The Big Ten has dropped a bombshell. It has become public knowledge that they are "in preliminary discussions" about expanding with Texas. This is a fancy term for saying some phone calls have been made and some information (most of it available publicly anyway since Texas is a state school) has been exchanged.
But is this a serious trajectory, or a complete bluff?
Or maybe the Big Ten is checking off their wish list so they can say they at least pursued the biggest fish in the pond and have no regrets about what could have been. I'm going with bluff.
It goes without saying that every conference wants Texas. I could find press clippings where the Big Ten has wanted them in the past. The SEC looked their way but only wanted one school from the west side of their region and one from the east.
They ended up with Arkansas and South Carolina. But Texas had to decline because Texas and Texas A&M were a "package deal" at the time. The Pac Ten has even wanted them. But they didn't want A&M, so same song second verse.
The Big Ten is going to run into that same problem this time.
Much was written about the breakup of the old Southwest Conference and the realignment that happened afterward. At the time, Baylor was in a position it might not be in again as the governor (Ann Richards) was a Baylor alum.
But politics in Texas is such that the other schools, certainly A&M but most likely also Texas Tech and Baylor, each have some influences in the highest offices in state government. These power brokers are going to attach their schools of choice to the flagship school in the hopes of riding their coattails.
And in the end, like the Big 8 at that time, any conference is going to find that to get Texas, you have to swallow all the big institutions in that state whole...and they all have to want to go. It isn't going to happen with just Texas alone.
It's no secret why everyone wants Texas. Texas is the 2nd most populated state in the country.
That means two things. Lots of recruiting targets and lots of households (and thus television sets).
And they have four large media markets in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. Finally, they have an alumni base that is among the largest in the country, making the whole nation a "virtual expanded" media market. I see more Texas fans living in Orlando than Florida State fans and definitely more than Miami fans.
So any conference is going to make Texas tell them no before they go on to the more likely but less "sexy" candidates. But is this posturing just that or is there more? This is what I call "the bluff."
The Big Ten still wants Notre Dame.
And if they could choose either and have assurance that both would say yes, I believe they would choose Notre Dame. The Irish have standing rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. The Irish make the travel logistics easier on all the Big Ten members schools. This is especially important in non-football sports.
A 12th team, no matter who, still gives the conference the ability to have a championship game and to be in the football discussion into December just like the other power conferences that have championship games.
And while Texas' athletic department is the most lucrative in college sports, Notre Dame is in the same neighborhood while Pitt, Syracuse, and Missouri aren't even in the same zip code.
Notre Dame has rested comfortably with the knowledge for decades now that they have a seat at the table in the Big Ten should they ever want it. And even when the Big Ten added Penn State, they only added one school even though logic and balance would have dictated staying in even numbers.
But it's been common knowledge that the 12th spot was reserved for Notre Dame.
Anyone in marketing will tell you that you can only make a sale with two important criteria. The consumer must feel both a sense of value and a sense of urgency to pull the trigger.
You can tell me that I'm going to save 50 percent if I buy a certain item I may have my eye on. But if my experience tells me that I have the opportunity to save 50 percent several times per year, I'm not going to pull the trigger and prioritize that purchase over something else that is higher in the hierarchy of my priorities.
But if you told me that this would be the only opportunity in the next two years to save 50 percent and I had reason to really believe that, I would revisit my priorities and see if I could shuffle them around and still accomplish my long term goals.
That is the position where Notre Dame now finds itself.
Before, it could always join the Big Ten and there was no urgency to make any decision. They could stay independent for as long as that worked best for them and then jump to the Big Ten if the college football landscape ever changed in such a way that made being in the Big Ten more favorable.
In other words, it was all on Notre Dame's terms. And everyone knew it.
Enter Texas. A bluff involving Pitt would not do the trick. But there is a realistic shot that the Big Ten would remove Notre Dame's reservation from the empty seat in the conference for Texas. And everyone knows that too.
The calculus has now changed. Notre Dame knows that changes are on the horizon in college football and, like everything else, change is happening faster now and is more unpredictable than ever.
And with the public sentiment deeply against the current BCS because of special clauses for Notre Dame, and with Congress lining up behind that public sentiment, there could be serious and sweeping changes coming that don't benefit Notre Dame in its current state of independence.
One thing is for sure...you know the conferences are going to be protected because they represent many member institutions and millions of alumni that vote.
Notre Dame only represents itself and has a relatively small alumni base compared to big state schools that populate the conferences.
As we've seen with the constant "tax the rich" claims of the masses, because the rich are fewer in number and thus have fewer votes, they often get hosed. Notre Dame finds itself in that position as an institution.
Congress loves to line itself against those entities or groups that the public resents ("the rich", "big tobacco", "big oil", etc.) and get a proverbial pound of flesh from them to satisfy the unruly masses that complain about getting squeezed from such entities.
And most people believe that if Congress or the Justice Department ever did take the unprecedented step of reordering the college football world, just like in life, the "rich" would be targeted and the "little guys" like the Boise State's and the TCU's would get favoritism or a "handout" to follow the analogy.
And nobody has gotten more special treatment from the BCS than Notre Dame. While they haven't had the wins that often to take advantage of these special provisions, they are nonetheless still in the code. Therefore, they would be in serious jeopardy in such a scenario.
Don't think for a minute that this is lost on Notre Dame's powers that be. There is a protection that a conference can give them that being an independent just simply cannot.
Also, the NBC TV deal isn't what it once was and, after a rocky start, the Big Ten Network has proven to be a big revenue winner. So the tv money disparity isn't there like it once was. And adding Texas would boost the Big Ten even more (as would Notre Dame).
So the uncertainty, the political landscape, and many other factors make the "devil you know" with the Big Ten better than the "devil you don't know" by trying to read the tea leaves and predict the future twenty or thirty years out in this current fast-paced and uncertain climate.
At least if Notre Dame joined the Big Ten, they could structure special loopholes in their conference contract, insist on certain revenue concessions, etc. The ability to write their ticket is much less assured if dominoes start falling and Congressional action takes place.
Therefore, I think the Big Ten is telling Notre Dame to, as my grandfather used to tell me when I needed to make a decision, "____ (rhymes with spit) or get off of the pot." Notre Dame has never had that kind of pressure.
And they must face it now after firing their 3rd straight disappointing coach with many asking aloud if Notre Dame can ever be a winner like it used to be given the rise of so many other schools to rival it in prestige.
The fact that they are not in a natural recruiting hotbed, and the academics are even more out of reach for most of today's athletes than they were for most of yesteryear's athletes is also a factor.
Yes, it's dicey times at the Dome these days. Much hope has been bestowed on Chip Kelly but much hope was also bestowed on that fabulous offensive coordinator from that multiple Super Bowl winning team in New England. So Notre Dame fans are right to keep their optimism in check.
Bottom line is that the Big Ten has raised the stakes. We'll be seeing soon if Notre Dame is going to call this wager.