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.
What we know so far
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 conference 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.
But as one AD put it: “It’s seismic. Biggest move in 50 years since football broke away from NCAA. New leadership in three of the five P5 conferences means there’s not as much familiarity with schools/presidents. Expect the unexpected. Tense times are upon us.”
Is a move to the SEC even possible? What hurdles exist for Texas and Oklahoma?
Oklahoma and Texas signed a Big 12 grant-of-rights agreement, in which they granted their first- and second-tier media rights for football and men’s basketball to the conference through June 30, 2025. That means the Big 12 would still own those schools’ media rights for those sports, even if they are no longer members, until the agreement expires.
Big 12 bylaws state that any withdrawing member must give the league at least 18 months notice. Departing schools also must pay the league a “commitment buyout fee,” which is an amount equal to the sum of distributions that otherwise would be paid to the school during the final two years of its membership. Exiting schools, according to the bylaws, “shall be deemed to have agreed to forfeit all distributions of any type that otherwise would have been made to the withdrawing member during the interim period” between the notice date and the actual departure date.
So if you apply that to last year, when the Big 12 distributed about $38 million to its members (third most among Power 5 conferences), Texas and Oklahoma would owe about $76 million each. Of course, that’s where lawyers come in, and the Longhorns and Sooners would undoubtedly attempt to negotiate a settlement and an earlier exit date so they wouldn’t have to remain in the league for four more seasons in less-than-ideal conditions.
Obviously, Texas A&M would lose a built-in recruiting advantage it has been able to gain by selling itself as the only SEC school in Texas. LSU and others who recruit heavily in Texas could balk at the idea of giving Texas and Oklahoma that same advantage. Would that be enough to overcome what surely would be a more profitable conference deal with the addition of two huge names?
There is also the issue of an unwritten rule, the “gentleman’s agreement,” between SEC schools that gives conference members “absolute veto power” over the addition of another school from their state, according to a former Texas A&M official.
R. Bowen Loftin, who helped steer the Aggies into the SEC in 2011 while serving as A&M’s president, said the oft-discussed unwritten rule was a “specific conversation” when he was involved in expansion talks in 2010-11. (Loftin also served as chancellor at Missouri from 2014 to ’15 after the Tigers made the move to the SEC.)
“There’s this understanding among the membership, at least it was 10 years ago, that you don’t admit a school from the same state as a member school unless that member school’s OK with it,” Loftin told ESPN on Thursday. “We talked about it from time to time among ourselves, that this was the way it was going to be, that if we had another school in Texas wanting to enter the SEC, Texas A&M would have veto power.”
Handshake deals don’t hold up in court, however.
How much resistance will there be within the SEC?
Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork shares his thoughts on the report that Texas and Oklahoma want to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.
It depends on whom you ask. Bjork told reporters this week at SEC media days that the Aggies will be “diligent in our approach to protect Texas A&M. We want to be the only SEC program in the state of Texas. There’s a reason why Texas A&M left the Big 12 — to be standalone, to have our own identity.”
Under SEC rules, the Aggies would have to get three more schools on board to block the Longhorns from joining. One official from within the league suggested Thursday that the Aggies might be the only SEC school that doesn’t want Texas and Oklahoma in the league.
Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz joked Thursday about the rumored interest of Texas and Oklahoma.
“We’re the best league in college football and everybody wants to play there, and now you’ve got two iconic brands that want to join, too,” he told reporters during his media day session. “It’s an exclusive club and not everybody gets in, so good luck, especially if A&M has anything to do with it.”
Is there another landing spot for Texas and Oklahoma?
While the latest developments indicate Texas and Oklahoma are heavily leaning toward a move to the SEC, the Longhorns and Sooners could at least talk to the Pac-12. New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told ESPN on Friday his conference isn’t actively seeking new members but is open to discussions with potential candidates.
“I consider the Pac-12 an exclusive club with a high barrier to entry,” Kliavkoff said. “We love the schools and teams we have today. We’re not actively seeking to poach any teams from any conference, but we’d be foolish not to listen if schools call us.”
Realignment decisions are ultimately made by university presidents and chancellors, who prioritize like-minded academic institutions, and Texas could fit the mold.
In September 2011, then-Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott came awfully close to adding Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to his league. The deal fell apart about a month after the Aggies announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. Texas A&M started its courtship with the SEC after Texas and ESPN announced plans for the Longhorn Network, which pays UT $300 million over 20 years.
During that realignment saga, Texas and Oklahoma received tremendous pressure from their respective state legislatures about leaving behind the other two state schools, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
After news of the potential Big 12 departures broke Wednesday, Cowboys officials swiftly issued a statement, which said: “We have heard unconfirmed reports that OU and UT approached Southeastern Conference officials about joining the SEC. We are gathering information and will monitor closely. If true, we would be gravely disappointed. While we place a premium on history, loyalty and trust, be assured, we will aggressively defend and advance what is best for Oklahoma State and our strong athletic program, which continues to excel in the Big 12 and nationally.”
Texas Tech chancellor Dr. Tedd Mitchell also weighed in via Twitter on Thursday.
As the landscape of collegiate athletics shifts, I can promise Red Raider Nation that our leadership will diligently pursue all options to best position Texas Tech for long-term success.
— Tedd L. Mitchell, M.D. (@TeddLMitchell) 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…