Thoughts On Texas, Texas A&M, and the SEC

The recent announcement of the ESPN contract with UT has revived the Aggies’ talk about leaving for the SEC. It’s a topic that attracts opinionated blowhards, and so seems appropriate for me to participate in. Caution- I’m going to say some nice things about the Ags. Don’t take that the wrong way. Here are my thoughts-

1. The PAC-16 move, as initially presented, struck me as a bad deal for the Ags, and I am definitely not impartial. I am very, very biased against them, and yet I could see that this was a bad idea for them. TAMU actually does have a lot going for it. It’s a good school, with a bunch of alumni that care about sports and support them. I don’t see their average 80K attendance as a negative. After the decade they just had, 80K attendance with tickets priced the same as Texas’ is a miracle.

What they needed in a conference realignment was a separation from programs like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Those schools have far worse attendance, despite having better recent football fortunes. The Ags needed a new conference affiliation distinct from the Raiders and Cowboys, so they could recruit at a higher level than these not-quite-peer schools. Given that the PAC-10 is a poor cultural fit, appending the Big 12 south onto the east of the PAC-10 was just not a winner for the Ags. It would be as if, in 1994, the SWC dissolution ended up as a brokered deal where Texas, TAMU, BU, UH, TT, and Arkansas were all put in a western division of the SEC, playing by SEC rules of recruiting. That would not have been a good deal for Texas.

If the Ags and Texas joined the PAC-10 with no followers, making a PAC-12 with a southern division and northern division, you would have something the Ags could consider a real offer. That wasn’t presented to them.

2. How did the Ags get roped into the PAC-16? That’s the interesting part. I believe Rick Perry, as appointer of the regents at state schools, was absolutely aware of what was going on. Perry makes it clear to his appointees that they serve at his pleasure, and there are no major decisions made without his awareness. I believe that he was OK with the PAC-16 proposal. I think that Perry was the big driver behind including TT in the deal, as a benefit to Hance and Perry’s other allies in west Texas, and that the belief was that this could be sold to the legislature with minimal damage to state funding of the schools.

Why did the Ag leaders (the governor, the regents, the president and AD) agree to this? Money. The biggest problem the Ag athletic program has is financial. They invested a lot in facilities for non-revenue sports, and have been in the red for a few years. They had to "borrow" $16 million (borrow is in parentheses because an interest free loan of $16 million, to be repaid over 10 years, beginning four years from the loan date, is actually a gift of about $6 million) from the university. A new TV contract in the PAC-16 would give them a much needed influx of revenue. A lot of near term problems would go away.

There is one more key thing to remember in understanding this decision. TAMU was still paying Franchione his buyout, and their current head coach had a 10 – 15 record. Ags were concerned that there might be more pressure on their athletic budget if the 2011 – 2012 seasons went south, and they had to buy out another coach (obviously, this isn’t a big concern now).

In short- the conference seemed to be collapsing, and the PAC-16 offered a secure home, and more money. This wasn’t a great deal for the Ags, but given their recent past, seemed like the best they could do. The financial situation would be better, and the competitive situation would be status quo.

3. Gene Stallings played for the Ags, coached the Ags, coached Alabama, and is on the TAMU BOR. He has SEC connections. The Ags nearly joined the SEC in the early ‘90s before the Big 12 was brokered (again, the Big 12 was the solution that maintained critical mass of legislature support). He started a rogue movement to move to the SEC.

I don’t know the details of the SEC offer, but I absolutely believe it existed for the Ags. The SEC markets itself as the biggest and best football conference. A PAC-16 covering half the country would be a very serious rival. You have Alabama? We have USC. You have Florida? We have OU. You have…LSU? We have Texas. Want to talk basketball? We’ll match Kentucky with UCLA. Don’t even begin to compare Vandy to Stanford. The SEC knew that if it could poach a couple of schools its position at the top would be relatively safe.

So, yes, I believe an offer was made. Ag_In_Texas had some great posts counting BOR votes, and tracked the flow of support from the PAC-16 to the SEC. So, what happened? Why didn’t TAMU leave?

4. Texas didn’t want TAMU leaving for the SEC. We don’t want SEC recruiters in state. We really don’t want to recruit against a TAMU following the norms of its new conference. The official Aggie strategy was:

Step 1 - Join SEC

Step 2 - A bunch of stuff happens

Step 3 - Ags recruit much, much better

Officially, Step 2 ("A bunch of stuff happens") meant that the increased prestige and higher profile of the SEC pays off in recruits’ living rooms. Texas (and the rest of the Big 12 south) feared that it meant that the increased payola budget and higher player salaries of the SEC would pay off in recruits’ living rooms.

Texas initially resisted by signaling that if TAMU went it alone, their days of playing "tu" were done. "We have a tough enough time scheduling our new conference mates, don’t you know?" This was the nuclear option, in that a large part of the Ag psyche is based on the rivalry with Texas.

The bomb fizzled. Perry may not have been able to control all of the Ag factions, but he still had control over the Texas BOR. He made it clear that regents that did not appreciate the TAMU rivalry would not be on the Texas BOR long. A true politician, he realized the groundswell movement on the Ag side to the SEC was going to win, and started to support it, or at least not fight it.

There was still a hurdle to clear in the legislature, but the Ags had a chance to clear it by pointing out their defection opened up a spot for Baylor. This could be ugly, but the Ags had the right people in place to make it through. They had the added advantage of the SEC proposal coming together too quickly for opponents to prepare effective barriers. Then why aren’t they in the SEC?

5. Money. Remember the $16 million loan from the university? That money came not from ticket buyers, sponsors or donors. It came from the state’s citizens. Once the new deal to hold the Big 12 together was created, the Ags had a huge problem in going alone. They would have to pay an exit fee (similar to CU and NU). NU and CU ended up paying about $12 million, but it could have gone as high as $18 million. Yes, the SEC would make them more money in the long run. In the short term they would be deeper in the red (and remember- they didn’t know they were going to go 9 – 4, beating OU, NU, and UT. They had to consider the possibility of buying out Sherman.). They had two choices- they could jump to the SEC, which was a huge risk (they have a real chance of destroying their brand there, too), and certainly lose money in the near term, with the resultant hits to their public reputation. Or they could stay in the Big 12, with a safe status quo, and make more money near term due to a renegotiated TV deal. They chose the latter. Sort of (it is very, very hard to decipher exactly where authority resides in the Agricultural and Mechanical school).

6. What next for the Ags? Should they try to bolt again? Can they? I only have thoughts on the last question. It will be exponentially more difficult for them to bolt for the SEC now. For one thing, they won’t have the element of surprise again. The Ags can expect many hearings on the nature of their state funding if they try to leave on their own. With new regents appointments coming up, they will really need Perry sold on the move, too. They will have to go through a mountain of crap to get just a few million dollars more, and the (unquantifiable) recruiting advantage of the SEC.

Do they have a "standing offer" from the SEC to join? Sure they do, in the same way you have a standing offer to that girl from the Castillian you knew 12 years ago to join you any Saturday night. Oh, you’re married now? Yeah, things change, and agreements in principle always need to have terms and conditions reviewed regularly. In other words, if the Ags wanted to join today, I’m sure the SEC would welcome the call, and be happy to discuss. They are not required to accept them, and any acceptance would be contingent upon details being worked out. The biggest detail would be getting ESPN and CBS to agree to pay more for the new member(s). I’m not an insider by any means, and if anybody knows anything different, I’m all ears.

So, I’m just another Texas fan, throwing it in the Ags’ face that they can’t join the SEC? No, not really. I think there is a way for them to leave, but they’re (or at least the current Ag leadership) not going to like it. They need to sit down with Powers and Dodds, and have an honest give-and-take about the situation. There is probably something UT wants that they need TAMU’s support for in return, and Texas will want assurances about recruiting standards.

Working with the t-sips is an intolerable thought for a true red ass Ag. That’s a shortsighted view. The SWC formation, construction of Kyle Field and Memorial Stadium, PUF creation, and the Big 12 formation were all accomplished with mutual cooperation between the schools. I really don’t believe TAMU can leave for the SEC without UT’s support. In fairness, I believe the same for UT- we can’t leave without the Ags’ support, no matter who the governor is.

I really think that Texas can block an Ag move to the SEC if it really wants to. If nothing else, Texas could try to join the SEC, too (Don’t scoff. All options are being considered, and we have been conference-mates before with many of the dirtiest programs in college football history). Any Ag that says they only want to join the SEC if Texas doesn’t is revealing too clearly their real motivation. This isn’t a knock on the Ags. I think they showed they can effectively stymie Texas moves too.

What should the Ags do? First, they need to get their financial house in order. Second, they need to develop a media strategy that leverages the value of their brand (and it does have value). Third, they need leaders motivated to do what’s best for the school, not what’s worst for Texas. Those two steps will go a long ways towards getting them where they want to be. In Bill Byrne's latest message, he says,

"As our league transitions to a 10-team conference next season, I see one of two things happening with the third-tier rights. Discussions have taken place in recent months regarding a 9-team Big 12 Network which would operate similar to how the Big Ten Network operates today. The other option, which is less likely to occur, is each of the other nine schools would form their own individual networks and/or continue to syndicate their third tier games like they do today.

The discussion has been to allow each school to retain one football home game and four or five home men’s basketball games the school could put up on their own network, offer as part of a third-tier conference package, or offer as a pay-per-view game. We will be meeting as athletic directors soon to discuss our options.

I prefer an offering in the form of a Big 12 Network for our fans, because collectively there would be at least nine football games to offer and as many as 40 men’s basketball games, which are in addition to all the other sports."

He's suggesting that 9 of the 10 league schools could align together. Implicit is a threat to force Texas (9-1 vote) to abandon our network. In response to such a vote, we could comply or leave the conference. Now, that vote probably won’t happen, because too many other conference schools understand the need for Texas to be happy in the Big 12-2. Still, it’s clear that he wants Texas to be the pariah dog in this conference, because of our mean Longhorn Network sneak attack we have been talking openly about for four years.

This is precisely the kind of leadership TAMU doesn’t need- driven by a desire to see Texas fail that is far greater than his yearning for the Ags to succeed. It appeals to the kind of Ag living a constant anti-UT jihad, but it will get their program nowhere. Thoughts?

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