June 06, 2010
In a matter of days, the nebulous mist wafting through conference expansion scenarios since January has coalesced into one very real, very black cloud sitting directly over the Big 12, and it's a storm only a game theorist could love.
In one corner, the Pac-10 is mulling its options in San Francisco, most prominent among them a blockbuster raid to acquire six teams from the Big 12. In the other, Big Ten power brokers are meeting today about their own deliberate timeline for adding new schools, and whether the Pac-10's sudden gambit should force their hand – which could include offers to at least two other Big 12 heavies not on the Pac-10's radar, Nebraska and Missouri, thereby putting its heartland neighbor out of its misery.
In the middle, the Big 12 presses against these encroaching walls with increasing uncertainty, much of it rooted in distrust across the North and South divisions. A unified membership committed to the future of the conference would likely be safe from the poachers, and on some level, it's possible no individual member is actually anxious to leave the conference as it's existed since 1995; as Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers said last week, he prefers remaining in the Big 12 if "the conference stays intact, completely intact, with all 12 members." That depends on the conference's anchors, Nebraska and Texas, neither of which is interested in remaining without the other, but neither of which can guarantee it isn't ready to ship out for (literally) greener pastures.
Without that commitment, the league is likely consumed from the outside. And if neither side is willing to offering a guarantee on its own accord, according to the Austin American-Statesman's Kirk Bohls, the rest of the conference is fully prepared to force it out of them (emphasis added):
"Nebraska has until 5 p.m. on Friday to tell us what they're going to do," one school official said, adding that he has heard that deadline could be extended to June 15. "The same deal for Missouri. They have to tell us they're not going to the Big Ten or … ."
... or else the six teams reportedly sought by the Pac-10 – Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and either Colorado or Baylor, depending on whether the Texas legislature gets its way – will take their ball to the West Coast by the end of the month:
"I've talked to the Pac-10," said the Big 12 school administrator, who expected the speculation involving the Big 12 to be resolved within two weeks. "There is an invitation. When it comes, it'll come fast."
The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton backs up Bohls' report and puts the situation in perspective: "If Nebraska affirms its commitment, the Big 12 is likely to survive. If not, expect schools to quickly pursue other options, with the Pac-10 the most intriguing."
Texas, in contrast to some popular assumptions, isn't necessarily anxious to leave its dominant seat in the Big 12; Orangebloods.com's Chip Brown, one of the most plugged-in reporters in the fracas, notes that the Longhorns have a much better chance of launching an all-Texas television network in the Big 12 than in the Big Ten, which already has a network UT would be required to buy into, or the Pac-10, which seems to be hell-bent on launching its own on the Big Ten model. (SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who seems to have more interest in Texas than Texas has in the SEC, has repeatedly emphasized the freedom SEC schools have to pursue their own media rights deals outside of the league-wide contracts with CBS and ESPN, an open invitation to the Longhorns.)
For Nebraska and Missouri, however, the opportunity to double or even nearly triple their current takes in the Big 12 by signing on to the Big Ten may be too attractive to pass up.
But will Nebraska or Missouri know by the end of the week (or, if the deadline is extended, by the following week) whether a Big Ten invite is definitely on its way? Without a fly in the room, we can assume that's the first item on the agenda among Big Ten bigwigs today. That's only speculation, but if Jim Delany and Co. hold fast to their stated long-term timeline – that is, withholding any official decisions or offers until November at the earliest – their counterparts in Lincoln and Columbia may very well be forced to pledge their allegiance to an intact Big 12 that, against the odds, could emerge from the existential threat stronger and more unified than ever. And then hope like hell that's what they actually get.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.