When Texas A&M announced it was fleeing the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference back in 2011, Baylor’s then-president, Ken Starr, wrote a passionate newspaper op-ed about what was about to be lost. “Quite frankly, I can’t imagine having a Baylor football season without a game against A&M with the Midnight Yell and the pageantry of the Fighting Texas Aggie Band marching at halftime,” he wrote.
Starr encouraged the Texas Legislature to persuade the Aggies to remain in the Big 12 and preserve the conference’s cherished in-state rivalries rather than pursue new ones against the likes of Alabama, LSU, and Georgia. “It is in the best interest of our state that the four Texas schools of the Big 12 stay together,” he added.
So much for that. Let’s pause to admit that Texas A&M’s move to the SEC has worked out better than even the most optimistic Aggies believed it would. The football program has become one of the most lucrative in college sports, with an estimated annual value of $147 million, according to one recent analysis. When it comes to success on the field, the Aggies aren’t there yet, but they nearly reached the College Football Playoff in 2020 before falling short in attempts to build on that success over the past two seasons. And as the late television executive Don Ohlmeyer once said, “The answer to all your questions is: money.”
If that’s the gauge, Texas A&M is winning big, and the school’s upward trajectory traces a straight line back to the decision to leave Baylor and the Big 12. If Ken Starr’s gentle appeal for the conference’s Texas universities to “sit down and speak openly as we strengthen the bonds that have benefited us all for so many years” sounds more like it came from the last century than the last decade, then consider it a reminder of how dramatically the college sports landscape has changed in recent years. (Starr was ousted by Baylor in 2016 after he accepted responsibility for the athletic department’s mishandling of sexual assault charges against football players. He died last year at 76.)
Perhaps Starr had seen the future. He likely expected Texas would begin exploring its options about twelve seconds after the Aggies were out the door, and that those explorations would start the Big 12’s doomsday clock.
That clock is nearing zero after Texas and Oklahoma agreed last week to cough up $50 million apiece to exit the Big 12 a year earlier than their originally scheduled 2025 departure. (Fox will reportedly get a separate chunk of money as compensation for losing the broadcast rights to its Texas and Oklahoma games in 2024.) Fifty million is peanuts to those two schools. It’ll be even less than peanuts once the SEC’s new television deal kicks in, and once the new shirts are sold and the new tickets are priced.
“That’s just the price of doing business,” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte told Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman.
So Texas joins the SEC, a conference that, as the slogan says, “just means more.” It’s the conference that has produced six of the last eight national champions in football, and the conference all others measure themselves against in terms of prestige and cash.
Left in UT and Oklahoma’s wake is a Big 12 that looks more and more like a jumbled mess of schools that have no connections to one another. The Longhorns surely are losing something by not playing conference tilts against Texas Tech, TCU, and Baylor, but at least in doing so, they get to renew the state’s best rivalry, UT against Texas A&M. UT will also continue to play Oklahoma every season and may get an annual game with Arkansas, once its biggest rival.
As for Texas Tech, TCU, and Baylor, Starr’s worst fears have been realized. Give Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark credit for holding the conference together, sort of. Cincinnati, BYU, Central Florida, and Houston will join the Big 12 on July 1 to supplement the eight holdovers: Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, West Virginia, Kansas, and Kansas State.
Yormark says the conference isn’t done yet, and it reportedly had merger conversations with the Pac-12 after UCLA and USC announced they would join the Big Ten. Yormark has surely been in touch with Arizona, Arizona State, and others. He negotiated a new Big 12 television deal that will compensate the schools at about the same level as before, a remarkable feat considering that Texas and OU had been the conference’s biggest draws. (Texas and OU will see their revenues skyrocket when the SEC’s new television package kicks in next year.)
This isn’t the end of realignment, and what comes next isn’t likely to be good for Texas schools in the Big 12. College football appears to be barreling toward an NCAA model in which fifty or sixty teams make up Division I. (Currently, there are 130 FBS programs and 124 in the second-tier FCS.) Thirty-two of the remaining D1 teams will almost certainly be the members of the SEC and the Big Ten; that leaves about thirty spots for the rest of the country. Would Baylor, TCU, Houston, and Texas Tech make the cut? Stay tuned.
Just like Texas A&M in 2011, the Longhorns were seemingly predestined to follow the money and do whatever they saw as best for UT. In the years after the Aggies skedaddled, the Longhorns played footsie with the Pac-12 and the Big Ten before settling on the SEC.
Funny thing about Starr’s essay: every single word made sense, but it also came off as self-serving and insincere. Hardly anyone at Baylor had offered a peep of protest in 1994, when the Southwest Conference began to break up and Baylor was invited to join the Big 12, along with Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech. Where were the tears for SMU, TCU, and Houston when those Texas institutions were thrown under the bus and forced to fend for themselves in lower-tier conferences?
And if all the recent coming and going makes you nostalgic for the Southwest Conference, join the club. To have eight Texas schools—and Arkansas, until 1992—play one another was as good as it got. Virtually all the players and coaches knew one another, especially since the schools were competing for the same pool of high school players. National signing day was among the state’s biggest news days of the year. The competition became so intense that it resulted in virtually every school getting caught buying recruits and the conference collapsing under the weight of scandal. But football fans old enough to remember those days will all tell you: it was damn good while it lasted.
There’s no debate over whether Texas will be better off in the SEC. It’s a smart move financially, and getting the Aggies and the Razorbacks back on the schedule will allow the Longhorns to say they’re also reclaiming historic rivalries.
But that doesn’t mean college football will be better in Texas. (Unless you think Longhorns fans are going to get as excited about playing Ole Miss and Vanderbilt as they were about playing TCU and Baylor.) It just means that Ken Starr’s twelve-year-old nightmare is about to become reality.