Texas' Longhorn Network sparking another Big 12 Missile Crisis

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Dan Beebe was doing fine late Thursday afternoon. No, really. But the Big 12 commissioner understands your concern.

"Any time there is any kind of perceived crack," Beebe said, "we're going to have the vultures in the air."

The buzzards took flight again this week because of an internal squabble among league members over The Longhorn Network, Texas' new 24-hour channel that will launch Aug. 26. What's interesting is that The Longhorn Network is one of the main reasons the Big 12 still exists. Now, the Big 12's existence seems threatened by The Longhorn Network. Quite a paradox, isn't it?

Texas bailed last June on its negotiations with the former Pac-10 because the Longhorns wanted to keep some of their media rights in order to form their own television network. The Big 12 was more than happy to oblige, and the conference -- which stood on the brink of annihilation -- was saved thanks to the return of the Longhorns and some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by Beebe and company to ensure a 10-team league would split the same television revenue a 12-team league had split before. Texas went forward with its plan, signing a deal with ESPN that created a 24-hour channel that will launch Aug. 26 with fairly broad distribution. For this, Texas will receive at least $247.5 million over 20 years. Earlier this year, the Big 12 inked a monster deal with Fox for secondary television rights. The promise of an even bigger deal in 2016 for the primary rights should be enough to guarantee years of security. Shouldn't it?

But there was Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin on Thursday leaving a regents' session devoted to The Longhorn Network. Loftin told The Houston Chronicle that the network's plans to televise Big 12 football games and high school games created "a great deal of uncertainty for us and the conference." "High school games are very problematic," Loftin told the paper. "NCAA rules are extremely directed at recruiting functions. ... If we have an unequal playing field for various schools, that we think is a problem. That creates uncertainty."

There's your crack.

Even though the programming in question has already been announced, Beebe has issued a moratorium on it. Why? Because The Longhorn Network is a bigger deal than the members realized when they agreed to remain together. "ESPN operates in a different world than we do," said Beebe, who said the NCAA needs to clarify its rules so networks such as The Longhorn Network, the Big Ten Network and BYU's network can make plans. "They make a decision on Friday and implement it on Monday. We have a lot of stakeholders, a lot of people we have to consider. We have a lot of other factors that have to be looked at."

Beebe is smart, and so is Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. Cooler heads should prevail here and keep the conference from exploding. But the fact that it only took 13 months after the Big 12 Missile Crisis for another major fissure to reveal itself suggests the league's members aren't exactly Superglued together -- particularly at the top.

The concern other schools have over Big 12 games is obvious; why would a school want to play a game on a rival's network? The high school issue is even stickier. Depending on the interpretation of current NCAA rules, televising high school games on The Longhorn Network might give Texas an unfair advantage in recruiting on top of the inherent advantages the nation's wealthiest athletic department already has.

Dodds told SI.com that he doesn't think The Longhorn Network will cause too much strife within the league, but he admits other schools will have to adjust. "We love the Big 12. In my mind, it's in great shape," Dodds said. "In the long haul, us being able to do this gives the ability to A&M to be able to do this, Oklahoma to be able to do this. We're building a new world. We're living in a new world, and we all need to learn to live in it in a different way."

That's easy to say when your network will be distributed to at least the 25 million residents of Texas and most likely will be available to hundreds of millions of televisions nationwide. How wide would the distribution be for The Aggie Network or The Sooner Network?

That isn't the Longhorns' problem -- except that it is. If Texas were independent, it wouldn't matter what Texas A&M or Oklahoma thought. But Texas chose to remain in the Big 12, so it must find a way to coexist with its conference brethren.

By the same token, what right do Texas A&M, Oklahoma and the rest have to complain? They signed on for the new Big 12 last year knowing full well that Texas intended to launch its own network. Why should Texas be limited because its conference counterparts misjudged the scope and breadth of The Longhorn Network? It's almost as if they are saying, "We knew Texas was powerful, but we didn't realize it was this powerful." There was a reason we pundits called the conference Texas and the Nine Dwarves after the league was salvaged. It was obvious to us. Why wasn't it obvious to you?

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For Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State, none of this matters. Texas is Willy Wonka, and they are Charlie Bucket. They're just happy to be there. Kansas is closer to those three than it is to Oklahoma, but it has some juice thanks to its basketball program and probably could snag a Big East invite if things went sideways. Missouri would find a major-conference home, too, thanks to two large media markets within the state's borders. Meanwhile, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech had a chance to change conferences last year. Texas A&M and Oklahoma were courted by the Pac-10 and the SEC, and a sizable portion of Texas A&M's fan base remains angry the Aggies didn't jump to the SEC.

At the schools that had other options, coaches must have bristled when they heard Longhorn Network vice president of programming Dave Brown on Austin radio station KZNX-AM. During an interview about the network's planned programming, Brown got very specific about the plans to broadcast at least 18 high school games this season. "Certainly, we're going to follow the great players in the state," Brown said. "Obviously, a kid like Jonathan Gray from Aledo. I know people are going to want to see Jonathan Gray. I can't wait to see Jonathan Gray. The feedback we got from our audience is they just want to see Jonathan Gray run. Whether it's 45-0 or not, they want to see more Jonathan Gray. So we're going to do our best to accommodate them and follow the kids that are being recruited by a lot of the Division I schools -- certainly some of the kids Texas has recruited, is recruiting and everyone else in the Big 12 is recruiting."

Remember, Brown isn't a Texas employee. He isn't bound by NCAA rules against publicizing recruits. But the financial partnership between Texas and ESPN blurs those lines considerably. Essentially, someone with a huge financial stake in the success of the Texas athletic program got on the radio and promised coverage of the most coveted recruit in the state of Texas in the class of 2012. It doesn't matter that Gray committed to the Longhorns in June. The NCAA doesn't recognize verbal commitments, only signed letters-of-intent. Gray is a recruitable player.

What Brown said next probably made coaches' blood run cold in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. "I know there is a kid Connor Brewer from Chaparral High School in [Scottsdale] Arizona," Brown told KZNX. "We may try to get one or two of their games on, as well, so people can see an incoming quarterback that'll be part of the scene here in Austin." Brewer, another member of the class of 2012, also is committed to Texas. But what about the players in future recruiting classes? Essentially, Brown admitted The Longhorn Network will highlight the players Texas wants -- no matter where they live.

In an e-mail, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson wrote that the NCAA "is engaged in a conversation with the entities to better understand their plans and what bylaws may come into play." The bylaws (read the relevant ones here, here and here) don't specifically address this situation. Dodds is correct when he says it's a new world. Dodds also understands that a high schooler might not make the distinction between Texas and ESPN if, after a stellar performance, he delivers a postgame interview into a microphone with a Longhorn on the flag. "In our conversations with ESPN, and this is very early in the discussion, we have asked that the University of Texas not be associated with the broadcast in any way," Dodds said.

But is that enough? High-schoolers aren't dumb. If their game is on something called The Longhorn Network, they'll make the association that Texas has something to do with the broadcast, and if Texas is powerful enough to get their game broadcast nationwide, Texas must be a pretty great place to play football.

The flip side to this argument is that Texas made itself into a behemoth and has every right to take advantage of its status. Dodds said he told ESPN officials they would have complete autonomy in the selection of high school games. He can do this because Texas doesn't have to direct ESPN to pick games involving Texas recruits. ESPN would choose those games anyway, because those are the games The Longhorn Network's viewers would want to watch.

Still, if the NCAA clarifies its rules to allow The Longhorn Network to televise high school games -- and it probably will, considering the combined might of Texas and ESPN -- Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and the rest should immediately begin streaming coverage of recruits' games on their own Web sites. There shouldn't be a double standard just because one school can attract a more powerful corporate partner.

One way or another, the schools probably will work things out without going to DEFCON 1 again. The schools remained in the Big 12 because they want the Big 12 to work. Most likely, they will do whatever they can to make the Big 12 work. But something has to give here. Either Texas has to surrender a little of its might for the good of the conference, or the rest must accept that they struck a Faustian bargain that allows them to be dominated. Beebe understands why people think The Longhorn Network is the first tectonic shift for a new conference order, but he's confident the squabbling spouses in this marriage will figure things out without resorting to divorce.

"We're just going to have to deal with that for a while," Beebe said. "Until people really see what we're saying about being committed and working it out in the family -- even if there is a dispute -- is what we're up to."