As almost anyone following conference expansion “news” knows, almost everything that could happen largely hinges on the Texas Longhorns. If they walked up and said “sign us up” to any conference in the country, they’d be in. Yes, there are plenty of leagues pretty happy where they are right now, but if Texas wanted to be the 12th Big Ten team, the 13th SEC or ACC team, etc. , it would happen. Of course, it’s not nearly so cut and dried, as the Longhorns will have enormous bargaining power, including (but possibly not limited to) the ability to largely dictate who else a league brings along, and some leagues may find the asking price too high. But if there were no strings attached, they’d be welcome anywhere. So the question becomes, where would they want to go?
As always with expansion, there are a great many opinions out there. Some, like SI.com’s Stewart Mandel ( link here ) argue for them joining up with a “Pac-16”, as the most recent rumor suggests is on the table. Some, like Texas fanblog Burnt Orange Nation ( link here ), prefer the SEC. And others, like Frank the Tank ( link here , among other pieces on his site), and CFN’s Pete Fiutak ( link here ), prefer the Big Ten. And another interesting perspective is provided by SI.com’s Andy Staples ( link here ), who gives a high-level overview of some of the issues Texas faces depending on what they choose, without coming down on any one side of the issue.
Going by popular opinion, as well as what intuitively makes sense, right now there are five options that are, in varying degrees, on the table: staying put in the Big XII, going independent, or joining the Big Ten, Pac-10, or SEC. Barring a monumental upset, they’re going in one of those five directions. So what are the determining factors? Well, here’s what, as far as I can tell (and there’s enough misdirection going around that no one really knows anything for sure), the factors likely are:
1)Texas isn’t going anywhere without Texas Tech, and Texas A&M will need to get an invite as well
I base the “Tech is coming too” perspective on Texas’s president saying “Whatever we do, we aren’t leaving Tech behind” ( link here ), and on a general public sense ( reflected here, among other places) that Tech is on the train pretty much no matter what. Even if it is true that Texas and A&M should have enough clout to overcome Tech (as argued here , though even that was pretty equivocal), at the least it seems like it’s a fight that they’d strongly prefer to avoid.
One thing worth noting is that I didn’t say that A&M was necessarily going in the same direction as Texas; the reason why I didn’t say that comes from this link , where Bill Bryne, the Texas A&M, said that the SEC “might be” a good home for the Aggies should the SEC implode; also, in the political link above on Tech, it was said that the only way Texas could part ways from A&M was if the Aggies had “an equally good alternative”. I think the implication from all this is that the Aggies would prefer to go to the SEC, and that while any other suitor for Texas would almost certainly have to give the Aggies the option of membership, it’s reasonably likely that A&M would decline.
I don’t think that this point really affects which leagues Texas might go to, but I do think it seriously affects the type of offer which could come on the table.
2) Texas cares about academic and recruiting standards for football players, and would prefer going to a league that feels the same way
Or, as former UT President Robert Berdahl said about possibly going to the SEC when the Southwest Conference imploded ( link here ), “We were quite interested in raising academic standards. And the Southeastern Conference had absolutely no interest in that.”
And the reason why is simple; if Texas is in a league where standard practice is to oversign recruits, and to have very relaxed academic standards for players, either they would have to take the same approach or have a competitive disadvantage. This is, according to at least one source ( link here ), the main reason why Georgia Tech left the SEC. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for Texas, but it is without a doubt a serious consideration, especially since one of the first things they did when joining the Big 12 was to increase academic standards (as noted in the SWC conference article, “10 months before the first Big 12 football game, the league's school presidents agreed to allow each Big 12 school to admit two male and two female partial qualifiers each season.”).
3) Texas would prefer to be in an elite academic conference
Or, as Berdahl stated (same article as above), “Texas wanted desperately the academic patina that the Pac-10 yielded. To be associated with UCLA, Stanford and Cal in academics was very desirable. … The Big Ten was now made of universities that … matched UT’s profile – large state schools with strong academic reputations”. I’m skeptical that this is really that big of an issue (I think point 2 is probably much more important), but it might be. Both the Big Ten and Pac-10 do very well in this regard if it matters; I don’t feel like getting into a “which is better academically” argument, so I’ll just say that whatever difference exists between the two probably isn’t important enough to sway the argument if it’s between the two leagues.
4) Geography matters
This is a substantial negative for both the Big Ten and Pac-10, and is one of the main reason why Texas might prefer to simply keep the status quo of the Big XII. It’s also one of the reasons why they might seriously consider going independent instead of joining a conference, so that they could simply arrange a schedule heavy with regional games, and a bunch of contracts with smaller Texas and Texas-area teams that give the Longhorns a bunch more home games than road games in all sports.
5) Money matters
Both the Big Ten and SEC are in a very strong position in terms of TV money, and would be able to pretty much guarantee Texas a substantial increase. The Pac-10 and Big XII (should it stay together) would likely boost revenues in the next round of TV negotiations, but there’s no way to know by how much, and there’s a reasonable chance it could be substantially less than what the Big Ten and SEC could guarantee. Independence would be a massive dice-roll, but at least theoretically it could turn into a massive TV windfall with the proposed Longhorn Sports Network.
6) Texas would prefer not to be the first team to leave the Big XII
I’m guessing this is really more of a minor issue, but I could be wrong.
7) Texas wants to launch the Longhorn Sports Network
They might end up being flexible on this issues, but as noted by Frank the Tank ( link here ), it’s at the very least something they’re seriously interested in, and that they’d consider a valuable bargaining chip were they to give it away during negotiations.
I’m sure that there are other issues that have some degree of relevance, but I’m guessing these are the big ones. So with those in mind, let’s look at Texas’s options, and the pros and cons of each:
Staying in the Big XII
If they don’t leave, they don’t make any enemies or make any waves. Their geographic setup is pretty reasonable, with everyone in their division either in their own state or neighboring Oklahoma (and they play the Sooners in Dallas), which means that in football they average two regular season games a year outside their home state, and only 1.5 per year further than Stillwater. And even Iowa St isn’t really that far.
It’s not remotely stable. People from Missouri have been openly pining for the Big Ten, and Nebraska seems extremely interested too. And in the other direction, it sure seems like Colorado would prefer to be in the Pac-10. And with the most likely replacement options being BYU and Utah, replacing anyone who leaves would be a substantial step downward.
There are also a bunch of schools which just don’t contribute much to the league: Baylor, Iowa St and Kansas St give almost nothing in terms of prestige, TV markets, etc. (that’s why everyone assumes they’re in deep trouble if the league falls). Right now that’s a full quarter of the league, and if some of the North teams bolt without getting replaced, the percentage would go up. And that’s not even counting the large middle of teams that don’t command anywhere near the level of marketability as Texas and Oklahoma.
This arguably has the most upside of any potential move. If Texas thinks the Longhorn Sports Network could take off, we’re potentially talking a whole new paradigm in college sports.
Almost too many to name. They’ll piss off just about everybody by going off on their own. There’s serious risk that they will have trouble putting together decent schedules in the minor sports. If their TV network bombs, they’ll take a financial hit. They won’t get the same BCS access as before, where all they needed was to win their league (there’s no way anyone else gets the “Notre Dame exemption,” much less a school who just burned a bunch of bridges). In almost every area, there’s major downside risk, and it seems almost impossible to pull it off in a functional way. I think Texas keeps this in the discussion to increase leverage, and I think that if they don’t get any deals they like, they’ll seriously consider it, but I can’t possibly think that this is what they actually want to do.
Going to the Big Ten
(let’s say they bring A&M, Tech, Nebraska and Oklahoma)
Academically, it’s a great fit for Texas. Every single current Big Ten school is well-regarded academically, and more importantly, Texas doesn’t have to fight or negotiate just to reach an acceptable level of academic standards for athletes.
The Big Ten Network is a huge asset. It’s already paying over $20M per year to each member school, and that number would only go up with Texas in the fold, no matter which other four schools joined too.
Basically, it’s geography. It’s a substantial distance from Austin to the current nearest Big Ten team (Iowa), and it’s even further to everywhere else. And since there’d be only five new schools, that means Texas would then be in a division with three out of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern. That means that in football Texas would get one or two long intra-division road trips per year (and Nebraska isn’t exactly short either), plus presumably one even longer inter-division road trip. It only gets worse when you consider that one of these long trips every year would probably be late in the season, which means very cold weather on a pretty regular basis.
Even worse, the league would still be centered in the Upper Midwest. That means that championship games, tournaments, and other league events would generally be in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan or Ohio. Yes, some might be in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, or Nebraska, but most wouldn’t. And unless the league decides that Detroit is a fun place for a title game, it’d probably be outside in very cold weather, quite possibly in the snow. Not a big plus for a Southwestern school like Texas.
And that’s assuming that the other four schools are the group I mentioned. If Notre Dame swaps in for one on that list, the travel situation only gets worse. And the league might very well fight against having to bring along Texas Tech and/or Oklahoma on academic grounds (pure speculation on my part, but it’s a consideration). If the Big Ten isn’t willing to play ball with who Texas wants to bring, that’s a tough situation for the Longhorns to embrace.
Going to the Pac-10
(let’s say they bring A&M, Tech, Oklahoma, OK St, and Colorado, per the latest rumors)
As with the Big Ten, academics are an obvious plus. Being associated with Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC, and Washington is a big step up from the Big XII academically.
Another plus is bargaining position. The SEC isn’t going to be flexible on the things Texas wants (more on that below), and the Big Ten may not want to have all five new members come from the West. The Pac-10, on the other hand, pretty much has zero other good options besides expanding with Texas as one of the new members. That means the Longhorns could conceivably work their Longhorn Sports Network into a deal (taking a wild guess, they’d get to broadcast all non-conference football games, plus something like one league home game a year, with some kind of corresponding downward adjustment to TV revenue from the league; similar arrangements could be made for other sports too).
It also means that they’d have a lot of say as far as who’d come with them, which means that Texas Tech is basically a non-issue, especially if Tech can become Tier 1 in the near future ( link here ). The very fact that the Pac-10 appears to at least be strongly considering both Oklahoma and Oklahoma St indicates that the league will probably be quite flexible when it comes to which teams come along (which is especially a plus if A&M ends up choosing the SEC instead).
Geography is the obvious one. Trips to the Pacific Northwest are extremely long, even if they’re not frequent (probably once per two years in football, and one or two sets per year of back-to-back road games in basketball, etc.). Just looking at a map, I’d have to guess that most league events would end up being in LA or Phoenix, and both are still a substantial plane ride away (though being major cities helps in terms of arranging travel at least).
The other issue is whether all of the Pac-10 members would actually go along with such a plan. Every school has a veto over the process, and schools like Cal and Stanford could decide that some of the proposed six aren’t “good enough” academically for Pac-10 membership. That’s pure speculation, but until it gets shot down, it’s a consideration. Personally, I think that they’d end up being “bought off” with a promise of tighter academic and recruiting standards than the Pac-10 has, plus tougher controls on the types of behavior that USC has allegedly been doing of late (those changes might appeal to Texas as well), although that’s even more pure speculation on my part.
Going to the SEC
(let’s say they bring A&M, Tech, and Oklahoma)
This reinforces the SEC’s status as being the premier football league in the country, and it would be extremely difficult for any other league to catch up, under pretty much any scenario. There are very serious advantages to being part of that sort of group for everyone involved, including the Longhorns. As much as the SEC TV deal is worth right now, adding those four should make it worth substantially more.
Geographically, it’s a great option for Texas. Assuming that Alabama and Auburn go to the East, Texas is in a division that is about as geographically accessible as is possible. Even South Carolina and Florida really aren’t that far away, and Texas would probably only have one inter-division road trip a year in football anyway.
In football, the level of competition would be raised substantially. It’s a lot harder to win a “super-SEC” than it is to win the Big XII, where the Longhorns essentially play Oklahoma for the right to make the title game, where the South Division champ usually wins.
But the major negative is academic standards. The SEC is in a great place right now, with four consecutive national titles and an enormous TV contract. There’s pretty much no way they’d do anything more than a token gesture towards tougher academic and recruiting standards; sure, they’d like to add Texas, but why mess with what’s clearly working? And that means that Texas either has to be willing to play ball and start oversigning and dropping academic standards to match the rest of the SEC, or start to suffer potentially serious competitive disadvantages (see this and this link about the consequences of not oversigning when everyone else is). Of course, Texas could choose to go down that path, and if that’s what they want to do, that’s their call (and if they do, the SEC looks like the obvious choice). However, if that’s not what they want to do, I’d have to think that it’s a deal-breaker for Texas just as it was for Georgia Tech decades ago.
So where does that leave us? Honestly, I don’t know. If Texas is cool with ditching academic and recruiting standards, the SEC is a great choice for them. If they’re cool with frequent long trips to cold weather sites, dealing with a league that’s centered in the Upper Midwest both culturally and practically, and having to either blow their negotiating power with the league to bring A&M and Tech along or fight a nasty battle in the Legislature to ditch one or both, then the Big Ten would work great. And if they’re cool with keeping the status quo and hoping it doesn’t blow up around them, then sticking around the Big XII makes sense. But if none of those options appeal (and they wouldn’t to me), then becoming part of the Pac-16 (or whatever it’d end up being called), seems like the best option to me. As Stewart Mandel said, “it makes too much sense” not to happen.
Mr Pac-10's 2009 Blog
Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at email@example.com