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Wanted: A Beautiful Mind

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Should Texas go for the blonde? Or should it make sure its friends also score?

YouTube - Adam Smith was wrong...

Somewhere on a college campus, in a remote corner far away from the j-school, on a 6’x4’ white board in a cluttered office of an academic nobody knows by name, someone has diagrammed the players and relationships, charted the rumors and public statements, and calculated the probable outcomes of the live drama sports fans will one day refer to as “realignmentgate.”

Eight times the Nobel Prize in economics has been won by a “game theorist,” a member of an academic species known for advanced mathematical skills, remedial social skills and an extraordinarily high tolerance for toxic odors emanating from decomposing cold cuts from a week’s worth of forgotten sack lunches and colleagues that bathe on a lunar cycle. Just about every college campus with a decent b-school has a cache of them. But for Russell Crowe, few of us would know they exist. But they do exist, we know about them, so where is the next John Nash when popular culture might actually pay attention to him before he goes mad?

If somebody is going to stake a claim to a Nobel for figuring this thing out before it all plays out, that somebody will have factored athletics, academics and politics into the mathematical equations, along with the multitude of other factors that influence the calculus of the key decision maker (most of which were described in Being Bill Powers).

Key Factor #1: Big Ten is the buxom blonde of intercollegiate athletic conferences

Outside of the Ivy League, which for athletics is dead like Latin, there is no other confederation of universities that offers a member university as much – athletics, academics, research, love, respect, community…and the dollars, too. The package. The quan.

We spell it “Quan” Buckeye fans

What’s so great about the Big Ten? Ask your favorite professor on the 40 Acres. In an unscientific estimated poll, 80% of tenured faculty would favor an affiliation with the Big Ten, 10% would reassemble the Southwest Conference (because tenure is for life), and 10% would favor withdrawing from intercollegiate athletics entirely as a protest against the hyper-commercialization of sports and the exploitation of student athletes and sweatshop laborers indentured by shoe companies (because tenure ensures freedom to be unreasonable).

More than any other industry, the world of higher education is built on perceptions. Mack Brown goes to work on Saturday and brings home either a win or a loss. Portfolio managers deliver a quantifiable return on investment. Academics? They submit journal articles that may or may not get published based on the perception-biased judgments of peers, and they submit research funding requests that are similarly judged by peers at federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation. When there are five submissions for every success, how much do perceptions matter? This one’s from MIT, so it must be really good. Stanford? Gotta be solid. Texas Tech? I’m going to look silly if I recommend this and it’s not REALLY good, so I’d better critique this one extra carefully.

Forget about US World News or whatever that ranks universities based on perceptions of perceptions. Elite universities are federal R&D machines, and R&D expenditures (funded largely through competitive federal grants) are increasingly cited as the best available measure of academic excellence.

 Big 12   Big Ten   PAC 10 
 A&M     543,888  Wisconsin     840,672  UCLA     823,083
 Colorado     527,587  Michigan     808,731  Washington     756,787
 Texas     446,765  tOSU     720,206  Stanford      687,511
 Nebraska     336,468  Penn St     652,144  Cal     552,365
 Missouri     228,654  Minnesota     624,149  Arizona      531,753
 Iowa St      217,158  Illinois     473,890  USC      508,138
 Kansas      202,129  Northwestern     443,345  Arizona St     224,352
 Oklahoma      176,825  Purdue     415,172  Wash St      210,010
 K-State      123,900  Iowa     363,243  Oregon St      189,368
 OSU       101,112  Michigan St     360,852  Oregon        61,694
 TxTech        57,878  Chicago     322,488    
 Baylor           8,951  Indiana     294,981    
 Big 12     2,971,315  Big Ten   6,319,873  PAC 10   4,545,061
 Avg        247,610  Avg    526,656  Avg     378,755
SOURCE:  National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges, FY 2007. Amounts are $000s.

A few notes to make sense of the numbers. First, some universities have multiple campuses reporting to the president/chancellor. Texas is part of a 15-campus system, but only the 40 Acres reports to Bill Powers. By comparison, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma all have medical schools that also report to the main campus CEO. Translation: without a medical school, UT-Austin’s $447 million of R&D is outstanding even by Big Ten standards. Also, land-grant universities (A&M, Nebraska, Missouri, K-State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, etc.) have access to department of agriculture R&D dollars that prop up their numbers to some extent. A&M is an outstanding R&D university, and it is certainly a peer of UT-Austin, but it is not superior as one might judge by having nearly $100 million more of R&D.

Top to bottom, the Big Ten is solid. There are no slouches in the bunch. The PAC 10 has six elite universities and four that are average to uncompetitive. The Pac 10 is where Stanford competes athletically. The Big Ten is Michigan. There’s a difference.

The fact that its elite universities do not link their identities to the athletic conference makes it possible that the PAC 10 could stomach adding Baylor and Texas Tech to the league. It’s just athletics. Stanford faculty won’t be asked to associate with Baylor faculty anymore than they already choose to do. The Big Ten won’t do this. They have higher standards.

Texas faculty would love to be part of the Big Ten. The CIC that is comprised of the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago would not directly impact the amount of research funding flowing to the 40 Acres, but there are intangible benefits to the cooperation that can only help down the line. Perceptions matter, just as it matters whether you are a member of Augusta National or Bushwood. And it would be better for the state of Texas to have its two elite academic universities in the Big Ten. Academics circulate in communities and spill over in regions. University of Pittsburgh? $559 million of R&D. University of Cincinnati? $376 million. University of Houston? $74 million.

Key Factor #2: Hello, my name’s Buddy

The elusive goal of game theorists is to develop mathematic models to predict the behavior of rational participants in a dynamic, competitive market. Of course, the operative word here is rational. One could argue that once politicians get involved, the dependence on rational behavior to predict outcomes makes the effort futile. Politicians can make game theorists feel like the Aggie that was placed in a round room and ordered to go sit in the corner.

In the case of the unfolding game of collegiate conference realignment, the emergence of politicians as a dominant X factor was inevitable and therefore predictable and, dare I say it, rational. After all, we compete in a division of a conference with universities that have hired as campus leaders a U.S. Senator (Oklahoma), a Director of Central Intelligence (A&M) and an Independent Counsel responsible for impeaching a U.S. President (Baylor). Seriously, what did you expect Baylor and Kenneth Starr to do? Look forward to hanging out with SMU and TCU again?

Enter the caricature of Texas state politics, prominent lobbyist Buddy Jones. That’s right – Buddy. The New York Times couldn’t make up something this rich. When allegations of “pay-to-play” politics in Texas emerged, Buddy was right there in the middle of it. Dude cares so much about the state that he ran up a 154,000-gallon water bill in June 2008, when central Texas was suffering from a devastating drought. Colorado fans are going to have fun googling this guy.

Buddy has taken up the cause for his alma mater, Baylor, like the ghost of Ann Richards. As you read the gospel according to Buddy, play some Fleetwood Mac in your head: Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies...

“Baylor is superior to Colorado academically.” OK, that’s a whopper. In 2007, CU reported $527 million of R&D expenditures to Baylor’s $9 million.

“The Baptist church base extends across the country and certainly trumps the University of Colorado’s local base limited to a small town in Colorado.” Nice apples to oranges comparison there, Buddy. In fact, Colorado is inundated with out-of-state student applications and has a truly national alumni network.

“If Texas univ. will just continue to insist on all Texas schools sticking together as a unit we can win this thing.” This pretty much sums up the shared attitude of Baylor and Tech and A&M. We insult TU while seeking its benevolent grace.

Enduring state politics for a university president is kind of like enduring a Clayton Williams joke. But endure it he must. Bill Powers knows how to pick his battles, and with Emperor Perry in charge of Texas, Buddy Jones will be around for a long, long time.

Key Factor #3: “We didn’t start this, but we’ll finish it”

Not the best moment for Deloss Dodds, and I’m sure he regrets saying it much like he once regretted saying “we are the Joneses.” It’s not like he pulled a Helen Thomas, but gaffes like his can limit options in a highly charged political environment.

The president of The University has been working overtime to make it look like he’s not driving the seismic shifts in the landscape of collegiate athletics, and Dodds is not helping here. Powers fully understands that if he were held responsible for changes that permanently impaired the financial condition of athletics at Baylor or Texas Tech or, heaven forbid, our friends in College Station, he would soon find himself Muranoed. It doesn’t matter if Colorado or Nebraska or Missouri or Kansas gets the shaft, but there had better not be any circumstantial evidence linking him to the scene where the economic blood of Texans is spilt.

So what?

My rudimentary math skills are a limiting factor, so I’ll leave it to others to develop the proof. But without a beautiful mind, here’s what I see happening:

Key Factors #2 and #3 trump Key Factor #1. The ill-advised e-mail from Gordon Gee to Jim Delany probably reveals where Bill Powers would take The University if he were its czar, but in fact the power of a university president is limited. For an elite university, the Big Ten is unquestionably the best choice. Unfortunately, recent events very likely have removed the best overall opportunity for The University as a viable option. The flanking move by the PAC 10 has pretty much tied Texas Tech’s fate as a major conference player to the Longhorns, and now lobbyists are involved. So long, logic and reasoning. Goodbye, buxom blonde. Hello, political expediency. No worries, we’re still Texas!

Missouri and Nebraska are justified in lusting after a Big Ten invite. It would be a transformational event for their universities and their states. They would see undergraduate enrollment applications jump 50% in year one. They would begin growing R&D expenditures at a much higher rate than its former Big 12 peers. If they get invited, we should be happy for them and wish them well.

Buffs fans are justified in crying foul. Not that it will matter, with state politics in play, but Colorado has always been the best fit for the PAC 10. Forget about its shambles of a football program, it’s a fine university and it would be a travesty of justice to see them shut out.

Jim Delany will be remembered as the guy who blew it. Dan Wetzel got it started, but a decade from now business historians will be very critical of how Delany went about his business. First of all, you didn’t need to hire consultants rank a bunch of universities that are not Big Ten caliber. An invite to Notre Dame has always been on the table. After that, Delay should have called Mr. Obvious and focused all of his energy on recruiting Texas, and he should have gone about it in stealth mode. Without Delany kicking off the expansion frenzy like an attention glutton, you would not have lost your best play to a great strategic move by the PAC 10. Before Buddy Jones got involved, Delany should have hired a slew of Texas lobbyists two months ago to begin making the case that Big Ten membership for Texas and A&M would serve the best interests of the state.

Kevin Weiburg will get some props. Larry Scott may get the headlines, but my guess is that Weiburg came up with the plan to put a wedge between the Big Ten and Texas. Forget about his role in running the BCS; the former Big 12 commissioner, developer of the Big Ten cable network and now the key hired gun for the PAC 10 will be a key player in college athletics for the next decade.

Dodds and UT Athletics will be happy with either the Big 12 or PAC 16. For athletics alone, it probably has worked out for the best. Travel will be better, baseball and softball are big winners, and the football competition will be compelling. As a fan, I’m bought in.