Major-conference athletics are on the verge of drastic change. Why the Texas governor might be sports fans' last hope.
As college football fans are painfully aware, the Big 12 conference might implode at any moment, triggering a wave of NCAA realignment.
The conference's member schools were sufficiently irked by the domineering University of Texas and its new Longhorn Network -- a partnership with ESPN that will broadcast Texas high school games under the University of Texas brand -- that some are ready to bolt. Already the Universities of Nebraska and Colorado jumped to the Big Ten and the Pac-12, respectively, just last year.
The crisis has multiple lynchpins, and it carries wide ramifications for college sports. With Syracuse and Pittsburgh jumping from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference this week, major changes are afoot.
In the Big 12, Texas A&M moved last week to join the Southeast Conference (SEC) but was blocked by Baylor University's threat to sue the SEC if Texas A&M leaves. On Tuesday, the boards of regents at the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma gave their respective presidents the go-ahead to explore ways to leave the Big 12, paving the way for both schools to seek entry into the Pac-12. On Wednesday, the Pac-12 said it didn't want them -- not now, at least.
If all this sounds complicated, it is. It's like Jenga, but with universities instead of wooden blocks, and with billions in TV revenue at stake. If the Big 12 folds, America may end up with four megaconferences, doing away with some century-old rivalries and radically changing the landscape of college sports.
For now, Big 12 schools are waiting to see what happens with Texas A&M and the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma.
Enter Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican Party's leading presidential contender, who happens to be a former yell leader for the Aggies. Oil man T. Boone Pickens, an Oklahoma State booster, recently called on Perry to save the Big 12 by leaning on Texas A&M to stay put.
Perry should step in and show America that "you fix problems, don't contribute to 'em," Pickens told The Oklahoman.
Nobody in Texas particularly cares what Oklahoma sports fans have to say, but Pickens lives in Dallas and has a big voice in the Lone Star State, so the Pickens Plan (get it?) for Big 12 preservation merits a look.
COULD PERRY DO IT?
The answer: maybe. How? With soft power and hard threats.
Perry appointed all 20 members of the University of Texas and Texas A&M boards of regents, so there's that. The governor could, conceivably, take a 20 minute break from campaigning to call up Texas A&M board chairman Richard A. Box and ask, casually, "So, Dick, remember when I gave you this job seven months ago, on March 24? I'd really like to see that Big 12 hang together ..."
None of the regents' terms will expire until Feb. 2013, and Perry can always threaten not to reappoint them should he fail to become president.
Texas universities also rely on the state legislature for money. See Texas A&M's giant fiscal-year 2012-2013 appropriations request here. The state legislature's House Committee on Higher Education is looking into Texas A&M's desire to leave. Working with the legislature, Perry can apply some pressure to the Aggies.
The same goes for the University of Texas. The Longhorns caused the Big 12's problems by striking a deal with ESPN in the first place, creating an exclusive TV network for high school football games that spawned the Big 12's discontent. The Longhorn Network will generate money and untold recruiting advantages, with revenue going strictly to Texas. Perry can use all the same tools to pressure Texas into sharing Longhorn Network revenue with the rest of the Big 12. Texas's university president is open to that idea; it's athletic director isn't. Perry might be able to tip the scales, sticking it to his alma mater's rival all the while.