AUSTIN, Texas -- They've been talking a lot about textbooks and revisionist history in this town the past few months. So it only seems germane to ask: If, in five, 10 or 20 years, someone writes a history of the Big 12 conference, how will the text describe the events of late May and early June in 2010?
If the book is published in Austin, it might describe how the University of Texas swooped in at the last moment to rescue the conference from utter annihilation by turning down a deal from the Pac-10. It will praise president Bill Powers and athletic director DeLoss Dodds for their concern for their region, their Big 12 colleagues and the poor student-athletes who would have missed so much class while playing in Eugene or Palo Alto.
If the book is published in College Station, it might describe how Texas A&M's flirtation with the SEC scared the mighty Longhorns right back into the Big 12 because Texas feared A&M would grow too powerful thanks to an influx of new cash and the added football recruiting boost the Aggies would receive from membership in a conference that occupies a ton of prime national television real estate.
If the book is published in Lubbock, it might describe how those bullies, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, strongarmed the other seven into giving them all the departure penalties that will be collected as a result of Colorado leaving for the Pac-10 and Nebraska leaving for the Big Ten.
If the book is published by some hippie out in California, it might describe how Texas strung along the Pac-10, demanding its local TV rights at the 11th hour when the Pac-10 had always assumed schools would turn over their local rights so the league could start a cable network. At that point, the Pac-10 walked away from the table, allowing Texas to return to a league it could control with an even sweeter deal and no pesky Cornnhuskers to muck up all the conference get-togethers.
After conversations with people in every camp, it's obvious the truth is somewhere between all those views.
Though it pains Aggies and Sooners to hear this, Texas did save the Big 12. "Texas," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe admitted Tuesday, "has a lot of influence." Texas did not save the league because of any noble, altruistic act, though. It saved the Big 12 because it wanted the best deal for Texas. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with that -- heck, that's how business entities in this country are supposed to operate -- the Longhorns shouldn't position themselves as champions of the downtrodden, either.
Throughout this entire process, readers have written and complained that Texas or Notre Dame or the Big Ten or the SEC has too much influence. I always responded the same way. Conference realignments have always been governed by the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. At the moment, Texas has the most gold of any individual program.
Basically, the Longhorns swung for the fences, missed, and, in the process, saved the conference. If the Pac-10 had caved and given Texas its local TV rights so it could start its own cable network, Texas would have had the sweetest deal in all of college sports. It was a deal no self-respecting university president would have turned down. Texas could attempt that negotiating gambit because Beebe had gotten positive vibes from TV partner Fox about "exponential" revenue increases when Fox's contract expires at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Beebe also secured a pledge from ESPN/ABC to continue paying at the same rate until its contract expires in 2016 despite the fact that the conference lost two schools and will no longer stage a football championship game. That means 10 schools will split $60 million a year instead of 12. "The Big 12 approached us asking if we would maintain our agreement through its term of 2015-16, and we agreed," ESPN spokesman Mike Humes said in a statement from the network.
So when the Pac-10 declined to cave in to the Longhorns' demands, Texas simply moved to its next (also excellent) option: make a few million more than it does now, start its cable network and essentially run a BCS conference. To seal the deal, the other seven agreed to fork over the penalty money to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, all of which also had been coveted by other leagues. (The offer has yet to be accepted by the big three.) Oklahoma, as one of the nation's most powerful football programs, had plenty of juice. Texas A&M, a top 25 revenue program with keen interest from the SEC, also had bargaining power. The rest did not, with the possible exception of Oklahoma State threatening to cut off all interviews with superbooster T. Boone Pickens. "They were being hotly pursued by a number of conferences," Beebe said of the Big Three. "Their value is based on their tradition and their success, and all three of them could have left for desirable situations."
At the end of the day, though, Texas took care of Texas. "Every family I know tries to take care of their family first," Texas football coach Mack Brown said Tuesday in a way only Mack Brown can. "And then they try to help their friends." That the Big 12 stayed afloat was a happy accident. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. If fans of Missouri or Texas Tech or Oklahoma State don't like playing in a league run by the Longhorns, they have two options: Join another conference or hire smart executives and coaches and find a way to make more money than Texas.
It may seem as if Texas has been the nation's richest, most powerful program forever, but that's not even close to true. In 1991, it was Notre Dame, which had just signed its first deal with NBC. Notre Dame remains powerful, but it isn't as strong as Texas. In 2030, some other school will be the nation's most powerful, and it will control a conference or hold all the cards in a realignment standoff.
We very well could see a repeat of this saga in a few years. Beebe and Texas president Powers said Tuesday that the only commitment the league required of its 10 remaining members were "strong public statements of unequivocal commitment." (Yes, both men used that identical phrase.) Obviously, a financial penalty remains for schools that would leave the league, but that didn't stop Nebraska or Colorado. Would it stop Missouri if the Big Ten -- a rumored suitor -- came calling? "I've talked to [Missouri athletic director] Mike Alden," Texas athletic director Dodds said Tuesday. "I had a good long conversation with him, and I feel very comfortable with where Missouri is."
That's still not entirely reassuring. How does anyone know whether a league that almost fell apart because Texas has too much power and came back together because Texas has too much power won't simply fall apart again -- probably because Texas has too much power? No one knows, just as no one knows when some conference will next try to radically realign college sports.
"If we live long enough," Dodds said, "it's going to happen all over again."
And when it does, the winners probably will write the history.