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Conference Realignment: Texas, Its Strengths, and the Long Play

Judging from the initial reaction to my earlier post on the threat being floated that Texas A&M and OU would consider bolting for the SEC if some of their concerns related to the LHN persist, we might benefit from a fresh round of discussion about Texas and its position with respect to realignment.

First, there's no question that Texas is in a position of tremendous strength, a fact that was on full display throughout last summer's events.  That much everyone understands, but there is an accompanying point that seems to be widely overlooked -- namely, that the objective is to maximize the value you extract from those advantages.  Put another way: the value is not in the advantages themselves, but in their potential to facilitate value creation.

Understanding that point is essential to understanding why it is insufficient to point to Texas's viability in any number of realignment scenarios as a basis for acting cavalierly, or with relative indifference, towards those various outcomes.  Think of it this way: There are a number of ways that realignment could play out, each with a different end position for Texas. Although we might be able to conclude that all of the possibilities would be acceptable, among those endgames, not only would some would be decidedly better than others but the range between the best- and worst-case scenarios for Texas would be substantial.  That is, the best-case scenario would be a lot better than the worst.

That, really, is why Texas fans should be careful not to flippantly blow off today's story with bravado.  No, Texas doesn't "need" Texas A&M and/or OU, and yes, Texas's position of strength means that there a number of quality options involving partnerships with one, both, or neither of those schools.  But returning to that range of realignment outcomes for Texas, the event defining the far end of the worst-case scenario side of the spectrum arguably is: Texas A&M and Oklahoma bolt for the SEC, and do so on an accelerated timeline (in the next 1-2 years). 

Of all the ways realignment could play out, that's the worst case scenario for Texas, and even if it doesn't mean Texas can't land on its feet -- in a relatively good position, even -- that scenario: (1) neuters a host of Texas's advantages, and just as importantly, (2) knocks Texas out of the driver's seat and onto its heels.  There is an enormous difference to Texas between that situation and the best case scenario, which would involve (generally speaking) Texas methodically lining up all its pieces and strategically crafting the most advantageous, nurturing environment for itself.  Moreover, for those clamoring that Texas flip everyone the bird and go it alone, independence is least viable for UT in a landscape where A&M and OU bolt to anchor the formation of an SEC super-conference.

The Value Of Bluffing

I haven't been shy about chastising Aggies for injudiciously evaluating their options, but Texas's being in a stronger position in this realignment game does not make us immune from, or any less foolhardy for, handicapping ourselves with myopic bravado.  Teasing our rivals with arrogance is great fun, but limiting our own opportunities is serious business.

And that's why it is no less imprudent for Texas fans to urge Deloss Dodds to embrace a reckless "Bring 'em on!" attitude than it is for Aggie fans to urge their administration to bolt unilaterally for the SEC.  Quite the opposite, we should hope that our administration proceeds in a way that maximizes our advantages and, by extension, the potential value we might draw from them.  The good news, as far as I'm concerned, is that our administration understands this exceptionally well, which is why I expect we will see Texas tap the brakes a bit with the Longhorn Network, and to be as cooperative as they can be while still forging ahead with the long-term advantage/value optimization plans.

That's also why it will be interesting to see what Texas A&M and Oklahoma take from this episode.  For all we know, today's rumor came from a source without any official affiliation with either of the universities -- some other interested party, such as a politician or well-connected booster -- and though the reality of Texas A&M and Oklahoma's ability/interest/willingness to bolt prematurely for the SEC may be every bit as suspect as it was before today, there was real value in getting the threat of an accelerated tandem departure into the conversation. 

For one, it got the media involved, which will have the effect of disallowing Texas from getting everything it could possibly want from the LHN with quiet incrementalism -- call it the boiling frog strategy, which is out now that Texas has to proceed with media spotlights on.  Second, the threat revolves around the single most dangerous outcome to Texas, which however unlikely actually to occur is nonetheless just dangerous enough to get Texas to react. And third, even if it is nothing more than an empty threat, there's very real value to A&M and OU just in getting to evaluate Texas's reaction to the bluff.  If UT ignores their demands, they know something valuable about where they stand, which helps inform an analysis of how best to proceed.  And if UT backs down, then they've gotten something they wanted.

Eyes on the Prize

What about Texas's perpsective, though?  Are fans mistaken for confidently concluding that the threat is a bluff?  Based on the facts and realities -- both present and as existed a year ago when Big 12-2 was formed -- I hardly think so.  But that's not the real issue; the important question is whether Texas should call it.  And it's here that I diverge with those who would have Texas call our opponents' hands.

Why?  Ironically, for the very same reasons that make it so likely that A&M and OU are bluffing in the first place: the facts and realities both present and as existed a year ago when Big 12-2 was formed.  As a placeholder for Texas as it develops its advantages and thinks through/begins developing its long-term strategy, the Big 12-2 was and is tremendously valuable.  Whether or not our long-term, best-case scenario involves a conference with A&M, OU, both, or neither, the present configuration serves Texas exceptionally well -- providing sufficient present value while giving Texas time and opportunity to develop and retain maximal control over its long-term plans.

In that light, calling this bluff fails Texas because: (1) all the downside is in the actions being threatened, (2) all the upside is in the long-term value of preserving the present arrangement (at least for a while), and (3) the price to be paid for folding is minimal and limited entirely to the short-term.

Taking everything in this post together, then, Texas fans need to be as realistic and focused on the long-term strategy as do A&M fans.  Just as they would stand to gain the most by developing a strategy that optimizes the strengths of their own position (i.e. rising up with UT, and to the exclusion of as many others as possible, to maximize the enormous value of the state's advantages/resources), so too does Texas need to forge ahead with its focus on nurturing and growing its advantages.  Texas's priority should be maximizing its control over how future events unfold, and the timeline on which they occur.

That, ultimately, is why Texas should and will play it safe and conciliatory in a showdown such as this -- to minimize the risk of having to deal with a situation that detracts from Texas's advantages and greatly diminishes its control over realignment and its timeline.  In that context, this episode is more of a win-win than it might seem.  It is a win for Texas A&M and Oklahoma as a positive step in strengthening their present position, and an opportunity to develop the relationship among these parties in a competitive, but mutually beneficial manner.  And it is a win for Texas, by allowing it to pay a very modest, entirely acceptable, cost to preserve an arrangement that serves both its short- and long-term interests.

We may not need A&M and Oklahoma, but they can absolutely help us (and themselves), if we allow a workable present partnership to enable us to develop an ideal long-term position... And they can very much hurt us, by blowing everything up with a near-future defection -- forcing us to develop our next position on their terms and their timeline, before we're fully, optimally ready.

Keep your eyes on the prize, Longhorns fans.  Keep your eyes on the prize.