Can Texas A&M Go AWOL on the Big 12 Before the MPs Arrive?

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Can Texas A&M Go AWOL on the Big 12 Before the MPs Arrive?
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Happier days?

"I am of the mind that we control our destiny at the moment, but the window will soon close on us. Agility and swiftness of foot is our friend." 

 --- Ohio State president Gordon Gee on April 19th, 2010 in a letter to Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany on the conference's plans to poach  other conference(s)'s major TV revenue generating schools.

For the last month, there has been renewed talk of Texas A&M leaving their unstable athletic affiliation with the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference.

Talk show hosts as far as Dallas have said A&M should "Go EAST, young man!" without really considering whether the Aggies can really pull off or are willing to bear the potential costs of such a maneuver.  Or the ramifications such an action would have on the rest of Texas's FBS schools. (And I'd argue they have greatly glossed over whether the benefits are there to justify the Aggies joining the SEC—but that is a subject for my earth shattering Bleacher Report tomorrow morning. I promise it will be a must read for Aggie faithful.)

Joining the SEC is a popular idea for Aggie fans who have been sold a halcyon dream of SEC life by former Aggie Coach Gene Stallings and other SEC proponents. Sports writers like the Houston Chronicle's Richard Justice have further whipped the fiery Aggie faithful into a frenzy with their year long SEC drumbeating. 

Much of the non-Aggie nation has questioned for quite a while whether A&M has the juice to get away with giving the University of Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor the finger and joining the SEC—especially as the move seems likely to greatly increase the SEC's recruiting success in Texas, hurt nationally relevant Texas football programs at UT, Tech, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Houston and diminish the shine of college football in Texas for quite a while.

Last year, during the flirtation with the PAC-12, a Longhorn site, BurntOrangeNation, tackled the subject of whether UT or A&M could leave the Big 12 and one of the many conclusions they have reached was that "There's a 'strong feeling here that A&M and UT are joined at the hip,' and it is 'almost inconceivable' to consider that the two schools would be apart. Our observer believes that the two schools hold a mutual veto over each other and would use this veto if it appeared as though one school had an escape plan and the other didn't. The role of Gov. Perry would become prominent and our observer cannot imagine that Perry would allow Texas to leave without A&M unless A&M had 'an equally good alternative.' "

It is a compelling piece that rings true to a lot of people who follow realignment, so as the rumors have come up, we have been quite dubious.

It has been hard to imagine UT signing off on A&M leaving for the SEC when A&M could then throw their political might behind Baylor and Tech (and perhaps even SMU, TCU and Houston) to try to force UT into a long term affiliation in a far lesser caliber conference.

But it is hard to be as pessimistic today as Texans choke in the smoke of endless rumors that A&M to the SEC is a done deal.  (For the record, it almost certainly is not a done deal yet.  Until the people who hold the cards—Texas A&M's Board of Regents—have an invite in hand from the SEC, can have a meeting to evaluate the political fallout and decide whether the University can live with the backlash, all speculation is exactly that.)

And just what is the latest on the A&M BOR?

They were scheduled to meet on the 22nd with no agenda item on the table for a move to the SEC (but plenty of time available that day for such a new agenda item to be discussed).  It sounded for all the state of Texas like the SEC and A&M would deny any existence of an offer and then A&M would announce on maybe as late as the 21st that the Regents would be discussing the issue. The next day the A&M BOR would vote to leave before anyone could bring action to stop them, effectively daring politicians to launch a backlash.

Then, The Texas House Committee on Higher Education scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue on Tuesday the 16th, presumably to try to talk the Aggie leadership down.  Maybe for some other reasons.  (I have to think every Texas FBS school understands the potential fallout if A&M should open the state up further to SEC recruiting, so some of the committee membership might be quite hostile.)

A&M responded by scheduling a meeting specifically to discuss this potential move on Monday the 15th, a day prior to the committee's meeting.  Perhaps this was to avoid seeing a lack of resolve emerge on the Aggie BOR in the face of what punitive actions could be applied to the university, perhaps it was due to the pressure Aggie leadership is under from their passionate fanbase to not cave again or perhaps it was designed to turn the table on the House committee by making them go from the much more tolerable position of leveling threats against A&M to bring about correct thinking to having the much tougher job of bringing sanctions down after the fact on a school with the political power of A&M.

Politically, that did not sit well with at least one member of the Committee on Higher Education. One can well imagine the discussion between them and Aggie leadership over the last few days.

Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News reported that State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) of the House Committee used the term "highly inappropriate" numerous times on Saturday to describe the actions of A&M's leadership before being given a series of assurances by Aggie leadership.

Here's the full post-assurance quote of Branch from the Morning News article.

"I'm pleased to hear from A&M officials that the board meeting (Monday) is about beginning serious discussions with the SEC and not about finalizing or completing the acceptance of such a bid,” Branch said. “I don't think it would be wise to preempt an opportunity for legislators to ask them questions.

"I'm trying to keep an open mind. If a bid is extended, that makes sense for A&M—that doesn't have undue consequences on the other Texas schools—I'm keeping an open mind. I don't have any predisposition. My only predisposition is to have something that is a value-added opportunity for the state of Texas."

The quote is quite the political dagger.  It paints the politicians as trusting A&M and seems designed to open the PR door for a serious backlash against A&M if the Aggie BOR does try to run out the door on Monday in an effort to meet the rumored 2012 SEC schedule.  It has a certain threat element and an amorphous—likely unreachable—goal. Everything a politician could ever dream of putting into such a quote.

Running out the door

Just as Gee mentioned in his quote above, speed of execution appears to be the key to landing a power player from another conference.  You have to beat the angry mob and the politicians.

From the initial reports through Aggie themed newsblogs, A&M has appeared to be pushing out the idea of the Aggies as a wounded party who loyally went out of their way to save the Big 12 last year, only to be shockingly betrayed by UT.

First of all, this is UT we are talking about, not Utah State.  UT is not exactly the model of above the board dealings and a good trustworthy conference teammate willing to put their own immediate gratification aside for the shared good of their conference.

Secondly, does anyone outside of Aggie Nation believe A&M returning was the driving force that saved the Big 12 last year? I think more people probably share my take—that once UT decided it had extracted enough blood from the rest of the conference and was staying—public sentiment turned and the pathway for A&M to trade up in conference esteem likely disappeared.  As I recall, the Aggie Board of Regents were rumored to be on the verge of a vote to join the SEC while UT and the Longhorn Posse were still mulling their options. 

One might call it saving face, but it could also be looked at as pushing a public relations narrative out to the people of Texas to grease the political skids for their departure.

It makes sense for the Aggies to build a narrative of being a fiercely loyal battered wife, deny the infidelity until the last second and then run off with their new lover in that brief window of opportunity where cooler heads could right the marriage.

How ugly has this gotten?

Earlier this week, there was a report from the Houston Chronicle Aggies blog stating that an A&M official leaked that Big 12 commissioner bluntly told the Aggies the conference could survive without them as UT was the real key to the conference. In a Dallas radio station interview with Justice, it was said that Beebe, long painted as UT's "yes man" denied the report and it was noted by the reporters in the interview that a comment like that did not sound like something they would expect Beebe to say, but to many it will seem credible given Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds's dismissive sounding evaluation of the Aggies's potential move, “They’ve got to do what’s best for them. We’re going to look at every option we’ve got and we’re going to end up in a good place. That’s what we do. We’re good at that.”

Suggesting the Aggies are not only a lesser factor in the Big 12's survival than UT, but also that the conference would get along fine without the Aggies is exactly the kind of thing that would make an Aggie booster see red.  If the leadership at A&M wanted everyone behind this move, it would be a sensible thing for an Aggie official to leak to the press.

Likewise, Dodds's words are fuel for the Longhorn faithful who view A&M as an inferior drama queen with delusions of grandeur.  One can't help but wonder if UT has again changed the rules and maybe now is in favor of allowing A&M to walk away with the idea that it might help UT walk alone to the Big 10 one day in the near future.  Could A&M leaving actually help UT by providing a precedence?  Could UT and A&M cut a deal to allow A&M to go east?

As in any divorce, the real losers are the children.  Is it smart for Baylor and Tech to sit idly by as UT and A&M dig in?  Remember UT, OU, OSU and Tech had an offer for a 16 team PAC-10.  Baylor was out in the cold. 

And if A&M abandoning the kids does create a precedence for UT to pass on the PAC-12 and instead leave for the Big 10 alone or even with OU, will Tech fans have no one but themselves to blame for not getting in the ear of their own elected officials today as powers that be begin to work the Big 12 out of the BCS?  (OU may prefer the PAC-12, but academically the Big 10 certainly would be just as beneficial in the Sooners' efforts to enhance their academic brand and earn membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities...and there is Nebraska.  That may be one way to solve the "Tech Problem."). Based off SEC recruiting incursions alone, the days of Tech pulling occasional star talents like Michael Crabtree out of Dallas may be over.

What of TCU?  Will their football excellence erode as SEC schools begin poaching their better recruits?  Will this put a cap on June Jones' rebuilding of SMU?  How can Houston maintain their level of play when all of the SEC schools will consider the rich Houston recruiting area their native turf?

Will all of these schools be hurting themselves in the future by letting A&M leave?

All of Texas potentially has a lot to lose.  Will the fans of Texas FBS schools light a fire under their local politicians today before tomorrow's Aggie BOR meeting or will A&M successfully escape ahead of the mob?

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