I was listening to a radio interview on a Dallas/Fort Worth station with a University of Texas beat reporter for the Austin American Statesman about 5 days ago and the question was posed, "Who does UT invite if Texas A&M leaves the Big 12?"
The reporter very matter of factly answered that UT had 3 main targets:
Brigham Young University
(The University of Houston was mentioned as UT's likely fallback plan.)
It seemed surreal. I was overwhelmed by incredulity.
UT is going to settle for replacing A&M in the Longhorn's puppet conference that could implode at any moment with Notre Dame --- the object of the desire of the Big 10, the most secure and prestigious conference in the nation? And then they are going to top it off with raiding the SEC?!?! Does UT AD DeLoss Dodds and Co. deserve what's coming to them for being so insufferably arrogant, or what?
For most of this week I have scratched my head and tried to understand how Dodds could believe that such a move was plausable enough for UT personnel to throw it out to the media.
After much pondering, I think I understand the strategy behind the idea now, and the odds could be quite a bit better than any of us ever imagined because of a very simple idea:
A&M leaving puts the Big 12 at risk and forces UT to work for the conference's interest and not just UT's...
If A&M leaves in another 15 days or so as has been reported, the SEC will likely consider adding another western school to balance their divisions as they push to 16. The name brought up most often to be that school is Missouri. Last year Missouri was publicly left at the alter by the Big 10 in one of the most embarrassing last minute jilts in recent memory.
It is not difficult to imagine Missouri has had enough of the Big 12 too.
If they should join A&M in moving to the SEC --- arguably the academic and research ghetto of the BCS conferences --- the Big 12 would be left with 8 members who would blame UT.
Those schools might be quite skittish about the future of the conference. The northern schools (Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State) could worry that the four strong southern schools (UT,OU, OSU, and Tech) might reopen talks with the PAC-12, leaving the northern trio again looking at being abandoned with Baylor.
Currently the 17 member Big East is closing in on a new TV deal at the new, much higher going rates. If the new Big East deal could allow that conference to add Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State and pay the three schools in the ballpark of what they make as junior partners in the Big 12, why would the northern trio not consider jumping to the best basketball conference in America in favor of the uncertainty of the Big 12?
UT has said they do not want to be independent. It is easy to take that statement at face value as so much of their brand value is tied into playing the top schools in the Texas region.
This path leaves UT with two choices. They could try to dump Texas Tech and Baylor and jump to the Big 10. In a gutted Big 12, this could be quite difficult to spin politically in Texas. Plus A&M boosters' may help Tech and Baylor boosters bring in-state political heat on UT to either stay with Tech and Baylor in the Big 12 or carry them along to a new conference.
The other option is to eat whatever crow the PAC-12 may require and jump with OU, OSU, and Tech to the PAC-12.
For UT to control their own destiny and protect their options (and not eat any crow), they probably need to fight like heck for the Big 12 to expand. Calming the nerves of their conference mates may require the big 12 landing multiple schools, including a bigger fish than BYU.
Dodds appears to get that. In a recent quote to the Austin America Statesman's Kirk Bohls, Dodds said, “I think nine are solid. I think 10’s a good number. I’ve always liked 10. In my mind, we’d try to stay at 10. If we had to, we’d go to 12.”
That last sentence seems to imply that despite UT's preference being to just add a BYU and move on with control of an equally unstable conference that UT can continue to manipulate, circumstances in the conference may demand larger expansion.
A willing and motivated UT fighting for the Big 12 changes the equation.
With that in mind The UT plan may not be as nearly as far-fetched as it appears
BYU is the low hanging fruit of the trio. BYU has been mentioned repeatedly in almost every article as A&M's likely replacement and the logic there is fairly obvious.
BYU desperately wants to be in a BCS Automatic Qualifier conference. Their pride has been stung to no end by the PAC-10 actually taking BYU's little brother Utah over the Cougars. That choice sent a very clear message to BYU that the PAC-12 is likely never going to invite them. The Pac-12 requires unanimous votes for expansion. It is beleived that at least 2 members (Stanford University and the University of California at Berkely) have issues with the rules and limitations BYU puts on academic subject matter and research for religious reasons. The concept is seen as contrary to the PAC-12's academic culture.
Just about everything else about BYU is a rubberstamp "yes" in terms of being BCS AQ caliber. The Big 12 and the Big East don't care about BYU's religious stance on research. With those conferences it is simply a questions of the number of slots available and at what point the value of BYU outweighs all of the perceived costs of travel (not just the costs of the plan tickets).
Like UT, BYU has a TV deal with ESPN. There is synergy there. It doesn't seem difficult for the Big 12 and BYU to come up with a TV deal that makes sense for all three parties.
For most, the idea of the Big 12 having a shot to land Notre Dame is the toughest to grasp. Notre Dame is the biggest fish in the BCS sea.
On the surface, Notre Dame appears to be a firm "no" due to their stated desire not to join a conference in order to protect their preferred nation-wide football scheduling, but there is surprisingly a lot of wiggle room and surrounding factors there that most fans may be overlooking.
First, remember that despite all of Notre Dame's anti-conference rhetoric, they are already in a conference. They are a member of the Big East; They just don't play football there.
Notre Dame's affiliation with the Big East non-football schools is based on a shared Catholic influence. Notre Dame is the rockstar university of the Catholic world. Those schools value the affiliation, so they have Notre Dame's back on conference issues.
The affiliation has worked well for Notre Dame in the BCS world of the recent past, allowing the Irish to keep their olympic sports in a BCS home while playing football as the nation's most prominent independent.
It may not work that well in the future. How well does this association protect Notre Dame in a BCS world with 16 team mega conferences where the Big East may be picked apart...?
Despite the Big East's basketball excellence, there are good reasons to believe that the Big 12 could write a bigger check for Notre Dame's olympic sports ...if it came with some minor football component.
All that might be required from a football perspective could be to prop up the Big 12 headliners with an affiliation that delivers as little as a single TV showcase game per year. Perhaps ND dropping the least entertaining and least valuable game on their schedule (I am speculating it would be Purdue but I am sure Notre Dame fans will weigh in.) and replacing that game with a high profile made for TV matchup against either UT or OU each year at a neutral site (Chicago, Dallas? NYC?)?
Notre Dame's leadership has good relations with both Big 12 South powers.
Notre Dame's AD Jack Swarbrick has a history with DeLoss Dodds. Both men are, by all reports, friendly and based on that it seems likely that Notre Dame would at least listen to a pitch from Dodds.
In fact, UT may be the only school in the Big 12 that may have that kind of access to Notre Dame.
Can UT make a compelling argument to Notre Dame that there is greater long term value in the coming era of the mega conferences to be the 3rd co-owner of the Big 12 --- with powers that might include helping set conference direction and perhaps having sole control over the selection of future additions in the north --- instead of keeping the Irish's affiliation with the seven non-football playing dwarves that keeps them in the unstable bottom dweller conference of the BCS Automatic Qualifier Conference ranks?
I think there is enough there that a good salesman could pull it off. Dodds is a heck of a salesman.
If UT can add Notre Dame --- even as essentially a non-football member --- the Big 12 is immediately media relevant in Notre Dame's native Designated Market Area, the Chicago DMA (the third largest TV market in the nation). Notre Dame is the most media relevant college team in that DMA.
Plus the conference becomes much more interesting to viewers across the midwest and northeast. (There is a compelling argument that despite being located in the southeastern tip of the Chicago DMA, that Notre Dame is also the #1 team in the New York City DMA --- the nation's #1 DMA.)
The big problem that most see with the Big 12 long term is that there are not enough large population bases around Texas for the conference to become a top tier mega conference. The idea is that the Big 12 will not be able to keep up with the Big 10 and SEC and maybe not even the PAC-12 as those conferences evolve into 14-16 or more member megaconferences.
If Notre Dame were to buy in as a "co-owner", agreeing to make the Big 12 conference at least a two hub conference --- UT or UT/OU being the other hub --- it changes the long term potential of a middle of the country BCS AQ conference.
It is for example suddenly reasonable to see a strategy emerge that creates a Big 16 down the road with expansive (but manageable) divisions that stretch from Utah to the Longhorn alliance territory and from Iowa (Iowa State) to New York City. Schools like Louisville, Rutgers, Pitt, and Army could emerge as potential choices of Notre Dame to complete the northern division.
Conferences are paid by networks for what they bring to the table collectively. Adding relevant support levels in the Chicago and New York City DMAs to Texas with it's large DMAs amounts to huge broadcast potential that should deliver competitive TV payouts to any conference out there.
Rather than seeing the Big 10 take Rutgers to gain a NYC presence and the network value of that move, Notre Dame could beat the Big 10 to the punch --- effectively sealing them off from the northeastern markets--- all while Notre Dame maintains their football independence. (Remember the Big 10 derives their payouts from HALF ownership of their network. The PAC-12 TV model is quite a bit different and may be the future of conference TV models. Future conference networks are likely to be owned more fully by the conferences, so in the future you could see the Big 10 lose much of the leverage they have today as the supplemental conference network model is employed and expanded upon.)
UT's has dreamed up some pretty big grand slam, pie-in-the-sky, plans along those lines that AD DeLoss Dodds has mentioned in passing on video and reporters have expanded on the specifics in print.
With Notre Dame buying in, there would be enough star power involved and enough future potential in the Big 12 that selling Arkansas could be possible. (For the record, from the articles the last few days I think UT may have thought Arkansas was an easier sell than Notre Dame and tried to land them first --- and failed. I think Arkansas is likely the harder sale. While it is true that Arkansas joined the SEC thinking UT was right behind them, that was 19 years ago. While the older --- and richer --- half of Arkansas's fan base may covet a return to a conference with UT, younger Arkansas fans are SEC true believers and may make the Big 12 have to do something to prove long term stability for them to not make such talk toxic.)
Arkansas is the only team in the country that would likely make a more money in the Big 12 than the SEC. The Razorbacks are somewhat isolated in the SEC. In the Big 12, the former SWC schools are long time rivals and the Hogs have good proximity to the remaining former Big 8 schools ---- so much so that it seems easy to imagine the Hogs could fairly regularly fill an expanded Reynolds Stadium to 100,000. That is not something likely in today's SEC (but to be fair, Missouri's decision could make this point far less decisive).
Additionally, and much more importantly IMO, such a move is almost guaranteed to restore the Dallas/Fort Worth recruiting pipeline that made Arkansas a national contender in football and basketball in the last days of the Southwest Conference.
Being a national contender brings in the booster money. Arkansas has only won 10 football games twice in their 19 years in the SEC and that is a big reason why their athletic budget is just a middle of the pack athletic budget in the SEC --- lower even than several Big 12 schools even with the SEC's fat TV checks.
In the SEC, Arkansas is usually a bowl team and a bubble team for the NCAA tourney. In the Big 12, their athletic program's success could easily rival UT's in the revenue sports.
There are all the reasons in the world to make the jump ...if the Big 12 can show Hog fans a promising future. Securing Notre Dame and those big TV markets could easily push down on the scale for the Big 12.
It still seems unlikely, but after reflection, not ridiculously so. It doesn't just seem like hot air from a delusional and spoiled kingpin of college athletics. UT could actually be putting together a real plan to approach these schools.
And the Big 12 may have A&M to thank...
UT works for their own self interest. Most of the time, that hurts the Big 12 overall. If A&M leaving brings UT's self interest in line with those of their conference members, it may be the best thing to ever happen to the Big 12...and the worst thing to ever happen to A&M.
If UT should happen to work their alleged master plan, A&M will look foolish for leaving.
As I wrote in an earlier Bleacher Report editorial, A&M is handing over their richest recruiting territory (East Texas/Houston) to the SEC. They will be playing in a division where they will likely finish fifth most years behind annual national contenders Alabama & Louisiana State as well as Arkansas (who should be able to steal a little more help from Texas --- and Houston and East Texas in particular --- with the Aggies in the conference) and Auburn (which is fresh off buying a national title). This move could leave A&M isolated ---their recruiting compromised --- and just like the Razorbacks, The Aggies could see their program take a similar 20 year trip down the road of irrelevance.
A&M should be wary of the Law of Unintended Consequences. There is the potential that almost every gripe Aggies have about life in UT's shadow in the Big 12 could be exacerbated by this move to the SEC.
Tune in for my next Bleacher Report Editorial where I dig deeper into the more likely and recent Big 12 expansion plans coming out of DeLoss Dodds and how the Law of Unintended Consequences could come into play for A&M as the Big 12 plans to takes action in response to the Aggies' likely move to the SEC.