Friday, August 19, 2011

As the conference turns, pt. 3

Over the years of the Big 12's existence, despite much on-field success, tensions never subsided behind the scenes. Nebraska continued to chafe at Texas' perceived dominance in the league's front offices. Say what you will of Deloss Dodds, but he is a shrewd businessman and very adept at convincing others that their best interests lie with whatever course of action benefits Texas the most. When Tom Osborne returned to Nebraska as athletic director, those tensions ratcheted up--in Osborne's view, the Cornhuskers play second fiddle to nobody. In the spring of 2010, things were about to come to a head, prompted by the Big 10's announcement in January that they would consider expansion.

Enter Missouri. Yes, Missouri, a school with a strong basketball tradition and erratic football history. Mizzou had long harbored a dream of joining the Big 10 and playing the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin on an annual basis. For reasons I confess I'm still not terribly clear on, Mizzou began agitating for a Big 10 bid in early 2010. On message boards, at least, Missouri fans were quite belligerent about their desires, insisting they had more in common with the Big 10, and that the rival league had wanted to add them for years. Then, unexpectedly, similar rumblings emerged from Nebraska. To his credit, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe pretty promptly demanded that Nebraska and Missouri clarify their intentions or face league sanctions. Nebraska immediately said, "We've got a Big 10 offer. We're outta here." To Dan Beebe's everlasting discredit, he was wholly unprepared for Nebraska calling his bluff. Meanwhile, Mizzou stared slack-jawed at Nebraska's abrupt realignment move, and humiliated by the fact that the Big 10 stopped returning calls.

Over in Austin, Deloss Dodds was anything but flat-footed. In June, it came out that his Big 10 fetish had resurfaced in a big way, in a series of emails between Ohio State President Gordon Gee and Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany. The messages referenced a conversation between Gee and Texas President William Powers, who purportedly said Texas would welcome a Big 10 bid, but had a "Tech problem." Texas and Texas A&M are both members of the academically-prestigious American Association of Universities, whereas Texas Tech is not. AAU membership would be a requirement for admission to the Big 10 conference, and Texas, remembering the political firestorm 20 years before that landed Tech and Baylor spots in the Big 12, was mindful that it wouldn't be able to strike out on its own.

With a jump to the Big 10 facing complications, Dodds turned to the other league he'd flirted with 20 years before: the Pac 10. The academically respected conference was a decent consolation prize, but wasn't quite as stringent in its admission requirements. As far as I can tell, Dodds pretty much on his own negotiated a bold deal: The Pac 10 would expand to 16 teams, taking Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Colorado as well as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The league would then split into two divisions, with Arizona and Arizona State joining the Big 12 refugees in the southern division. It was a bold plan, except judging from the way it played out in the media, Dodds hadn't bothered to discuss it with any of the five other Big 12 schools he planned to bring along. Maybe that was a holdover from SWC negotiations two decades before, where he was forced to find homes for other schools. Maybe it was a poorly-timed assumption brought on by all the league office battles with Nebraska where the southern division schools lined up behind Texas. In any event, the announcement that a move to the Pac 10 was a done deal caught most other schools by surprise. Instead of accepting the offer on the table, Texas A&M said "Wait a minute. We didn't want to go to the Pac 20 years ago, why should we want to go now?"

Texas A&M started talking to the SEC. Suddenly, Dodds' plans were in jeopardy. A&M had a large fan base and television following that the Pac wanted. Without A&M, there would only be a Pac 15, and unbalanced divisions make for difficult scheduling. Plus there weren't any other obvious teams of A&M's caliber available to fill that slot--BYU might fit the bill with its large Mormon fan base, but the school refused to play on Sundays, a non-starter for the Pac. The SEC, sensing opportunity, opened up communication with Oklahoma about perhaps joining the SEC along with A&M. The enormous travel challenges of Texas and Oklahoma schools playing schools along the west coast was a big negative, as was the western time zone and perceived liberal, elitist attitudes of the Pac 10 schools. Baylor, panicked at the prospect of being relegated to Conference USA like the University of Houston, started mobilizing its political connections to force Texas to take the Bears along to the Pac 16. The Pac 10, for its part, wanted nothing to do with small, religious Baylor. Colorado, which had harbored dreams of joining the Pac 10 for decades but never viewed them as practical, suddenly saw itself as the odd man out if Baylor did somehow manage to strong-arm Texas. In a burst of self-preservation, the Colorado Buffaloes snatched the open Pac 10 bid and announced they were leaving the Big 12.

The Texas plan was in tatters. Baylor was trying to muscle its way into the party, Missouri--which had started the whole thing--was crying in the corner because no conference was showing any interest at all, and Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State faced the prospect of begging the Mountain West Conference for membership. Talk abounded of congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., about realignment. And the Aggies were still hell-bent on joining the SEC for more money. The entire plan was about to collapse and Deloss Dodds needed an out.

Several years earlier, the subject of a Big 12 cable network was broached, and Dodds was among the voices arguing for the league not to act, but instead take a "wait and see" attitude. Shortly thereafter, Texas representatives approached Texas A&M about starting a joint cable network, called "The Flagship Network" or alternately "The Lone Star Network." Talks never went very far--depending on which side you talk to, it was the other that lost interest and walked away. in the meantime, conference-owned networks proved to be lucrative endeavours. The Big 10 launched a version, resulting in millions in extra income for their member schools. The Pac 10 was in the early stages of launching something similar, as was the SEC. The Big 12 was still taking a "wait and see" attitude. Ever since the joint network with A&M had fallen through, Texas had brought up the prospects of doing its own network from time to time, but abruptly it became a major issue for the Longhorns. With Pac 10 offers on the table, Dodds asked the Pac if the Longhorn Network would be allowed to exist independently of the nascent Pac 16 network, and carry league games. The Pac 10 responded (rightly) of course not. At that point, Dodds announced that Texas would be staying in the Big 12 and work to make the league viable over the long term. And just like that, A&M--still negotiating with the SEC--became the only threat to the viability of the Big 12.

At the time, I viewed Dodds' move as self-serving and transparent. I wanted Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin and Athletic Director Bill Byrne to turn the tables on Texas by saying, "Yes, we will continue our membership in the Big 12 if you give us assurances that you will abandon your plans for the Longhorn Network and instead work to establish a Big 12 network that will benefit all member schools." I doubt Texas would've agreed to those terms, but we'll never know. In the end, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe guaranteed A&M and extra $20 million to stay in the league. It appeared to be the best deal for A&M at the time, despite the sentiment of many students and alumni favoring a move to the SEC. Personally, I favored none of the options, having reservations about the Pac 10, Big 10 and SEC. My preference was to continue the Big 12, but without Nebraska and Colorado, the league was mortally wounded. Without expansion--which everyone involved with the conference insisted wasn't on the agenda--I gave the Big 12 a five-year lifespan at best. Texas, I was convinced, would get the Longhorn Network (LHN) up and running, then bolt for either the Big 10 or Pac 12, banking on their value as a marquee team to convince the destination conference to "grandfather in" the LHN. Failing that, they could go independent and maximize their cash flow that way.

In any event, it appears I was too optimistic on the lifespan of the Big 12 by about four years.

As the conference turns, pt. 1
As the conference turns, pt. 2

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