I keep thinking some of the folks in charge at the University of Texas will wake up some fine morning and admit how badly they’ve screwed up college sports—especially college football, since that’s the big catfish. Of course, that thought is aspirational, like flying pigs, dancing turnips, and an athletics conference that makes geographical sense.
If you’re looking for ground zero for the chaos that’s engulfed college sports, you’d need to go back to 2011, when Texas A&M bolted for the Southeastern Conference because the school no longer trusted UT’s machinations in the Big 12.
Lots of Texas A&M alums will tell you that jumping to the SEC was the best thing that ever happened to the Aggies. A&M, no longer stuck in the Longhorns’ shadow, found itself competing in the richest, most prestigious conference in the land.
In the eleven years since, the Texas A&M athletics department has become a financial behemoth, and partly because of its prodigious piggy bank and partly because of great coaching hires like Jimbo Fisher and Buzz Williams, the Aggies appear to be on the verge of winning or contending for national championships in every major sport.
And for a few quiet years there, everything seemed hunky-dory: UT had its Longhorn Network, Texas A&M loved the SEC, and the SEC loved Texas A&M back. Everyone goes home happy, right?
Ask yourself this: What if Texas had played nice back in 2011? What if Texas had done the right thing? Instead of a Longhorn Network, Texas might have pushed for a Big 12 Network. Instead of stuffing UT’s pockets with ESPN cash and leaving every other school in survival mode, a Big 12 Network would have distributed the money equally and offered stability to Baylor, Texas Tech, even Oklahoma.
Had Texas A&M remained in the Big 12, the school wouldn’t have gotten as rich with TV rights payments as it has now—a conference with A&M, Texas, and Oklahoma still wouldn’t be as appealing to the networks as the SEC with Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, and Tennessee.
Did Texas and Texas A&M—but mainly Texas—have any moral obligation to allow Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, and other Big 12 schools to feed off their wealth and prestige? Clearly, the Longhorns and Aggies believe they don’t. Texas A&M believed it was forced to look out for itself in 2011. Meanwhile, Texas has almost always looked out for number one.
Which leads us to today. When Texas and Oklahoma announced last year they would be joining the SEC, it left Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU fighting for relevance, if not survival. And here’s what’s galling: if you are Texas and you boast of your wealth and influence and you brag that you can join whatever damned conference you want, why would you make a move for money?
You say you don’t need money, that you can hire any coach, that you can build any building. Then why latch on to the SEC? You say you don’t need the prestige of SEC membership. So why do something that makes travel worse for UT athletes and makes it all but impossible for many of your fans? Something that tosses out the rivalries your fans care most about. Something that endangers the future of sports at other Texas schools that depend on an association with the state’s big brands to remain viable.
The Big 12 reacted to the Texas and Oklahoma departures by grabbing Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, and Central Florida. Now, in the wake of USC and UCLA ditching the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten, the Big 12 might poach programs from the hollowed-out husk of the Pac-12. Arizona and Arizona State have been mentioned. Colorado and Utah are possibilities.
Look at a map. Arizona State and West Virginia are 2,000 miles from each other. Utah and Iowa State are separated by a mere 1,100 miles. Instead of that Waco-to-Austin bus trip, Baylor athletes—and this isn’t just about football—will be hopping connecting flights to here, there, and everywhere.
But the Big 12 has no choice, because the conference is hoping, praying, and scrambling to arrange any configuration of college sports brands that will appeal to a television network. Meanwhile, Texas A&M and Texas will be awash in the mighty glow that comes with life in the SEC.
Let’s be clear: the Aggies will never go back. They’d left UT in their rearview mirror and never wanted to see the Longhorns again. To say they were furious that Texas nudged its way into the SEC is an understatement.
Who loses in the new college sports landscape? Everyone else. Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU will be hit the hardest. Houston can claim a modest win by advancing from one mediocre conference to a better-known, once-important conference now sliding back into mediocrity. SMU loses big time. The Ponies weren’t invited to join this latest version of the Big 12 despite having more brand and TV market appeal than at least half of the conference’s current members.
Yet still, I have this dream that A&M and Texas officials will meet for coffee, shake hands, and say something like: “Let’s think of our fans and what’s best for them.” I know that’s naive, but if they ever got together, it would take them about five minutes to come up with a brand-new conference that’d be wildly appealing in the Lone Star State. UT and A&M would be in it. So would Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Arkansas. Also Texas Tech, Baylor, Houston, Oklahoma State, TCU, and SMU. (I’d also invite UTSA, UTEP, and North Texas.)
Those eleven schools would serve as foundational members for a conference that would be better in terms of travel for athletes and that would create rivalries that are generationally important to fans.
But that ain’t happening. So instead, buckle up for round after round of conference realignment news and the flurry of incomprehensible decisions that come with them—ASU playing for the Big 12 championship? Rock on! A Rose Bowl game that could have been a regular-season Pac-12 matchup in 2021? The proud football families of Ohio and Michigan must be salivating over the possibility. College football in Texas has gotten progressively more difficult for schools not named Texas and Texas A&M, and there’s something rotten about that.
College football insiders are predicting a future in which the SEC and Big 10 reign as nationwide, twenty-team super conferences. With once-powerful regional conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-12 headed for second-tier status, that outcome seems inevitable.
We’ll still love college football, because we always have. We’ll try to convince ourselves that Houston-BYU or Texas Tech–Central Florida are worthy Big 12 rivalries. We’ll love the return of A&M-Texas when both are in the SEC. But there’s no polite way to spin it: traditions and rivalries that mattered to generations of Texas football fans have been lost forever.