It may not be the point of no return for the Big 12 and the alignment of college athletics as we know it, but Oklahoma and Texas passed a significant milestone Monday when each school's board of regents voted to empower its president to negotiate with other conferences. Barring an eleventh-hour miracle even more incredible than the one that saved the Big 12 in June 2010, the conference as currently constituted is toast, and its explosion could set off shockwaves that affect nearly every other conference.
As Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe put it in a statement late Monday afternoon, the moves by Oklahoma and Texas were "anticipated." That doesn't make them any less significant. Remember, Oklahoma, Texas and the other schools that flirted with the Pac-10 in 2010 wound up canceling regents' meetings that would have produced a similar result. This time around, they've taken another step down the path. After his regents voted to allow him to explore a new conference deal, Oklahoma president David Boren -- while still proclaiming the Big 12 a viable option -- scooped out a few more shovelfuls of dirt for the conference's grave when he admitted he regretted not being more proactive last year. "I have tremendous regret that that's happened," Boren told The Oklahoman. "I would simply say it is not a strong vote of confidence in the conference office that this has happened in such a short period of time."
So what happens now?
Oklahoma actually has a clearer path to the Pac-12 than Texas. The Sooners, working in concert with Oklahoma State, have had discussions with the league that Boren called "very warm and very constructive." With the ACC adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse and the SEC planning to add Texas A&M, the Pac-12 doesn't want to be left in a weak position. If it passes on the opportunity to add a brand as strong as Oklahoma now, it may not get another chance. Oklahoma State is part of the package. So the Sooners probably can make the move even without Texas if Boren determines the Big 12 isn't worth saving.
That doesn't mean the leaders of the Pac-12 wouldn't love to get Texas, which is the nation's wealthiest athletic department and the most popular program in a state of 25 million people. Contrary to some reports Sunday, a marriage of Texas to the Pac-12 is not yet agreed upon -- but it certainly is possible. Much remains to be worked out, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations. This includes how the Longhorn Network would fit into the Pac-12's planned regional networks. At the moment, the plan is for all the regional networks to feed into a common revenue pool that would be split equally by conference members. At the moment, the Longhorn Network is designed to provide revenue for Texas and Texas alone. Texas has examined multiple options, including the ACC, and as of Sunday night multiple options remained on the table for the Longhorns.
If Texas can work out its issues with the Pac-12, Texas Tech likely would also join the conference, and commissioner Larry Scott would have the 16-team league he envisioned last year with only one slight modification -- Utah instead of Texas A&M. In fact, Scott predicted more than a year ago that further conference consolidation was coming. A month after his plan to grab the Big 12 south fizzled, Scott told SI.com that "something like that is bound to happen at some stage."
Scott did not believe college sports would reach that stage as early as September 2011, but here we are. With the ACC grabbing Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East this past weekend and the Big 12's marquee programs publicly announcing their presence on the dating scene Monday, everyone is looking for a stable home.
So where will everyone else end up? Here are some educated guesses.
If any school in the Big 12 moves to the Pac-12, the SEC will officially admit Texas A&M, which it approved for membership earlier this month. The SEC has been paralyzed by the threat of a lawsuit from Baylor, which stands to lose a fortune if the Big 12 dissolves. Unfortunately for Baylor, Oklahoma is not afraid of the Bears and their litigious president, Ken Starr. "The threat of litigation has not in any way changed our position," Boren told The Oklahoman. "I can only say I don't think you build trust and I don't think you build stability in a conference by the threat of litigation. If it takes the threat of litigation to keep a conference together, that's not the right way to proceed."
If Oklahoma and Oklahoma State leave the Big 12 and the conference collapses, the SEC would target Missouri, which would give the league a 14th school and allow it to use two seven-team divisions in football. At the moment, West Virginia is not an option for the SEC. It also hasn't been decided whether the league would attempt to grow to 16 or remain at 14 at that point.
As usual, Notre Dame remains an elusive prize. In May 2010, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick explained that the Fighting Irish would not join a conference in football unless outside forces caused the collapse of the Big East, where Notre Dame's other sports play and where the school has a contractual relationship that allows for it to schedule Big East teams in football. When news of the departures of Pittsburgh and Syracuse broke Saturday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick insisted that football independence remains paramount for the Fighting Irish. "We will approach this, no matter what the change is, with that as our goal," Swarbrick told The Chicago Tribune. "We'll see whether we can manage our circumstances to meet that goal."
But can Notre Dame manage its circumstances if other conferences continue to beef up? Will the Irish be able to schedule 12 football games a season with leagues switching to nine-game conference schedules? The Big Ten has long coveted Notre Dame, but any conference would be lucky to have the Irish, who guarantee a sellout everywhere they go and who have enough of a national following to command their own network television deal. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports makes an excellent case for why Notre Dame should go to the ACC, and it's likely Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany can make an excellent case for why Notre Dame should join his league. No matter what, Notre Dame will fight for its football independence until it is no longer an option.
Speaking of Delany, the man who touched off last year's round of realignment has been awfully quiet this time. There is a good reason for that. The Big Ten doesn't need to expand unless it can add a school or schools that bring significant value. With its television network thriving and its primary media rights deal due for renegotiation in four years, the Big Ten members might lose money on the deal unless they brought in a heavyweight such as Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Monday that some of the remaining Big East and Big 12 schools have discussed a merger. Also Monday, Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim predicted that the ACC would add Connecticut and possibly Rutgers. "You don't want to be the one standing up at the end with no chair to sit in," Boeheim told the Monday Morning Quarterback Club in Birmingham, Ala., according to The Birmingham News.
The musical chairs started earlier this month when the SEC voted to accept Texas A&M. The tempo quickened Saturday when the ACC raided the Big East. Monday, the beats per minute increased again with the news from Oklahoma and Texas. Sometime in the next few weeks, the music will stop. Then we'll know who grabbed which chair and who wound up with nowhere to sit.