporting News had a brilliant suggestion for the big reveal. Dodds should take a cue from the nation's five-star recruits and sit at a table with five hats in front of him.
Unfortunately, it won't be that easy. Texas will stand at the bar and flirt with her eyes until someone finally asks her to dance.
Then things will get really interesting.