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Bold leadership ready to move Texas into brave new world of college athletics, and possibly the SEC

Where DeLoss Dodds failed, Chris Del Conte and an ambitious university leadership team look to succeed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Louisiana Tech at Texas Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Less than a week ago, overpaid and ineffective NCAA president Mark Emmert publicly suggested decentralizing and deregulating the longtime governing body to give more power to conferences and individual schools.

As Texas Longhorns leadership prepares for that potentially seismic change and looks ahead to a future that may not include continued participation in the Big 12 Conference, the time is rapidly approaching for Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltiffe, university president Jay Hartzell, and athletics director Chris Del Conte to make bold moves.

In a story first broken by the Houston Chronicle, that bold vision for the future includes potentially joining the SEC with Oklahoma as college football moves towards a 12-team playoff that makes the additions more appealing for the SEC.

“With an expanded playoff, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the conference would create more premier regular season games without threatening the potential for the SEC to get multiple teams into the playoff,” an SEC source told DawgSports.

Indeed, the creation of 16-team super conferences could help ensure more guaranteed playoff spots for the SEC and other super conferences against a backdrop of changing television usage by fans.

As ESPN and FOX declined to engage in early negotiations with the Big 12, the tenuous position of the conference moving forward past the grant of rights that ends in 2025 surely became clear to university leadership and fits with the timetable of interest in the SEC.

A move to the nation’s best football conference and a willingness to precipitate the start of a major round of realignment stands in stark contrast to the unaligned and staid decisions made 10 years ago.

Faced with the prospect of precipitating a similar level of realignment by creating the Pac-16, Texas president Bill Powers and athletics director DeLoss Dodds instead opted to remain in a diminished Big 12 and create the Longhorn Network, a lucrative development for the school, but a decision that made the Big 12 a zombie conference shambling through the decade-plus before the expiration of its grant of rights.

Put into perspective with the benefit of hindsight, the focus on academics and unwillingness to look east to the SEC combined with the perception that Texas bullied smaller schools resulted in key departures from the Big 12 and an ultimate lack of vision from university leadership.

At least the decision not to create the Pac-16 was the right move, but as a Big 12 source told Stadium’s Brett McMurphy, “This was inevitable.”

With no reasonable options to expand past 10 teams and a second-tier Power Five product to sell to television carriers as consumption habits shift towards streaming, it’s only been a matter of time before the two biggest schools in the Big 12 looked for better options.

Now it appears a university leadership group that was long dysfunctional, in part because of presidents more interested in academics or a Board of Regents loaded with Rick Perry cronies uninterested in actually advancing the interests of the state’s flagship university, is ready to make the moves put off 10 years ago.

Leaving the Big 12 early seems unlikely — Texas and Oklahoma would owe in excess of $70 million apiece in addition to “all actual loss, damage, costs, or expenses.”

But the Longhorn Network seems like less of an impediment with multiple reports indicating that Texas is willing to get out of its deal with ESPN with the prospect of making more money in the SEC — the conference just signed a roughly $300 million-per-year deal with Disney last year that starts in 2024.

And there’s no doubt that ESPN would be happy to escape from its Longhorn Network obligations after the failures by Texas to succeed in football and difficulties securing carriage agreements made it a money-losing venture to the tune of nearly $50 million through its first five years.

The biggest hurdle for Texas and Oklahoma to clear is current SEC membership — according to bylaws, 11 of the 14 programs have to extend an invitation to new members.

Texas A&M, scared to lose its recruiting advantage as the only SEC program in the state of Texas and content to stay out of the lengthy shadow cast by its big brother, immediately came out as vehemently opposed to the additions.

“We want to be the only SEC team from the state of Texas,” Texas A&M athletics director Ross Bjork told reporters at SEC media days, according to Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated. “There’s a reason why Texas A&M left the Big 12 — to be stand-alone and have our own identity. That’s our feeling.”

Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman reports that Missouri, apparently still bearing a grudge from its own departure from the Big 12, would also vote against the additions.

But would two other schools join those programs in keeping the SEC expansion from happening? Would the SEC really allow its two most recent additions, neither of which have particularly impressive resumes in the conference, to keep the conference from solidly securing the SEC’s position as the nation’s foremost football league moving forward? From making even more money?

Those two schools may be on the verge of a rude awakening about how much power they really wield in their new conference as the SEC considers whether to add the fourth-most winningest program in college football history and the sixth-most winningest program in college football history.

A&M doesn’t crack the top 20 and Missouri barely ranks inside the top 50.

John Lopez believes there is “a lot of momentum” for the moves to happen as Texas presumably learns from its past mistakes and promises to play better with others as a much less dominant and much more equal member of the SEC. The last decade has certainly provided plenty of room for the school to discover some humility.

If there is truly significant momentum for Texas and Oklahoma to join the SEC, Texas A&M and Missouri may not be able to scuttle the expansion as Texas leadership finally makes its big play to best position the school in a rapidly-changing landscape.