The news this week that Texas and Oklahoma have expressed interest in joining the SEC shook the foundation of the Big 12 conference and 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, the league made it clear it expects its flagship programs to adhere to the conference bylaws and TV contracts that have been signed.
What is unclear to the rest of the Big 12 is how serious Texas and Oklahoma are about leaving and what their motivations are, especially after the two schools were no-shows for the Thursday conference call.
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 and David Wilson 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. 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.
Is a move to the SEC even possible? What hurdles exist for Texas and Oklahoma?
It might take some serious legal maneuvering for Oklahoma and Texas to leave the Big 12 anytime soon. Both schools 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 they’ve been able to gain by selling themselves 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 who 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?
Don’t be surprised if the Longhorns and Sooners at least talk to the Pac-12. 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 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.
The ACC might be another potential 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.”
How could a potential move affect other conferences?
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.
This would impact discussions around the feasibility of a 12-team College Football Playoff. If Texas and OU moved to the SEC, there is already speculation the league would dominate the playoff field: even if Texas and OU lost two or three games, they would probably make it in.
ESPN reporter David Hale contributed to this report.