Realignment threats creating game of chicken in college athletics
Conference realignment rumors have created a gridlock in major college football
With the SEC's near-acceptance of Texas A&M, the Big 12's future is uncertain
Oklahoma holds the cards and is now the most powerful entity in college sports
Since the second edition of the Big 12 Missile Crisis turned into the first edition of the Big 12 Hostage Crisis last week, the descriptions of the situation have grown more theatrical.
"It's a big game of chicken," one insider said of the impasse, which began Sept. 6 when Baylor president Ken Starr left a voicemail for SEC commissioner Mike Slive threatening to sue the SEC for accepting Texas A&M's application for membership.
"It's like a bunch of guys sitting around a table pointing guns at each other," said another insider of the situation that will remain gridlocked until Oklahoma decides whether it wants to remain in the Big 12 or move to the Pac-12, where the prevailing attitude is anti-expansion until another conference -- the SEC -- expands, at which time said attitude will become aggressively pro-expansion.
Monday evening, SEC commissioner Mike Slive made his first public statement about Texas A&M's quest to join Slive's league. Slive released a 211-word statement on the situation, but only half a sentence truly mattered.
"When Texas A&M joins our conference..."
Not if. When.
This is going to happen. Starr can threaten to sue all he wants, but eventually, Texas A&M fans will annoy nonconference opponents with the S-E-C chant just as much as fans of Alabama, Florida and LSU already do. Slive said Monday that the league already has begun research on how to schedule for a 13-team league for the 2012 football season.
Slive's statements came on the heels of a meeting between Texas and Oklahoma officials about the future of the Big 12. If Texas wants to keep its cash-Bevo Longhorn Network as-is, it has only a few options. Keeping the Big 12 together is the most attractive of those options, and a conference that includes Texas and Oklahoma will always be relevant on the football field and on the balance sheet. But if Oklahoma leaves for the Pac-12, so will Oklahoma State. The Big 12 would cease to exist as a relevant football conference. That would leave the Longhorns with several unpalatable choices. They could go independent in football and attempt to park the rest of their sports in another league -- as Notre Dame and BYU do. Or they could attempt to join the ACC, which might not make geographic sense but which does have a media rights setup that would allow for the Longhorn Network in its current form. Or Texas could follow Oklahoma west and allow its Longhorn Network spoils to be doled out to other conference members.
At the moment, Oklahoma holds all the cards. If the Sooners elect to stay in the Big 12, Baylor will stand down, Texas A&M will go to the SEC, a have-not will get a golden ticket into the new Big 12 and the world will keep spinning.
If the Sooners choose to go to the Pac-12, Oklahoma State will follow, Missouri will look for a soft landing spot and Texas Tech will try desperately to convince Texas to join forces with the Sooners, because bringing in the Longhorns and all their beer money that would get the Red Raiders invited into the Pac-12's party.
But Oklahoma and the Pac-12 won't make a move unless Texas A&M and the SEC make a move. Texas A&M and the SEC won't make a move unless Oklahoma and the Pac-12 make a move. Either act would tip the domino that destroys the Big 12 as we know it, and neither side wants to be considered the responsible party and open itself to lawsuits from Baylor, Iowa State and any other school that stands to lose its seat at the financial grown-ups table.
So the cars keep speeding toward one another, each driver waiting for the other to swerve. Or, if you prefer the other analogy, the parties sit -- guns drawn -- waiting for someone to pull the trigger.
This impasse will end at some point. Slive told us that much Monday. But who will break it?
Remember that Oklahoma president David Boren raised the DEFCON level on Sept. 2 when he said this: "We obviously want stability in our conference relationships. We want partners that are outstanding, both athletically and academically. A conference that's strong and not only stable, but it's one in which there are multiple relationships, along with sports, between university members. We have some great partners in the existing Big 12. We have interest from other conferences and other universities." Boren also said this: "I don't really think this is something that's going to linger on beyond two or three weeks." Oklahoma's Board of Regents has a regularly scheduled meetingnext Monday. The agenda won't be posted until 48 hours before the meeting begins, and Oklahoma law allows for changes to the agenda until 24 hours prior to the meeting.
If Oklahoma wants a stable conference, it's difficult to believe the Sooners would happily stay in the Big 12 after Baylor attempted to keep them by holding Texas A&M hostage. This is the second time in two years that the Big 12 has stood on the brink of destruction. If the fat media rights deal Commissioner Dan Beebe negotiated this year with Fox and the even fatter one Beebe could get from ESPN or some other bidder in four years isn't enough to make the members of the Big 12 peacefully coexist, what is?
So Oklahoma must choose. Not today, not tomorrow and not even this week. But sometime in the next few months. Conference swapping is a complicated business, and if the Sooners hope to start play in the Pac-12 in 2012, they'll need to choose with enough time to spare to make their move. Texas A&M already has begun that process. The Aggies will be ready come July 2012 to begin life in a new home. So if Oklahoma waits too long, it will save the Big 12 by default, which would eliminate Baylor's reason to sue and allow Texas A&M its freedom to move the SEC.
If Oklahoma elects to leave, its move would actually be the one that torpedoed the Big 12. Maybe Starr would sue the SEC and the Pac-12 simultaneously, but Baylor would have much bigger problems at that point. Neither a lawsuit nor another editorial from Starr would solve them.
So Oklahoma -- already the focus of the college football world as its top-ranked team prepares to face Florida State in Tallahassee on Saturday -- is for the moment the most powerful entity in college athletics. The Sooners will stay, or the Sooners will go. The other dominoes will fall where they will.
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