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So, What Happened?

I’ve posted on realignment several times over the past few months. I’m no insider, but I am a student of the program’s history, and try to keep up with current trends and influences.

 I was right about some things- the Big 12 was a dysfunctional family, there are no good replacements for defecting programs, academics would be important, etc.  I was wrong on others- I underestimated the influence of politics, and not just on Texas schools.

 I don’t see a need for another post about what happened, but am still interested in how it happened, and why.  After all the talking and dealing, is anybody happy with the outcomes?  Utah, I guess, but that may be it.

 Let’s review what happened, and look for clues.  The Big 10 and PAC-10 were both actively planning expansion, and rumored to be interested in several programs- Rutgers, Pitt, ND, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado were the main suspects. 

The SEC, with its brand identity so strongly based on being the baddest, toughest football conference around, let it be known that they would not sit idly by and be supplanted by some new superconference.  The motives varied- more prestige, more money, or just getting away from those jerks.  The lousy economy has a bunch of ADs in the red, reducing the attraction of the status quo.

 The Big 10 was in great shape because it had the Big 10 Network, and total sharing of all sports media properties and revenues.

 The SEC has lucrative conference media contracts, with equal sharing, but allows schools to own and market media properties outside the contracts on their own (Florida is doing very well at this).

 The PAC-10 has a poor contract, and was pursuing expansion and a PAC-10 Network (modeled after the Big 10 Network) as a solution.

 The Big 12 had poor contracts, unequal distribution, and had rejected a conference network years before.  Texas is a big obstacle to starting one.

 After the Big 12 meetings, it was clear that the Big 12 was in danger of dissolving (little did we know at the time that the NU president was trying to set an Anticipatory Breach of Contract trap).  NU got a bid from the Big 10, and accepted.  Very shortly thereafter, Chip Brown was leaked the PAC-16 story.

 Let’s pause here.  Despite what most think, Chip Brown is not a Bellmont mouthpiece.  He is not considered a reliable conduit for the AD message.  He has sources, but in such a situation they should be expected to be either out of the loop, or quiet. 

Second, it’s rare in such deals for leaks to be so clear and accurate.  It makes you suspect that this is not just a confidence being shared, but a targeted leak with a purpose.  In 1994, the machinations that produced the Big 12 were all done in silence until the Big 12 was presented with all parties in agreement. 

Why so different now? 

All I can think is that either somebody wanted to kill the deal (as we saw, leaks are lethal for deals), or wanted to freeze it as was before it could be negotiated in another direction.  In 1994, one of the initial proposals was for a full merger of the SWC and the Big 8.  Can you imagine if that had been leaked?  It would have created an expectation at Rice, SMU, UH, and TCU to be included in the final configuration.  These four schools were carved out before the Big 12 was announced to the world.  Similarly, once the PAC-16 idea was leaked, there was no way any of the schools could be dropped without all hell breaking loose.

 My first reaction to the PAC-16 was, “Is that serious?”  I was surprised, because I remembered the early ‘90s discussions with the PAC-10 dealt mostly with getting Stanford to agree to letting all these yahoos from UT join their conference.  Now, 16 years later, all of the PAC-10 schools are fine with TT, OU, and OSU joining?  No problem?  The Arizona schools are fine with having the number of games against their conference rivals of the past 35 years cut by 2/3?  No problem? 

To me, the PAC-16 looked like a conference assembled by a TV ad salesman, with no insight into cultural fit.  Basically, they took the Big 12 South, one of football’s three toughest divisions, and spliced it onto the PAC-10.

 What did we know of this deal?  We knew that there would be two divisions, with the original PAC-8 schools in the west, and the Arizona schools joining the Big 12 refugees in the east.  Each division would play a round-robin in football, and two more conference games against the other division, for a total of nine PAC-16 games.  This meant that there would be a trip to southern California every four years, a trip to the Bay Area every four years, a trip to Oregon every four years, and a trip to Washington every four years- much less west coast travel than many originally thought.

 We knew that the PAC-16 wanted to start a network, and this would preclude a Longhorns Network.  We did not know how if there would be a conference championship game, and there were whispers that the conference would want to send the west division champ to the Rose Bowl game, and the east division champ to another BCS bowl (this would explain why the legacy schools were OK with such a large, quick expansion- perhaps they didn’t see the new additions as being a full peer division).

 One more item I have to mention.  This was a bad deal for the Ags.  Travel is notably worse for them in this configuration than for Texas, which has direct flights between Austin and Phoenix and Tucson.  Also, TAMU strategically needs separation from TT and OSU, to help recruiting.  Its size, fanbase, and stature qualify it for separation from those current recruiting rivals (remember how it was for UT in the SWC, when UH was actually a recruiting rival?).  This deal not only denied them that, but would ratify TT and OSU as peers for the foreseeable future.  There is no way to spin this as an attractive deal for the Ags.

 All in all, this did not sound like a finished deal, but more of an initial “markup sheet”.  There were plenty of things to give and take on, dealing with scheduling, revenue, etc.  This was certainly not Texas’ dream deal.  The leaking of this deal had some immediate impacts.  TT and OSU got behind it immediately, since it would guarantee their spot in the big time through any further shakeups.  Baylor immediately protested.  This drove the PAC-10 to immediately offer Colorado, so as to not have Baylor forced on them.  Every dealmaker saw UT as the key piece, and started to apply pressure on Texas to either close the deal, or try to restructure so as to include somebody else.

 On June 10, Texas and TAMU reps were to meet in Austin to discuss the deal.  Evidently, there was some coordination before, but not a true alliance of the two schools.  Politically, the best part of the PAC16 deal was that it was the only proposal that kept a place for TT in a BCS conference if the Big 12 were to collapse.  Meanwhile, a rogue Ag faction had begun discussing the SEC as an option.  The SEC was not an ideal fit for the Ags academically or ethically (recruiting standards), but it solved the issues of geometry and peers/rivals affiliations.  By the time of the June 10 meeting, the SEC faction had won out in CS.

 Per the accounts of Ag insiders, this meeting was when Texas was told of the Ags’ SEC decision (they had been rumored, but it was believed that the governor would hold his appointees in the deal that helped key ally Kent Hance).  Texas knew the Ags weren’t thrilled by the PAC-16 offer, and had hoped that could be used as leverage to sweeten the deal from the PAC-16.  Instead, the Ags were announcing their independence from the deal.

 Texas was nonplussed.  The last thing we wanted was to let the SEC into Texas recruiting.  The SEC was an option for Texas, too, but one quickly dismissed.  Texas was very, very concerned about the Ags going SEC.  There were initial reports of not playing the Ags as a non-conference foe, but that would be difficult to do with an Ag governor (“Look, I know you’re a big UT booster, but before I appoint you to the BOR, I have to tell you there is one really big issue to me…”).  

 The PAC-10 commissioner met with the Ags, where they declined his offer.  He immediately began talking to Utah and KU about serving as a replacement (he was rumored to be trying to drop OSU as well).  This type of impromptu wheeling and dealing by the PAC-10 could not have made UT feel better about its impending conference change.

 I think that at this point, given all this plus the fact that the PAC-16 would force UT to surrender its dreams for a Longhorns Network, Texas said, “I don’t like this game anymore.  I want to stop playing.”  The Big 12 came up with the needed promises to get Texas to stay.  Once there were this many schools willing to stick in the Big 12, the game changed.  There would be no conference dissolution, so any defectors would have to pay a substantial penalty.  This gave TAMU two incentives to drop the SEC- financial and political.

 So, here we are.  I don’t miss the PAC-16.  I don’t think it ever existed in a form we hoped it would.  We would have a better schedule, but not by a whole lot.  We ran a real risk of being second class, junior members to the legacy schools in the west.  We would have surrendered our media rights, which Bellmont sure seems to place a lot of value on.

 Everything the PAC-10 has done since has confirmed my fears.  They have added Colorado, and that addition may drive the Buffs into bankruptcy.  To get to an even number, they added Utah.  Are they playing a championship game?  Are they splitting into divisions?  Are the legacy schools OK with dropping traditional games each year to add these newcomers?  Cal pitched a fit when Texas took their Rose Bowl slot in 2004.  How will they react when Utah takes it in 2014?  In a year when Cal has to play USC, and maybe Utah doesn’t?

 Many say the Big 12’s days are still numbered.  If so, what did we learn?

 1. Leaks end dealmaking.

2.  The politics are a bigger deal tying schools’ hands than we thought.

3.  UT and TAMU have got to work together on these things.  Texas can screw up TAMU’s deal, and TAMU can screw up UT’s deal.

4.  The Longhorn Network better be worth it.