The news Friday that Texas and Oklahoma could make their move to the SEC official in a matter of weeks continues to shake the foundation of the Big 12 Conference and beyond. The initial report caught many high-ranking officials in college athletics off guard. Now, it has their full attention, as commissioners and athletic directors from coast to coast are preparing to react if a move comes to fruition, one that would prompt another wave of conference realignment.
Following a meeting with Big 12 athletic directors and their university presidents and chancellors Thursday evening, where both schools were no-shows, the league made it clear it expected its flagship programs to adhere to the conference bylaws and TV contracts that had been signed. If the move happens, Texas and Oklahoma would each owe the Big 12 upward of $76 million. But if a new agreement is reached with the SEC, it would likely make that price tag easily affordable.
In the statement provided to ESPN following the meeting, the Big 12 said, “the eight members strongly desire to retain the current composition, which has proven it can compete at the highest levels.”
ESPN’s Heather Dinich, Mark Schlabach, David Wilson and David Hale take a look at where things stand and what the domino effect of a potential move would mean.
According to multiple sources, representatives from Oklahoma and Texas have had informal discussions with the SEC about leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC over the past several months. The programs’ first step would be to notify the Big 12 that they don’t intend to extend their existing media rights deals with the conference, which expire on June 30, 2025. Then, Texas president Jay Hartzell and Oklahoma president Joseph Harroz Jr. would formally ask the SEC to be considered for membership. The Longhorns and Sooners would need a two-thirds majority vote — 11 of 14 schools — to be approved to join the conference.
Big 12 officials and athletic directors, coaches and presidents of its other schools seemed blindsided by the sudden development. As late as last week, that same group met to discuss the idea of an expanded College Football Playoff and how a new 12-team format would benefit the conference.
Texas A&M, which moved to the SEC along with Missouri in 2012, is apparently not happy with these developments and has the most at stake with the possible additions. The news was broken by a Houston Chronicle reporter in the Aggies’ market right before SEC Media Days appearances by Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher and athletic director Ross Bjork.
Big 12 officials and the league’s athletic directors, presidents and chancellors met via conference call Thursday to discuss the situation. Each of its 10 schools, including Oklahoma and Texas, was invited to attend. The Sooners and Longhorns did not show, and both schools denied comment beyond statements they released Wednesday.
July 22, 2021
None of this in-fighting is new. Many of these schisms date back to the dissolution of the Southwest Conference, when TCU, SMU, Baylor and Rice were forced to scramble for a new home. Some of Texas’ most powerful politicians flexed their financial muscle, threatening to withhold crucial funding or money for building projects unless the Aggies and Longhorns took Baylor and Texas Tech with them to the Big 12.
When the Aggies departed the Big 12, Baylor president Ken Starr threatened legal action for “tortious interference” by the SEC, and A&M was forced by the SEC to get its affairs in order before it returned to discuss joining the conference. This time, Texas and Oklahoma have made sure to make their overtures first, which would shield the conference from legal interference claims.
But politicians from those schools left behind will still try to make it tough. Jeff Leach, a Texas state representative from Plano who is a Baylor graduate and attended SMU’s law school, called the Longhorns’ lack of transparency “wrong.” On Thursday, he wrote on Twitter that he was working on a bill that would require legislative approval for the Longhorns to leave the Big 12.
While the ACC doesn’t appear to be a landing spot for Texas and Oklahoma, one official within the ACC membership told ESPN on Thursday the Longhorns and Sooners would be the only teams that would move the realignment needle for the league. The ACC’s 15 presidents and chancellors would be the ultimate decision-makers. Former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds confirmed to reporters in 2011 that he explored moving the Longhorns to the ACC when it looked like the Big 12 might implode.
“We had good conversations with [then-commissioner] John Swofford,” Dodds said at the time. “We were very interested in that if things imploded. They were very interested in us. But it’s not going to happen.”
New ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, the former Northwestern athletic director, at least needs to court the Longhorns and Sooners. For the overall health of the sport, the ACC might be the best destination for both teams. It would strengthen the ACC, which needs better teams to compete with heavyweight Clemson, and not allow the SEC to get even stronger. If Oklahoma and Texas wind up in the SEC, the super conference might have six or seven teams selected to a 12-team playoff every season.
The one school Phillips has publicly courted is Notre Dame, which still clings to its independence but has a contract with the ACC as a partial member. (The Fighting Irish played last season as part of the ACC due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
“They know the ACC’s interest,” Phillips said this week at the league’s media days. “It’s been less than bashful. They know where we’re at. Who knows where the future’s going to go. I love the schools we have, but you always have to be ready to add.”
Of course, there’s always the possibility Texas leaves Oklahoma at the altar and goes out on its own. That would be the ultimate you-know-what-finger to its rival. Might Texas try independence like Notre Dame, keep the Longhorn Network and try to improve enough under new coach Steve Sarkisian to make the CFP?
“There are people at Texas who would like to see Texas be independent like Notre Dame,” Loftin said. “It’s just one of those things they’ve had as an aspiration for a long time. That was the veiled threat back in my day when we were still in the Big 12. ‘Well, if you don’t like what we want to do here, we’ll just take our cards and go somewhere else, find some patsy conference to take care of our non-football sports.’ Notre Dame has been able to parlay that into a pretty good deal.”
If Texas and Oklahoma leave, the remaining eight teams would have to scramble to find a home if the Big 12 can’t keep them together or quickly add teams of significant value.
The usual suspects are already lining up for their shot to return to a home with their former conference foes. Houston mega-booster Tilman Fertitta has made it a mission to return the Cougars to big-time athletics.
“We belong in the Big 12,” he told TexasFootball.com in 2019. “All those people a couple years ago said they were going to help us and it was all talk and it was all bulls—. We want to be in one of the major Power 5 conferences.”
SMU would be interested in rejoining its old SWC mates. The Big 12 has kicked the tires on a number of possible additions, like BYU, in recent years. There are also cases to be made for Memphis, Cincinnati or UCF.
If the Big 12 potentially falls apart, many have speculated that four, 16-team super conferences would form as a result, leaving the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC as the powers in college athletics. Though one ACC AD said he saw little value to be gained by adding any of the remaining Big 12 members.
More likely, according to multiple sources around the ACC and Pac-12, would be an even bigger “alliance” that could result in something as simple as the Pac-12 and ACC teaming up to work toward a new TV deal and help balance the power commanded by the new 16-team SEC or perhaps a merger that could lead to a 32-team super conference. Those same sources said the moves by Texas and Oklahoma might signal the first steps in a breakaway from the NCAA.