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Being Bill Powers

"What starts here changes the world."

The inevitable age of the college football superconference will soon be upon us. Who will the Big 10 lure to share in its cable network riches and join its elite academic consortium, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation? Will the PAC 10 make the first move? Will Notre Dame wise up and end a century of isolationism? If it suffers from a defector, what will become of the Big 12? Speculation on the Interwebs runs wild. And in a recent development, most pundits are aligning on the University of Texas, not Notre Dame, as the true “belle of the ball.”

Frustrated Horns fans seeking informed insight are buying fresh fish to capture some residual value from their Statesmen subscription and looking online for answers. The uncertainty of travel itineraries to PAC 10 vs Big 10 venues, and the glass-half-empty thought of being stranded in a weakened Big 12, has our spoiled, elitist community on the verge of panic. There are so many moving parts, and so much (of not our) money at stake, we are longing for a Valentine to tell us whether to buy, sell, hold or panic.

“People who own the pork belly contracts are saying, "I ain't gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip!”

Fortunately, the fate of our conference affiliation does not rest in the portfolio of a panicked commodities broker concerned about his love life. The man with his finger on the button is a rational, deliberate, intelligent leader – a university president that actually fits the profile you would expect but so rarely find. Therefore, all one needs to do to visualize the most probable end game for the Texas Longhorns is to find the secret portal into the mind of William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin.

If such a portal existed, what might we see?

Perspective of The University’s President

Bill Powers has a great gig. Following a brilliant career as a legal scholar, Powers ascended to the pinnacle of his profession just as Longhorns everywhere were celebrating our first football national championship in 35 years. His predecessors at the top of the burnt orange tower had managed through the crises of failed coaches competing in a dysfunctional, marginalized athletic conference. Generally speaking, university presidents try hard to spend the vast majority of their time on the factors most impacting the core mission of the university – revenue management, legislative relations, faculty relations, student relations, donor relations… but success in football, in particular, contributes to the mood that affects perceptions of how well a university president is performing. Powers inherited arguably the best managed football program in the country, and his primary job in that regard is to not do anything stupid and be known as the guy that mucked up a good thing.

In the Big 12, the university presidents/chancellors, not the athletic directors, comprise the board of directors of the conference. Therefore, unlike many other university presidents across the country, Powers has had direct experience in the oversight of TV deals and the dynamics of inter-university relationships, where your business partners splitting a substantial revenue pie are also your sometimes bitter on-the-field competitors.

The Big 12 has been very good to Texas. Not to take an ounce of credit away from Mack Brown, but it would have been so much more difficult to retain Texas talent to compete in the Southwest Conference. In all likelihood, without the Big 12, Mack probably would have sized up the challenges and not taken the job in the first place. With Nebraska and Oklahoma in football and Kansas in basketball, the Big 12 is one of the major powers in college athletics. It is a good conference and, importantly, Texas has been able to rise to the top of it. Leading the move from something very good to something different is one way that Powers could potentially muck up a good thing.

But how long the Big 12 will be a major power is the uncertainty on the horizon. The bonds that bind these twelve universities are relatively weak, and marriages for convenience rarely last. The Big 10, on the other hand, has that true love thing going for it. Those universities are soul mates that connect at the core of their raison d'être – academic excellence.

From Powers’ perspective, the status quo is good as long as the status quo is an option. However, the country minute that the Big 12 lineup changes and its revenue potential weakens, Powers will have the excuse he needs to pursue his own mark on Texas athletics, and earn huge kudos from the university faculty in the process. Public posturing and poker facing aside, Powers will have his eyes set on the land of academic milk and TV honey – the Big 10.

When the Bow Breaks

The easiest forecast to make is that some kind of change is coming. First, the SEC sold its soul to ESPN, or vice versa. Then, Joe Pa publicly calls for the Big 10, which is really eleven, to make it an even twelve, so that they can play that conference championship game and make a lot more dough. Outside of the possibility of the University of Chicago upgrading its football program from D-III, this means expansion.

(Speaking of university presidents mucking up a good thing, how about the legacy of Maynard Hutchins? In 1939, he decided that athletics were not important to an elite university and dropped Chicago out of the Big 10. Talk about a different era, old Maynard became a university president at the ripe age of 30. But I digress.) (This academic digression has been brought to you by Wikipedia.)

As speculation began about which universities are Big 10 worthy and which will ultimately receive the coveted invite, the PAC 10 began its own talks of expansion, and it will need to add two schools to meet the minimum requirement to hold a lucrative conference championship game. The PAC 10 is a conference that has been in a state of equilibrium for 32 years. Similar to the Big 10, the PAC 10 wants two schools that will be accretive to its current revenues per share. Boise State need not apply.

Where will the PAC 10 find major programs to invite? They really have no choice but to look east. Given its recent past, Colorado needs change for the sake of change to rejuvenate the donor base. Besides, the Buffs are instantly more competitive in the PAC 10. BYU and Utah are also candidates, and BYU would probably get the nod.

The PAC 10 might very well place a courtesy call to Cal alumnus Bill Powers, but there would be nothing serious to the discussion. The two time zone differential is a bigger deal than the travel costs. PAC 10 teams are always complaining that the east coast AP voters go to bed before their games finish. The cool factor would quickly pass as we learn that Cal fans are whiners just like everybody else we dominate. (Anyone remember Rose Bowl lobbygate?)

Even though the Big 10 began expansion discussions first and needs to add just one school, expect the PAC 10 to move first. Importantly, the PAC 10 will be useful to Texas when it breaks the seal of the Big 12 with the recruitment of Colorado.

While inside the mind of Powers, take note of how important it will be for Texas not to make the first move. Powers’ job description involves managing a complex brew of relationships, not the least of which is big-P Political (versus small-p political, which is a rich tradition in universities of all sizes and reputations). Were Texas to initiate the move that drops the value of Texas Tech’s share of a TV deal in half, the talk in the capitol building will be about Texas’ greed and complete disdain for other parts of the state. The West Texas lobby may not be strong enough to keep the deal from going forward, but a university president can die from a thousand papercuts.

You want more control over tuition? You want relief from the top-10% rule? Cry me a river, Mr. Ivory Tower. We’ll show you who runs the show in this state. Sorry that we can’t afford to fund your building maintenance requests. Better luck next year.

Some historians will note that Texas had a hand in leaving TCU, SMU, Houston and Rice in limbo when the Big 12 was formed. The way former K-State president Jon Wefald has told the story, the Big 8 made an initial overture to form the Big 16, and that it was Texas president Robert Berdahl who indicated his preference to split the pie twelve ways rather than sixteen. But it is also important to note that UT already had very poor relations with the Legislature at that time, something Larry Faulkner and now Bill Powers have worked effectively to improve.

On the other hand, if Colorado or Missouri make the first move (and both could make a move without directly impacting another university in their respective states), then Powers will have the moral authority to make the move that best serves Texas. Adding TCU to replace a defector will result in a net loss to Texas. While Powers may be politically prohibited from initiating a move, he will be held blameless for reacting to one.

Using Leverage to Acquire More Leverage

Even if Notre Dame gets smart and jumps into the Big 10 before it’s too late, the Big 10 has too many reasons ($$$) to not want Texas and Texas A&M added to its league mix. And no, it’s not just about TV money and athletics. Just as Texas and A&M academics would benefit from joining the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the CIC members would benefit in equal measure with the addition of the Texas elites. To capture the breadth of this opportunity as one could see from Powers’ perspective, a short discussion of research university economics could be useful to many a sportswriter.

Financially speaking, the university R&D game is more valuable to our university than the football program. Let’s say that UT is doing roughly half-a-billion dollars of sponsored research every year, the majority of which involves the federal government as the sponsor. When a UT research team wins a research contract from the National Science Foundation or the Department Energy or the National Institute of Health, etc., approximately one-half of the grant goes to the university’s bottom line for “overhead.”

To randomly pull an example from UT’s website, when Dr. Jane Maxwell of UT’s School of Social Work received a 2-year, $418,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse “to monitor the changing methamphetamine market in the Austin area,” approximately $200k or so of the grant award is actually used to perform the research, and the remainder contributes to the costs of running a first class university.

To use recruiting vernacular, Dr. Maxwell with her very nice grant might be rated a 3-star performer. Universities compete for her to join their ranks, but they want even more of the 4-star engineering variety (because the grants can be much larger) and the occasional “eminent scholar,” a 5-star producer with a revolving 3-year, $15 million National Cancer Institute grant, three patents licensed to pharmaceutical companies and a venture capital financed startup developing a promising new therapy for Alzheimer’s based on his/her technology.

Powers’ franchise, covering only the main UT campus, ranks 32nd nationally in R&D expenditures, one slot ahead of Northwestern, one behind Yale and two behind Harvard (SOURCE:  National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges, FY 2007). A&M (22nd) actually outpaces Texas due to some inherent advantages of being a land-grant university. Several higher ranked R&D universities, such as Colorado, have medical schools rolled into their numbers and therefore draw more funding from the NIH. When thinking of UT-Austin’s ranking without a medical school, take note that the UT System’s MD Anderson, all by itself, ranks 26th.

Just as in major college football, there are “haves” and there are “have nots.” Texas, A&M, Colorado and ALL of the Big 10 universities are R&D “haves.” The same cannot be said for predominantly football powers like Alabama and Oklahoma. Even with a medical school rolling into its numbers, the University of Oklahoma ranks 97th, with approximately 40% of the R&D expenditures of UT’s main campus. Alabama? Try 190thless than 10% of the R&D expenditures of UT-Austin. Alabama President Robert Witt, a former dean of the business school at Texas, has a football program that’s literally twice the size of his university’s R&D enterprise. Roll Tide!

Powers knows that the Big 10 universities compete individually and as a region for its fair share of the federal R&D pie and that, despite the greatness of its member universities, the Big 10 region has not faired nearly as well as the coasts. Compared to numerous universities in California and Massachusetts, several of which don’t give a second thought about college football (MIT, Cal-Davis, Cal Tech, U of San Francisco, etc), there is a rather dramatic concentration of academic R&D that is not favorable to the Midwest or Southwest. Point being, there is room for growth here, and adding two powerful Senators from Texas to the sixteen Senators representing Big 10 states is not an insignificant addition. Without Texas, the CIC universities represent the best of the rust belt. With Texas, the CIC represents the best of the middle of the country.

Perhaps the Midwest is sick from its rust belt economic diseases, but the country as a whole cannot afford to let this populous region die. (I’ve always wondered if we could make a dent in the federal debt by selling Michigan to China, but I doubt the idea would get much traction with the unions.) The path to recovery over the next quarter century will come from research-intensive companies and light manufacturing, and since we’re going to see less of this work commercialized in overtaxed hyper-inflated California going forward, we might as well start shifting the R as well as the D towards the middle of the country.

Truth be told, the Big 10 universities have not taken the opportunity to expand its ranks, leverage its CIC into a more powerful lobby, and use a critical mass of political power for the good of its home states that have suffered terrible economic misfortune. Eight states in the Big 10 conference means sixteen Senators. Expand to twelve states and you’ll have 24 Senators packing a much bigger political punch.

Bill Powers is the kind of leader that can take this message into the greater discussion of conference expansion. You want to acquire my university’s football brand and TV market footprint in order to negotiate a better package from ESPN? I’m interested. But while we’re at it, let’s talk about how we’re going to change the world.

Powers will see value to having Texas join the Big 10 as it is. Powers will see more value – for athletics and for academic research – by seeing the Big 10 strategically expand into a 16-university, 12-state superconference.

Riding Texas’ Coattails

First and foremost, wherever Texas goes, Texas A&M will be along for the ride. For athletics, it is important to preserve this important rivalry. Texas and Oklahoma sustained a rivalry for decades before they were in the same conference, and the rivalry can be preserved if they once again are part of different conferences. A&M, however, has been attached to Texas for longer than anyone alive can remember. But more importantly, A&M will go with Texas because of 1) the merits of A&M’s academic research enterprise, and 2) the common issues with the Texas Legislature over tuition controls, top 10% admissions and preservation of the lucrative endowment funds (not that they’re endangered, but you never know).

However, an expansion of the Big 10 to include 14 universities would not necessarily be good for Powers’ legacy if it devolves into a 12+2 mentality. If Texas is to join the Big 10, it will be in Texas’ interests to see the nexus of Big 10 markets gravitate westward. If Texas and A&M are in the expansion, the 14th university needs to be Missouri, not Pittsburgh or Syracuse or Rutgers. An even better scenario would involve adding Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri along with Texas and A&M to form a Big 10 superconference.

Wouldn’t this dilute the TV money pool for Texas and the legacy Big 10 universities? Perhaps, although one could argue that the national brands of Nebraska and Kansas in football and basketball, respectively, would only add to the marketing power of the new conference. But more importantly, Kansas and Nebraska have the kind of leaders, Bernadette Gray-Little and Harvey Perlman, that are Big 10 worthy and capable of taking full advantage of the R&D collaboration opportunities.

With $8 billion of R&D expenditures between seventeen universities (counting the University of Chicago), the new CIC could embark on a campaign to grow its collective market share of federal R&D investments in a manner that will make TV revenues a mere cherry on top of a very satisfying sundae. That, my friends, is how a university president can change the world as we know it. See those wheels turning inside Bill Powers’ mind?

Bottom Line Analysis

We are just a few minutes from being ejected from Powers’ mind and thrown into a roadside ditch, which is just enough time to test this hypothesis against the likely reactions of the major constituencies of The University’s president.

Athletics – Seriously, does Texas athletics want for anything? I guess we could always have a bigger scoreboard. More importantly, the Texas brand merits more than a simple add-on to the Big 10. By bringing along five west-of-the-Mississippi schools, Texas can preserve some of the regional rivalries (Nebraska in football, Kansas in basketball) and keep most of its travel in the western division of the new superconference.

For example, let’s say that the Big 10 West is comprised of Texas, A&M, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern. All eight are in the central time zone. The football schedule has seven intra-division games every year, two inter-division games and three non-conference games. The two inter-division games would be rotated among the eight Big 10 East schools (Michigan, tOSU, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Penn State) such that you play every team once every four years. That’s one trip to Happy Valley, the Shoe and the Big House every eight years – not bad.

Assuming OU will want to keep its traditional date in Dallas, Texas could rotate its old Southwest Conference rivals Baylor, Rice, Texas Tech, SMU, Houston and TCU in its non-conference schedule to keep up its home-state presence. Such a schedule could look something like this…

Sept. 4 at Rice (Reliant Stadium)
Sept. 11 BAYLOR
Sept. 18 at Penn State
Oct. 2 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
Oct. 16 at Nebraska
Oct. 23 IOWA
Oct. 30 KANSAS
Nov. 6 at Missouri
Nov. 20 at Illinois
Nov. 25 TEXAS A&M

That’s eight games in the state of Texas – not bad.

Faculty – Bill Powers would have a statue commissioned from faculty funds and placed in a prominent place in the South Mall. For two decades, UT researchers have sought to compare their programs with the Michigans and Purdues and Northwesterns of academia. Inclusion in the CIC adds legitimacy and opens doors to collaborations that many times had been closed. When recruiting 4-star and 5-star faculty, Texas will be incrementally more competitive.

Alumni – Besides having the value of degrees earned decades ago increase overnight, who wouldn’t want to add an occasional trip to Michigan and Penn State into the rotation? Yes, we will all miss those roadtrips to Floyd Casey Stadium and the automatic W against Oklahoma State (no matter how bad the halftime score), but the positives outweigh the negatives as long as we can bring along A&M, and there are plenty of automatic W’s to be found in the Big 10.

Legislature – Texas Tech delegates won’t be happy, but look at the bright side…now they’ll have a fighting chance at a conference championship! Seriously, the state of Texas needs its two flagship universities competing with the R&D elites, and this move adds this important element in a manner that was completely missing from the Big 12 deal of a decade and a half ago.

Epilogue – What will become of the Big 12 Conference?

The Big 12 minus Texas, A&M, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado is a not-so-big six. I would expect Oklahoma to seek an invitation to join its perfect match, the SEC, along with its little brother, Oklahoma State. Upon their acceptance, the NCAA will place the entire SEC on double-secret probation and the SEC will retain a slight edge over the Big 10 with the size of its TV deal.

The remaining four – Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State will receive invitations from Conference USA, WAC, and Mountain West, and they will each strike their best deal. Feel a bit sorry for Iowa State, which is a decent research university but adds neither new TV sets nor new Senators to the expanded Big 10. If all four joined TCU and Utah in the Mountain West (but without PAC 10 bound BYU), there would be a push to recognize it as a BCS conference, perhaps under the Big 12 moniker.