In a move months in the making that only surfaced publicly last Wednesday, the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners received their formal invitations to the SEC on Thursday following an anti-climactic meeting of schools presidents.
“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”
The University of Texas Board of Regents scheduled a special meeting on Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. Central with an agenda that includes “discussion and possible appropriate action regarding athletics contracts and athletic conference membership matters.”
Most remarkably in this saga, the stakeholders were able to keep the backroom machinations private until someone, most likely Texas A&M, leaked the negotiations in an attempt to sabotage SEC expansion. At SEC Media Days, the A&M athletics director was conveniently available to express the school’s opposition to the move.
“Being the only SEC program in the state of Texas is to our advantage and we are going to do everything that we can to really protect A&M,” Bjork said.
“That’s our job. That’s what we are going to do. That’s what our constituents expect us to do. There is a lot of things happening in college athletics. We are going to stay the course and control what we can control, but also do what is in the best interest of Texas A&M.”
But it quickly became apparent how close expansion was to happening and how little support the Aggies had from other conference schools.
On the Big 12 side, Texas and Oklahoma declined to join an emergency conference school on Thursday evening with the other eight schools, a strong indications that there was nothing the league could do to retain its two most prominent institutions.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby reportedly made a last-ditch attempt by considering an offer of 1.5 revenue shares for each school, but never got any traction.
And with Texas alum Greg Abbott serving as the governor, attempts at political maneuvering quickly fizzled, in large part because the 87th Texas Legislature was no longer in regular session. So while the remaining Big 12 schools were upset about Texas and Oklahoma not communicating with them before the move was already, maintaining that information discipline through the end of the regular session was critical in avoiding the type of political theatrics for which Texas politics is infamous.
Credit UT system Board of Regents chairman Kevin Eltife, an experienced Texas politician who spent 12 years in the state Senate, for understanding the need to avoid those shenanigans and having the political savvy to pull it off.
By Saturday, Texas A&M had to back off its stance from Big 12 Media Days.
Since the mutual interest between Texas and Oklahoma and the SEC became public, the previous negotiations allowed for a smooth process that advanced quickly through the formalities.
But the task of exiting the Big 12 before 2025 became much more difficult on Wednesday. With massive buyouts looming for the two schools if the conference remains intact for the next four years, ESPN allegedly began working behind the scenes with the AAC — and potentially other conferences — offering inducements to poach some or all of the remaining Big 12 teams in an effort to destroy the league and allow Texas and Oklahoma to avoid those buyouts.
Bowlsby responded quickly, sending a cease-and-desist letter to ESPN and then undertaking a media blitz that was remarkable in both its breadth and scope.
“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”
As Pete Thamel pointed out in his piece, conference realignment has always featured a high level of “cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting.” On Wednesday, though, ESPN’s machinations and Bowlsby’s reactions to them were highly unusual.
During the last round of conference realignment, the Big 12 took steps to position itself for just such a legal fight, inserting bylaws that ensure even a single remaining entity could sue ESPN or other conferences and incorporating in Delaware so it doesn’t have to serve as a defendant in the state of Texas.
ESPN responded on Thursday that the claims by Bowslby have no merit.
The question is whether Bowlsby and the conference want to undertake an extraordinarily expensive legal fight against the most powerful television partner in the industry — ESPN arguably holds more power than the NCAA does itself.
So as Bowlsby tries to communicate with Texas and Oklahoma, the two schools have largely remained silent, perhaps for legal reasons.
“We still don’t have the information we need from them and they’re largely unresponsive,” Bowlsby said. “How many years do they plan to play? When are they planning on transitioning? We can’t get any answers out of them.”
With the SEC taking the last formal step to invite Texas and Oklahoma, now the true legal battles begin to determine when the Horns and Sooners will actually start playing in the conference. Bowlsby and the remaining members of the Big 12 clearly plan on making that difficult, and understandably so.