AUSTIN, Texas -- They are near the end of their careers now, two of the most powerful men in college athletics. Donnie Duncan, former Oklahoma athletic director, is retired. DeLoss Dodds, the venerable 72-year-old Texas AD, is soon headed that way.
During the early-to-mid 1990s, the two men were basically responsible for forming the Big 12. Forces had congealed, like they have again now, to force major college football-playing schools to decide where they wanted to play.
|The Big 12's future hangs in the balance as Texas decides what to do. (US Presswire)|
Texas and Texas A&M had an offer on the table to join the Pac-10. If they had gone, the Big 12 most likely never would have happened.
"As athletic director at Oklahoma, those were precarious days," Duncan said. "The Pac-10 was not an option for us ... DeLoss wanted the Big 12 to happen very badly. There were others who very badly wanted to go to the Pac-10. Not only did he want it, whatever political environment he was working in, he had to say he was committed to it."
The Big 12 worked because Duncan and Dodds wanted it to work. When they took the idea of a new conference to New York to price it with rights holders and advertisers, it turned out to be a heck of a buy. The unification of Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma was attractive to networks. Chevy could sell a heck of a lot of pickups in the middle of the country. Liberty Media and ESPN hopped on board with a combined $100 million package to televise the Big 12.
It was no secret that the new conference was a shotgun marriage, joining the old Big Eight with four Texas programs. The cultural differences were significant. Texas vs. Midwest. There were academic hurdles that Texas wouldn't bend on because of its scholastic reputation.
A decade and a half later, the same uncertain forces are at work. Big Ten expansion could set in motion dominoes that could alter or break up conferences. Once again, Texas and Oklahoma could be main players. If the Big Ten expansion is big enough and broad enough, Texas has another tough decision to make. The offer probably wouldn't be from the Pac-10, but from the SEC.
If the Big Ten goes to 16 teams, the SEC would at least be threatened in the marketplace. In such a case, would SEC commissioner Mike Slive's first call be to Texas?
"The Big 12 is good for us," Dodds said recently. "That's not saying there are other things that don't work. I like continuity. I like stability. The further you get out on a limb on these kinds of conversations, those aren't good things for stability and continuity."
There's just enough hedge in those statements to make you believe anything is possible. Stability and continuity are rare commodities in these uncertain times. Big Ten expansion talks have accelerated to the point where we might know the league's plans by June. Missouri and Colorado already have been mentioned -- Missouri to the Big Ten, Colorado possibly to the Pac-10. Notre Dame is seemingly in play. If the Big Ten really strafes the landscape, the effects could be felt all the way here.
"I don't think a team is leaving," Dodds said of the Big 12. "I think [the conference can survive the hit], but I don't think anybody is leaving."
However, backed into a financial corner, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine the country's richest athletic department moving to the country's second-richest conference.
The Big Ten leads the pack, producing approximately $22 million per school each year. The SEC is second at $17 million. The Big 12 is in third place, paying members $7-12 million per year. Big 12 revenues are spread unevenly, benefitting those schools with more national television appearances.
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The new deal with ESPN and CBS allows SEC schools to control their archival rights (old games, coaches' shows, etc.). That's a potentially lucrative revenue stream going forward. While it might be a stretch to mate Texas with the SEC at the moment, it is significant that the "Longhorn Channel" is still a possibility.
The UT-centric channel would be available in-state to televise minor sports, campus activities, basketball and possibly some football games. IMG College, which oversees the school's trademark licensing, marketing and multimedia rights, thought enough of the idea to enter into distribution negotiations with major cable carriers.
"We're working on a channel, 'network' is not a good word," Dodds said. "Texas ought to have our top games on a bigger entity [but] we need to keep some football and basketball and baseball and women's basketball and have our own state-of-Texas deal."
Would Oklahoma follow Texas? Maybe the only way to trump the Big Ten's power play is somehow lure Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M to the SEC. Blood rivals on the field, Texas and OU can't get along without each other, really. In a quiet moment in his office, Dodds admitted to proudly showing current Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione around the campus each time he visits.
The Texas-Oklahoma River Shootout is a hate fest for fans but a decades-old money-maker for both schools. The city of Dallas, to keep the game in the Cotton Bowl, spent $90 million in improvements on the old stadium in Fair Park just to keep the game there.
Along with Notre Dame, Texas is the only other schools that makes complete expansion sense -- to any conference. If Texas leaves the Big 12, Oklahoma would have to make a decision to leave as well or make a go of it in a severely altered Big 12. Wedged in the middle of everything is the Big 12 TV contract that puts the conference in a kind of purgatory. Its deal with Fox expires in two years. But a more lucrative deal with ABC/ESPN still has five years to run.
"What was viewed as a benefit at the time [when they were signed]," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said of the latest contracts, "is probably more of a detriment ... We don't have the same numbers of homes as the Big Ten and the SEC."
No one does. The Big 12 stance seems to be that geographic relationships work. Get much outside your natural region and there are concerns.
"I've said that to some people at Texas," said Duncan, who still works as director of the Big 12 championship game. "How much better does Texas have it, when you get the recipe right? You better be conscious of experimenting with that recipe."
What this latest round of expansion comes down to is dividing 50 percent of the nation's college sports-viewing population. The Big Ten (with approximately 26 percent of the population in its eight-state region) and SEC (23 percent) already have sewed up the other 50 percent.
The Pac-10 has its own concerns. Does it work to add a championship game with the current membership? Does it go get Utah and Colorado and have more mouths to feed? The Mountain West, so close to automatic BCS qualification, has to stay viable. If the Big East loses even one team it could lose its automatic BCS qualifier status. Dodds and other administrators have dug to the bottom of the current upheaval. They say as few as nine athletics department are able to produce enough profit to give back to the university. You can figure out the fortunate few -- Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, among others.
The rest of the country's major college athletic departments are upside down in debt. When the choice is survival or staying in the same conference, the choice is easy: Survival wins every time.
"This year we've given $6 million plus to the university," Dodds said. "In this economy, if a school is doing it [borrowing money] for financial survival what do they care? There are a lot of schools looking for relief. If they can get relief by going to another conference, they're going to get it."