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The Calm Before The Storm

Could the Pac 12 Logo be obsolete before the paint/ink/dye is even dry? The next hand of billion dollar conference realignment poker is being dealt this week.

<em>(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)
Could the Pac 12 Logo be obsolete before the paint/ink/dye is even dry? The next hand of billion dollar conference realignment poker is being dealt this week. (Photo by Andy Wooldridge)

SEC Presidents are meeting in Atlanta, and an invitation to Texas A&M to join the conference could come as early as tomorrow. It will set off a scramble that will have impacts coast to coast.

The Aggies announced they would be leaving the Big 12 after this academic year, which will leave the not so Big 12 with only 9 members, and that probably won't even last for long.

There's a good chance the Pac-12 won't be for long either once the phone calls are all completed.

Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. sense their world collapsing around them, as the Aggies follow Nebraska and Colorado to greener pastures. In this context, greener refers to green backs, not energy efficiency.

The SEC won't settle for being at an unwieldy 13 teams for longer than it will take to hammer out the details of further expansion. Most pundits expect the SEC to expand to 16 teams, and that would provide both symmetry and an unprecedented bargaining position that could make the record media deal the Pac-12 struck last summer pale in comparison.

They could, at least temporarily, stop at 14 members, though, as their culture, geography, and structure doesn't require traveling partners as the far flung Pac-12 does, especially come hoops season. So two 7 team divisions will work better than they would in a Pac-14.

Not that there aren't available institutions that would be good candidates to fill out the conference to 16 members.

Except some of them aren't really good candidates as defined by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Slive has stated that the SEC is interested in exploring expansion in the wild new world of conference scrambles for ever greater tv dollars. But he has said expansion will only come into new states, expanding the footprint of the SEC.

Texas A&M obviously meets that, and in a big way, opening the state of Texas to recruiting and marketing. The Aggies don't command the share of the state that the University of Texas does, but they aren't that far behind. And they are two things the Longhorns aren't. Interested in the SEC, and willing to be one of the boys, vs. the top dog.

Florida St, Georgia Tech, and Clemson are excluded from Slive's definition. And while the Seminoles and Wrambling Wreck (Georgia Tech was a member many years ago, and chose to leave) may not really want any part of the toughest football conference in the country, or at least not a piece of it on a weekly basis, Slive's stated plan has to be a huge disappointment to the Tigers, who have long longed to be in the SEC.

Texas A&M talked of leaving the Big 12 last year, when talks were underway to expand the Pac-10 all the way to the Pac-16, with Texas and Texas Tech, and the Oklahomas going west. The Aggies, a proud lot, didn't and don't want to be followers to their arch rivals from Austin, and unlike when Texas' power plays destroyed the SouthWest Conference, they now are in a position to actually do something else. Only 11th. hour pressure, and more importantly, an unwillingness of the SEC to get the cart before the horse, kept them in what is now the Big 10/12ths.

It remains unclear who else will join the SEC following the Aggies. Missouri is the obvious choice on the western side, as the Tigers would bring penetration into both the St. Louis and Kansas City markets, as well as the very populous state of Missouri, which when a number of small markets are added together, actually represent essentially a third at least mid-sized market.

When Nebraska moved to the Big 10 to become the 12th. member there, Missouri was interested in heading north as well, but the Big 10 wasn't willing. The best guess is that they don't want to box themselves out of an even better expansion gain, which is the same issue that the Tigers face with the SEC.

The Big 10 will doubtless only move in pairs unless their long time prized addition, Notre Dame can be lured in. Even then, a second addition is desirable, and though Missouri makes perfect sense given their proximity to Nebraska, Iowa, and their long time unofficial rival Illinois, the New York market is much more lucrative. So Syracuse and even Rutgers are more attractive.

Similarly, the SEC would like nothing more than to make an inroad into North Carolina, and then further up the eastern seaboard. North Carolina is the obvious prize, but the Tar Heels are not likely to go anywhere without Duke, for obvious basketball reasons, and conference expansion is all about football. Where Duke is dead weight.

Virginia and Maryland are in better markets, but Virginia Tech is by far the better football choice.

So the situation is much murky on the SEC's eastern front. Which has delayed the behind closed doors and out on a golf course conversations from getting all the details all worked out before a move is made. And left Missouri twisting in the wind.

Once things start to move, the scramble will be on, and anyone left at the gate could be unable to catch up. Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. really aren't interested in biting off more than they can chew, which the SEC would be. The Pac-12/16 is much more inviting to a pair of schools that like 10 win seasons and the Alamo Bowl as a floor.

The linch pin of course is Texas, who also really doesn't want to wade into the SEC either. The dollars that Texas commands by bringing the majority of all the Texas markets was Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott's objective in his initial efforts at becoming the first 16 team super conference.

Texas, however, is a hard customer to bargain with, and one used to dictating terms, not negotiating them. This is a generational, cultural issue that will be hard for them to bring themselves to change, and the biggest stumbling block to what many see as a merger that would keep the Pac-16 on equal, or nearly equal, footing with the SEC.

And that was before the Longhorn network came into being, the latest move by Texas intended to gather up as much money as possible, and share none of it.

That's an ideal that simply won't fly with the Pac-12 Presidents, who expanded bowl revenue sharing to include all tv revenue as well, and formed the Pac-12 network with full intent to share all that revenue as well. Even USC and UCLA, despite the protestations of many of their followers similarly used to calling the shots, and claiming the lions share of the tv money, bought in, and were rewarded by the media deal Scott produced, which exceeded what they could have claimed independently.

The Longhorn network is the biggest stumbling block initially, and for several reasons. While the addition of Texas and probably Texas Tech would result in a regional network similar to what is being developed for each other pair of regional schools, it would belong to the Pac-16, and be shared with the Red Raiders. Texas pride could overcome even long term dollars here.

And there is another problem. The Longhorn network is an ESPN property. And while it hasn't been the initial hit some thought ESPN was hoping it would be, as far as ad sales and penetration into provider networks, the leader in sports entertainment programming may not be willing to sell it off, even if it initially seems to make sense.

The reason? Comcast. A major player in the Pac-12 deal, but not one with a major Texas presence, would like nothing more than to horn their way into the picture.
So both Texas and ESPN have reasons to balk at what looks to many like the logical move that would produce a Pac-8 Division and a Big-8 Division Pac-16.

But would the Pac-12 Presidents even approve the move? Or even just half of it, for the Oklahomas?

Jon Wilner, one of the most tuned in writers on the Pac-12 beat (it helps to write for the San Jose Mercury News, conveniently located close to the conference's Walnut Creek headquarters), reports a source close to one of the Presidents said "If Larry (Scott) thinks adding (Oklahoma and OSU) is the right thing, the Presidents will ultimately fall in line."

Whether the Texas part of the equation, which is the more lucrative part, albeit the one with more headaches, will be as easy to sell is questionable.

Texas, for it's part, does have a pressing need to maintain a conference tie in. They could probably succeed as a football independent, but powerful as they are, they are also still a regional power, compared to the national brands that are Notre Dame and BYU. And they don't have their own network, like BYU does, and Notre Dame essentially does with their NBC deal. And while football is the leading religion in the state of Texas, nation wide, they are not what the other two notables are.

And, like Notre Dame and BYU, who are members of the Big East and WCC when not talking football, Texas still needs a place to put all of their other programs. The Pac-12/14/16 would be a perfect fit for basketball, and especially baseball.

Hence a dilemma for Deloss Dodds, Texas' Athletic Director, and the man charged with laying out the plan for his political bosses to approve.

Make no mistake, the cell phones of all parties concerned have been burning up the minutes at a record pace recently. But with the Aggies making their move, it puts Texas and Oklahoma both in a position of increased urgency. Scott is now taking more calls than he's placing.

Eventually, this ripples through the ACC, the Big East, and down through Conference USA, the Mt. West, and eventually, the Sun Belt and WAC, and even into basketball only conferences, as everyone else scrambles for position after the big boys get through causing earthquakes.

The advent of a Pac-8 and a Big-8 would require maintaining a 9 game conference schedule, something many associated with programs with large stadiums have decried, preferring more home non-conference games. Something the plains schools only this year have been introduced to.

At that, if games with all division opponents were maintained, which would be 7 games, and very hard to sell a departure to, there would still be only 2 cross-divisional games per school per year. Which would appeal to small market teams concerned with travel bills.

But it would mean that exclusive of possible Conference Championship matchups, that attractive USC-Texas game would only come up twice in eight years. That won't maximize tv contract revenue. But a special scheduling arrangement like the one the California schools were granted when the Pac-12 divisions were created, which could mean getting more trips to Stillwater, Lubbock, and Boulder, and even fewer visits from Texas, Oklahoma, and USC, ones that will fill stadiums at inflated prices, to Corvallis, Seattle, Eugene, and Pullman, might cost some President's votes at their Athletic Directors' balance sheet induced suggestion when the vote to extend an invitation to Texas comes around. Colorado, who finally just escaped Texas' heavy handed conference domination might not see it as worth it either.

And the question of whether the added dollars Texas brings to the renegotiated tv deal is worth permanently discarding the dream of a Rose Bowl in Tucson, Corvallis, Berkeley, Boulder, Pullman, and maybe even Eugene, remains to be determined.

Will the campus powers that be, and the top program donors, ones who enjoy a mid-winter junket to a bowl game be satisfied with the realization that El Paso, not Pasadena, could become their ultimate destination? Because the need to overcome both Texas and Oklahoma, as well as USC, and in their good years, major-market UCLA, all in the same year is going to be somewhere between daunting and impossible. Don't count on that Alamo Bowl bid either, as the second best team from the TX/OK foursome will surely get that call.

But dollars that number into the billions, which is, in aggregate, what is on the line here, can make otherwise cautious men do daring things. And make all the new Pac-12 logo materials collector's items before the paint, ink, and dye even dry!