Current commentary celebrating the stay of execution the now 10-team Big 12 received from a gracious and benevolent University of Texas is more than a little hard to swallow.
In order for the idea to actually be true, there are certain premises that must be believed:
First, that the Longhorns were loyally committed to the Big 12 and were surprised by expansion plans of other conferences that sought to obtain members of the Big 12.
Second, that the money that Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe “found” at the eleventh hour is not ransom money paid by ABC-ESPN to keep Fox Sports’ college football lineup at the bottom looking up.
Third, that Texas A&M’s apparent readiness to join the SEC instead of following the Longhorns in-tow out west did not factor in the Longhorns' decision to stay.
Last, that Texas politicians actually stayed out of the biggest story of the year.
None of which is true.
It is not a knock on UT that the powers-that-be in the administration had the foresight to anticipate the possibility of change and position themselves accordingly.
But let us not pretend that the potential demise of the Big 12 was not driven — first and foremost — by the ambition of the Texas Longhorns.
And that process began months ago.
We know from emails journalists obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that the top brass in Austin both initiated and explored the possibility of membership in both the Big Ten and Pac-10 Conferences.
The Big 12 became vulnerable the moment Texas decided there might be other pastures to roam.
Every bit of energy and worry spent the last several months on realignment flowered from the seeds Texas planted in the minds of Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott and Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delaney.
Colorado departing for the Pac-10 is a non-story in the big picture of college football, and Nebraska’s bolt for the Big Ten — while a headline and shrewd Big Ten move — disappeared quickly in the news cycle in favor of where Texas would ultimately end up.
No, every bit of the wholesale reshaping of the college football landscape has its birth in the decision Texas made months ago to dance with someone else.
The key to the Longhorns' decision to remain in the Big 12 are the gold coins Beebe found in his closet at the last possible minute.
Buried underneath the arguments Beebe had made for days — hurts recruiting, marginalizes power position, makes the middle part of the country a fly-over zone, etc. — he discovered a treasure chest labeled:
ESPN’s Counterinsurgency Fund.
For all the time we have spent on where a university might land, the why was always the money.
Yet, in those debates and projections, very little time has been spent on where — exactly — that money was going to come from.
The banks of college TV revenue are the broadcast companies, and there are only a handful of them dispersing funds across the land.
The move of Texas and its cousins to the Pac-10 would have made the Pac-16 Network — sponsored in large part by Fox — a major player on the national level, and that shift of power would have come at the expense of ABC-ESPN, which currently owns the rights to the Big 12’s biggest games.
Someone at ESPN looked at a map and realized that Fox — also a partner in the Big Ten Network — would essentially be pushing ESPN into an all-or-bust situation in the southeast part of the country.
ABC-ESPN was not ready for ready for major college football realignment, and they proved it by leaving their current Big 12 deal as is — not forcing a renegotiation based on the absence of Colorado and Nebraska — and pledging new monies to bolster the revenues in the next package so that the payout for Big 12 teams is more on par with other major conferences.
It was at that point that Texas remembered its home address and came back to the Big 12 table.
ABC-ESPN had to make a move that kept them in the driver’s seat of college football television.
The sudden appearance of ESPN and its checkbook and the very last minute is odd and should be questioned.
If the money is there now, why was it not there weeks ago?
The only difference is that weeks ago the Texas A&M Aggies were a foregone conclusion to follow Texas wherever the Longhorns wanted to go.
In finding a home of their own — the SEC — the Aggies did much more than prove to everyone that the time had come for the Longhorns to stop making decisions on A&M’s behalf.
The moment of pause the SEC offer gave Texas was just the crack in the door the ESPN folks needed to walk into the room.
Without the SEC offer — and the political will to accept it — Texas is a Pac-10 team right now.
The advantage Texas held over its Big 12 South rivals — recruiting, political support, academic prestige — would all have been maintained in a move to the Pac-10 that included Texas A&M.
Sans the Aggies, each one of those was affected.
It is one thing to travel to California to support your son for a bowl game; it is another entirely to get there for a conference matchup in mid-September.
Texas Head Coach Mack Brown said as much to an ESPN reporter this morning, describing the concerns he was hearing from athletes and their families about playing much of their schedule two time zones away.
Having grown up in Texas and watching the Longhorns since the days of Bill Boy Bryant, I know there will never be an admittance by most UT Fans that A&M’s breakaway caught them all by surprise.
No one — from either Texas or the Pac-10 — considered the possibility when masterminding the acquisition in recent months, otherwise the political pressure that Texas tried to apply to A&M in the last few days would have been a campaign that started months ago.
And it is also why — against all contrary evidence — you hear the Longhorns talking today about how committed they always were to the success of the Big 12.
In offering Texas A&M a seat at the SEC table, commissioner Mike Slive accomplished two things that should not be overlooked:
First, he gave the Aggies a vision of themselves outside the grip of the University of Texas, and did so in a way that appealed to all supportive columns of the Aggie Family both on and off the field.
Secondly, he showed that any plans other conferences might have in constructing mega-alliances, the SEC can step in at any time and mess with them.
As the new Big 12 still has the same old problems, this is only the first round. It will be interesting to see what lessons were learned when the dissolution of the Big 12 resurfaces when the TV contract is up.
If it even makes it that far.
There are no guarantees that the TV deal saving the league is done, and the rebellion by Texas A&M could influence decision makers in Lubbock and Stillwater — homes of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State — to flex a little muscle of their own.
“Why play fourth or fifth fiddle in the Big 12 when the Mountain West looks close to getting BCS credibility?” they might say. “Sure seems like a more equitable idea.”
One thing, however, that the Aggies will remember is the support they received from the SEC, and how good sunlight out of the Longhorn shadow feels.
There’s Two Types of Politics in Texas: Religion and Football
When the Pac-10 issued its first invitation to Colorado, I wrote that the move was a play by the conference to keep from being forced from taking Baylor as part of the package that included Texas, Texas Tech, OU, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
I still think it was.
The move gave cover to the Longhorns, who could in turn tell politicos, “Look, we fixed the Tech problem, but we cannot do anything about Baylor. There’s no more room at the inn.”
However, as the Aggies grew more and more intrigued by the SEC offer, and appeared ready to make the jump, the old hands that put Baylor in the Big 12 in the first place — over TCU — smelled blood in the water.
With five spots once again available, Texas was told to go back to the Pac-10 with a bag that included Baylor.
While not much of a force on the playing field, the same cannot be said for Baylor of the field, particularly if those are the fields of medicine, law or politics.
Made politically powerful by its association with the Baptist church — and their voting blocs that historically deliver — Baylor University has long been an unheralded player in Texas politics.
Their alumni base is both affluent and influential, and has a history of getting what it wants.
Texas Football rules most things in the state of Texas, but when the game moves off the field and into the legislature, conference standings do little to tell you where most dynamic playmakers do their thing.
What affect the Baylor lobby had on the University of Texas’ decision to come back to the table with the Big 12 we may never know, but we should not dismiss it. By itself, we could do so, but it light of everything else we saw take place, it was yet one more point of pressure applied to the wink-and-nod deal Texas put together with the Pac-10.
Lyndon Johnson once said that politicians in Texas are only quiet when, “they’re dead or up to no good.”
Here’s betting the Longhorns wish the former were true.
Whatever the endgame Texas sought, the scene did not go as they had scripted.
While many fans and conference commissioners will take a sigh of relief that the college football world did not get turned on its ear, it is important for all of us to note that calm returned in spite of the Texas Longhorns, not because of them.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He appreciates and welcomes all comments. Click here for a list of his other articles.
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