Texas Football: Why the Longhorns Should Become an Independent
Though the Big 12 seems to be its home for at least another few years after the additions of West Virginia and TCU, there is still no shortage of reasons for the Longhorns to strike out on their own as independents.
It seemed as if the Big 12 would be no more following the departure of Texas A&M and Missouri. However, the conference has rallied by adding two teams that are consistently present among the Top 25 in TCU and West Virginia. Not only did they strike a deal with the SEC for an annual BCS bowl, they hired the shrewd Bob Bowlsby away from Stanford to be the new commissioner.
But is it still the best place for the Longhorns?
Even with the improvements to the conference's situation, Texas is still left with only one true rival in Oklahoma and will play very few marquee games that will garner national attention.
With financial implications and its national audience considered, deciding to become an independent could still be the best alternative for this Texas football program.
Here are the reasons why.
The Longhorn Network
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The first reason the Longhorns should consider becoming an independent is the entity that started this whole discussion in the first place: The Longhorn Network.
In fact, the contract for the Longhorn Network has a provision that covers the possibility of Texas leaving the conference and becoming an independent. The provision states the following:
"In the event that UT determines not to participate in any athletics conference in one or more sports, UT agrees to provide ESPN a right of first negotiation of 60 days with respect to its television telecast rights that are currently held by the Conference in such sports, following which UT shall be free to enter into arrangements with one or more other networks for such sports provided that UT shall provide ESPN with a right for 48 hours to match the proposed terms of such arrangements with other networks." (Austin-American Statesman)
Basically, this means that should Texas leave the Big 12 and become independent, ESPN would likely obtain the rights to all sports telecasts, national or otherwise. This would effectively give Forbes' most profitable football program up to all $300 million provided by the Longhorn Network contract while also increasing Texas' national audience due to the increased amount of games that would likely be placed on national television.
And that's not all.
The "in one or more sports" statement means that Texas could become solely a football independent and leave the rest of its sports in the Big 12, reaping the benefits of the ESPN deal while also ensuring that the less profitable sports still receive membership money from the Big 12.
It's unlikely the conference would go for such a measure, but the situation is a win-win from a financial standpoint.
The move toward independence would also remove one of the biggest points of contention the network faces in its struggle for relevance, and that is its ability to broadcast conference games.
Currently, if ESPN wants to broadcast a conference game on the Longhorn Network, the opposing team and the conference must approve of it beforehand, as well as other provisions that must be agreed upon on an individual basis.
For example in the negotiations to get the matchup with Texas Tech broadcast on TLN, ESPN had to go as far as to offer Texas Tech $5 million cash, broadcasting of two non-conference games over the next four seasons, broadcasting of non-football programming and help with arranging a home-and-home series with another top BCS school.
Should Texas become an independent, such negotiations not be needed.
If the game was not broadcast on one of the ESPN family of networks, the Longhorn Network would broadcast for Texas. The opponent would use its own broadcast channel. Not only would this eliminate costly negotiations, it would also make the Longhorn Network a must-have for Texas fans and would aid in the network's upward struggle to be picked up by television providers in Texas.
In summary, this move would do four things.
First, it would put up to $300 million in Texas' pocket. Second, it would increase Texas' national audience through a likely agreement with ESPN. Third, it would eliminate TLN's struggle with broadcasting conference games. Finally, it would assist with getting the network picked up by television providers.
Makes sense to me.
Greatly Improved Scheduling
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Leaving the Big 12 for independence would also give Texas a significant advantage in scheduling, thanks to the removal of conference obligations.
As members of the Big 12, Texas will play nine conference games and expect to do so as long as it remains a member team. That's all fine and dandy, except the only game that will garner consistent national attention is against rival Oklahoma. The magnitude of the rest of the games will vary from year-to-year, but the lack of another rival team in the conference hurts Texas' national exposure.
Also, playing nine conference games in a season severely limits this team's ability to play quality non-conference opponents, which impacts where they sit in the final BCS standings. In fact, the last time Texas had a nationally televised non-conference game was almost six years ago against Ohio State.
It's not that Texas is incapable of scheduling a game against a strong non-conference opponent, it's that their window to do so is limited to only three games at the beginning of the season before the team has established any kind of rhythm or chemistry.
By leaving the conference, Texas would not only be able to schedule more quality non-conference opponents, they would also be able to renew rivalries of old that would garner national attention.
Scheduling quality non-conference opponents would not be difficult for Texas, considering that somewhat middling Notre Dame has had no problem scheduling games with the likes of USC, Michigan and Michigan State. The ability to schedule such opponents would be greatly helped by the fact that, per the likely scenario with ESPN that was described earlier, it would be very easy for the Longhorns and a team like Oregon to get a nationally televised game.
If not, the Longhorn Network would be happy to handle the Texas side of things while the opponent would use their own outlet to broadcast a game against a national powerhouse.
As far as rivalries go, the Longhorns would also have the ability to establish new rivalries, as well as rekindle new ones. Imagine Texas playing Arkansas in a revival of an old Southwest Conference rivalry or heading back to the coliseum to play USC in a long overdue rematch of the 2005 BCS National Championship.
How about a border rivalry with LSU, whom they compete with for top recruits already. Oh yeah, this would also bring the possibility of playing A&M back in the fold, though probably not immediately.
For those that are worried this would jeopardize the Red River Rivalry, rest assured that Oklahoma is going nowhere. The rivalry means too much to the teams' fans. It earns a lot of money for both programs, with the revenue split 50/50.
In addition, they are contracted through 2020 to play the game in Dallas.
Between the variety of opponents seeking some national attention and the possibility of so many great rivalries old and new, it's almost surprising more fans are not calling for this move already.
Texas' Make Up
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While more money and quality opponents are great benefits to going independent, it means nothing if the Longhorns cannot find success on the field. Luckily, this will not be a problem.
Even right now, Texas has the coaching, the talent and the recruiting prowess to compete on a national level as an independent.
Starting with coaching, Mack Brown has coached at the pressure-cooker that is Texas football since 1998. In that time, he has dealt with every kind of success and failure there is in the coaching world.
He's experienced the elation of winning a national championship contrasted with the masses calling for his head after the debacle that was 2010. Now Brown is on the rebuilding trail after cleaning house a little over a year ago.
Mack Brown has seen it all and is no stranger to the type of scrutiny he would face as the head coach of an independent Longhorns team.
Not only would Brown be subject to the same criticisms as Notre Dame coaches both past and present, but his assistant coaches would as well.
And they can handle it, too.
Both Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz showed up as household names, and fans looked to both of them as saviors for a team that seemed lost on the field the year before. They answered with a 3-game improvement in 2011, meeting the expectations and earning a special place in the hearts of all UT fans.
The transition to national criticism may be more trying, but these two have been battle-tested at big programs their entire careers and will have no problem staying focused.
As for the players, most of these guys have grown up playing high school football in Texas which is way more pressure-packed than anyone not from Texas could understand. Furthermore, they would not be playing at a place like Texas if they could not handle expectations.
Not to mention this team is just built to be able to play against anyone, evidenced last year by the fact that they ranked No. 1 in the conference in passing defense, rushing defense and total defense. This year, they seem favorites to do it again with guys like Jackson Jeffcoat along the line and a secondary that sticks to receivers like their shadows.
That's just the defense.
This year alone, the Longhorns have furthered their commitment to the power running game by fielding 2012's top running back in Johnathan Gray along with last year's standouts Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown. And if Alabama and LSU taught us anything last year, it's that you can beat literally anybody and everybody with a good running game and an even better defense.
Not only does Texas have the coaching and talent to get it done as an independent, but Mack Brown and his staff can recruit with the absolute best of them.
Since 2006, they have not had a recruiting class ranked outside of the top 10 and have been in the top three five times, not to mention they already have a top-five class lined up for 2013, according to ESPN. Since being able to recruit on a national level will be a must should the Longhorns become an independent, I would say they have that part covered as well.
Coaches that can handle national-level scrutiny? Check. Players that can play with anybody? Check. Ability to recruit on a national scale? Check.
Texas may not feel pressed to become an independent after the efforts it put in to hold the conference together, but they certainly have the ability to go out on their own should the need arise.