As the nation's premiere football conference prepares for their inaugural season with a groundbreaking 14 programs, we should take a look at how the SEC got here in the first place. Understanding how we reached where we are now is the key to making more informed decisions in the future.
We take a jump back to the summer of 2010 where the Big 12 was just beginning to approach the edge of the abyss. One of their few significant universities, Nebraska, had just put the finishing touches on a deal with the Big Ten and would enter conference play as soon as the 2011 season.
Seeing the writing on the wall both Oklahoma schools, and three of the power programs from Texas, began to entertain the possibility of joining Colorado in their journey to the the Pac-10, forming the first mega-conference and beginning a new era in college football.
Texas A&M, one of the three Texas programs that was being considered in the Pac-10 deal, also began to explore options of their own, reaching out to the coveted SEC. The Aggies hoped to gain access to the far more competitive and culturally-similar conference, a move that was not only bold, yet inspiring for a university that had been stuck in Texas' shadow for decades.
The only true football power left in the Big 12 that wasn't in talks with other conferences, Missouri, began to panic. They saw their future slipping away and went directly to the Big Ten, not the SEC, in hopes that the Midwest league would package them in with Nebraska. To them, the SEC, with their low academic standards and cut-throat recruiting, was a less-than ideal landing spot for a university such as theirs.
As the summer began to come to a close, however, the massive six-team Big 12-Pac-10 merger fell apart, leaving only Colorado and a new partner in Utah to take the jump into the west coast. A&M's talks with the SEC began to quiet down as well, allowing the idea of their move into the conference to simmer.
The Big Ten continually rejected the flailing Tigers who had basically thrown themselves at the stability that was the Midwest. The remaining 10 programs in the Big 12 all pledged allegiance to the league, hoping to give their conference more structure so that it would quit hemorrhaging teams.
Then the summer of 2011 came around and everything changed. The Pac-12 came calling on OU, OSU, Texas and Texas Tech, praying to bring in the best of their neighboring league. The Longhorns' new network, however, created an insurmountable obstacle as they were unable to come to a deal.
On the flip side of things, the LHN actually pushed Texas' long-time rival Texas A&M over the edge and into the SEC come the beginning of 2012 season. With the Aggies joining up in the SEC West, their new conference now needed another moving buddy to even out the divisions.
While some SEC programs saw West Virginia and their powerful Big East dominance as the ideal target, many of the more academically based universities opposed the invitation. Due to the Aggies' AAU status, a rarity in the conference, adding the lowly Mountaineers seemed to cancel out any gain that the SEC might have gotten on the academic side of things.
In steps another Big 12 AAU member in Missouri who has been, for the past two years, literally selling themselves out to the ever-resilient Big Ten. The Tigers again feared being left out of joining a power conference and, while they still desired to be in the Midwest, took the opportunity to snare that 14th spot in the southeast.
Who Should've Been the SEC's 14th Member?
That brings us to the present. With culturally-similar Texas A&M joining up in the West and an uninspired Missouri evening things out in the East, did the SEC make the wrong choice?
During the time the conference sat at just 13 members, Mike Slive continually expressed that the SEC did not need to immediately seek out a 14th member. The A&M deal, while having several cultural, athletic and academic qualities, was mostly about money. The Aggies brought in some huge TV markets in Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth, setting the standard for the 14th member to be a giant catch as well in the financial department.
For me, the obvious choice on that front had to be Virginia Tech. While the Hokies dominated ACC football, the SEC has many a reason to draw in V-Tech and assimilate them into their extremely unique culture. They also, like Texas A&M, bring a powerful academic program, a deep athletic tradition, and a huge TV market in Washington DC.
The V-Tech deal would have no doubt taken at least a year, possibly longer. SEC fans remained confident, however, that Slive was working on bringing in a solid 14th member and that the conference wouldn't cut corners on something as important as adding a new presence to the league.
In just over a month though, Slive and the SEC struck up a deal with Missouri in a slightly unexpected move. They seemingly broke many of their own rules and possibly created a big problem that could affect the future of the SEC as a whole.
First, the conference went much faster than they had talked about for all of those weeks. Second, the Tigers, while a great university, didn't seem to fit culturally in with the rest of the league. Finally, Mizzou had very explicitly expressed over the past two years that the SEC was their second choice to the Big Ten. Does the greatest conference in the country really want a program that was just their back-up plan?
I believe Slive and the administration made a fatal mistake that could affect the reputation of the conference in the very near future. Even West Virginia with all their academic flaws at least desired to be in the SEC first and foremost over anywhere else.
Adopting the Tigers is one of those decisions you end up regretting in the end. If the Big Ten ever came calling on Missouri, for instance, I have almost no doubt they leave for the Midwest in a heartbeat.
The SEC had proclaimed time and time again that they could stand at 13 for the moment and not break a sweat. Acquiring a 14th member that is the right fit for the SEC culture is a million times more important than doing so quickly and risking a bad choice.
So why jump into something so significant with such haste? Why chance making a wrong decision when it's the future of not just one, but 13 other universities that you put in jeopardy? For a conference that has been the stronghold of football logic for generations, why is it now that decision-making starts to get a bit shaky?
With conference realignment still on the fritz across the nation, the SEC has to remain decisive, careful, and intelligent in an extremely volatile college football world. The Missouri addition was none of those and will, in all likelihood, end up being a choice that the conference regrets sometime in the near future.