When I visited Austin, Texas, two weeks ago, I snapped a photo of a Longhorn Network truck, uploaded the shot to Twitter and remarked that I had always thought the Death Star was rounder. Almost immediately, Texas and Texas A&M partisans -- as well as college football fans in general -- chimed in. Almost everyone took a side. To some, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds was Darth Vader with a twang. To others, Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin was Emperor Palpatine in a bowtie.
I was joking. They were serious.
A lot of folks in the media and among the fanbases have tried to put a black hat on the players in this latest conference realignment standoff. In their minds, someone must be blamed for the potential ruination of the virginal purity of college sports.
That's simply not true. College sports at the highest level aren't pure. They are a multibillion-dollar business. The window to whine about that closed around 20 years ago. All that has happened in the past few months and will happen in the next few months has been a result of programs doing what is best for themselves -- which is exactly how businesses in America are supposed to operate. Texas did what was best for Texas by creating its own television network. Texas A&M then did what was best for Texas A&M by announcing its intention to leave the Big 12 with an eye on joining the SEC.
Yet still Dodds gets painted as a villain who created a network that might someday become self-aware and take over the planet. "We're not villains here," Dodds said in a phone conversation Thursday afternoon. Then Dodds went on to explain the Texas side of this situation.
The original idea for the Longhorn Network, Dodds said, came from a perceived lack of exposure for the Longhorns' non-revenue sports. School officials began discussing it about five years ago, but they recognized a problem early. "I didn't think we had the inventory to do a 24/7 network," Dodds said. So Dodds called Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne and asked if the Aggies would be interested in partnering in a network. Byrne wasn't interested at the time.
In his weekly Internet address to fans on Wednesday, Byrne also mentioned the discussion. "Three or four years ago we talked about doing a joint flagship channel," Byrne wrote. "I liked the idea, but our fans should know me better than to think I would pass on a $150 million deal for Texas A&M. That never happened."
Byrne is 100 percent correct, and he isn't spinning his choice. At the time, neither he nor Dodds had any idea a television entity would want to pay so much to show Mack Brown doing a crossword puzzle. Dodds said Thursday that Byrne called back 12-18 months ago and expressed interest in a partnership, but the Longhorns had already become convinced of the viability of a Texas-only network. At the time, Dodds still believed Texas would have to foot a portion of the bill for the channel, but it seemed like a decent investment. "This was before we knew the money," Dodds said. "I said 'We've moved forward on that. We're going to do it on our own.'"
When six Big 12 programs -- Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado -- negotiated with the Pac-10 last year, Texas walked away from the negotiation at the 11th hour because Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott wanted all the schools in the new conference to pool their media rights. In other words, Texas walked away to preserve the Longhorn Network.
That move -- plus some wheeling and dealing by Commissioner Dan Beebe to convince ESPN and Fox to pay the same amount of money for a 10-team league that they paid for a 12-team league -- salvaged the Big 12. When the league came back together in its 10-school iteration in June 2010, Dodds said he made no secret of the Longhorns' desire to go forward with their network. He said no one objected. "Everybody knows that one of the things that kept us in the league was this network," Dodds said. "It was before we knew what the money was. We didn't know what the money was when we stayed in the conference to keep our network."
The deal with ESPN to run the Longhorn Network wasn't completed until Christmas Eve. That, Dodds believes, is when other schools grew fearful of the network. "The only surprise in this whole thing was the amount of money and that ESPN did it," Dodds said. "Prior to that, it was not an issue with anybody. Once that happened, it became an issue with a lot of different people. Not everybody, but a lot of people don't feel good about it for us."
The money was astronomical. The deal guarantees Texas $247.5 million over 20 years, and it puts Texas light years ahead of its conference brethren in revenue. But critics insist it isn't about the money. It's about the other issues the Longhorn Network brings.
The deal also allows Texas to televise two football games a year on the network. One is an out-of-conference game. The Longhorn Network will televise the Longhorns' season-opener against Rice on Saturday. Far more contentious is the condition that the Longhorn Network can televise a conference game each year. No school wants to play a football game on another school's network. (Although schools have essentially been doing this for years when they play at Notre Dame on NBC.) Last month, Big 12 athletic directors agreed no conference games would be shown on the Longhorn Network without the approval of the affected school and the league.
Potentially as thorny was the plan to televise high school games and show high school highlights on the Longhorn Network. Televising games would give Texas an almost prohibitive recruiting advantage. The NCAA has scuttled those plans for this season, but if history is any guide, the NCAA must tread carefully when restricting television freedom. The organization already lost a Supreme Court case over its control of television rights in 1984. Plus, the highlights offer a similar recruiting advantage, and the NCAA has agreed for the time being to allow the Longhorn Network to show highlights. "The NCAA is taking a wait and see attitude on the highlights," Byrne wrote in his letter to fans. "I disagree with their stance -- as do many of my colleagues across the country. We anticipate that ESPN will continue to push the envelope with the Longhorn Network, regardless of Texas A&M's conference affiliation."
Byrne has every right to be upset about the Longhorn Network. Texas A&M doesn't have the juice to start its own network and get ESPN to fork over a fortune. But Texas A&M does have the juice to wrangle a spot in the nation's premier football conference. So that's what the Aggies are doing. If that's bad for Baylor and the others, too bad. Maybe Baylor should have tried a little harder to build a juice reservoir in the 16 years since it left Southwest Conference brethren Rice, SMU, TCU and Houston in the dust and joined the Big 12.
Texas A&M's move may have made the Big 12 unstable again. At this point, the league is almost like a publicly traded stock. The appearance of stability is as important as actual stability. If it appears unstable for too long, the shareholders may dump and run. This is not the fault of Texas or Texas A&M. Dallas Morning News writer Chuck Carlton called the Longhorn Network "the Mrs. O'Leary's cow" in this situation, and the description is apt. But that doesn't mean Texas -- or Texas A&M, which responded to a threat by taking its next best available option -- is at fault. Sure, Bevo may have kicked over the lantern, but it isn't Bevo's fault an entire conference may have been built out of wood instead of stone.
What does this mean for the future? Dodds hopes to salvage the Big 12. He said the conference's options are to stay at nine, add one schools, add three schools or add five schools. Given the value picks still on the board, adding one school seems the likely option. If Oklahoma -- the next-most-powerful school in the league -- is happy with that, the league probably stays together. "If everybody's agreeable, we're in for the long haul," Dodds said of Texas. "We need to look at options we've got for the future of the conference. Dan Beebe has got to be the leader in that."
And what about the annual Thanksgiving football game between Texas and Texas A&M? About that, Dodds isn't sure. "I can't answer that," he said. "That's part of the process we've got to go through to decide what our future is without A&M in the conference."
It remains to be seen how wide the rift will be between College Station and Austin after the Aggies move on to the SEC. "I've almost quit being surprised by anything anymore," Dodds said. "I'm disappointed that A&M is leaving the conference. They've been a great rival of ours. We've had great traditions. It's been good. We don't like each other on gameday, but we've been friends between games. I thought they were solid. I am a bit surprised and disappointed.
"But I understand they're doing what's best for A&M. That's their business, and certainly not mine."
With that statement, Dodds summed up the entire situation perfectly. While everyone wants to assign deeper meaning to realignment, there really isn't any. It's just business.