Thursday, August 18, 2011

Are the Aggies going to the SEC? Is Houston going to the Big XII?

Just over two weeks remain until the 2011 college football season kicks off. This is the time of year when players focus on practice, coaches focus on starting lineups, and fans focus on tailgating menus. Over the past week or so, however, the college football world has been distracted by some off-the-field developments. I'm not talking about the scandal surrounding the provision of impermissible benefits to University of Miami football players, although those allegations, if proved to be true, could put the Hurricane football program on the death penalty. I am, rather, referring to some conference realignment activity that's originating here in Texas.

As late as last weekend it looked like Texas A&M, apparently upset at the perceived monetary and recruiting advantages that rival Texas would gain through its own network and also perhaps having remorse over not making the move when the Big 12 was on the verge of imploding a year ago, was on its way to the Southeastern Conference. However, the Aggies' move to what is almost certainly the nation's strongest football conference will not be immediate, since the presidents and chancellors of SEC schools met last Sunday and issued the following statement:
“The SEC Presidents and Chancellors met today and reaffirmed our
satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment. We recognize, however,
that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of
institutions in the league. We discussed criteria and process associated with
expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution including Texas
The statement simply means that the Aggies aren't joining the conference right now. It clearly leaves the door open for the Aggies to join the SEC sometime in the future. The fact that the SEC schools' leaders were meeting - on a Sunday in the middle of August, no less - to discuss realignment was by itself very telling. This action is merely a legal maneuver on the SEC's part; a step in the process of bringing A&M to the SEC.

Last Monday, Texas A&M's Board of Regents met and voted to give A&M President R. Loftin Bowen permission to “take action on conference alignment," which essentially gives him approval to begin negotiations with the SEC. They also appointed a new Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System who is clearly in favor of the move. Loftin attempted to temper the impatience of starry-eyed Aggie fans by describing the potential realignment as a "lengthy process" but nevertheless indicated that the move was likely to occur. "It's not so much what's wrong with the Big 12, it's what's right for Texas A&M and where we want to go in time," Loftin said in a not-so-subtle dig at the conference of which they have been a member since 1996. At this point, it's clear that the Aggies have their hearts set on leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC. The only question is when. (Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples offers more insight on the current state of affairs, which he describes as "a divorce in which the squabbling couple has nine children.")

Of course, the Aggies' move to the SEC has the real potential to set in motion a chain reaction of school and conference movements that could change the college football landscape. For example: if the SEC took Texas A&M as their 13th member, would they need to add a 14th member to balance out their geographic divisions? If so, who? And, if the Aggies left the Big 12 (which in spite of its name only has ten members following the departure of Colorado and Nebraska), would the Big 12 stand pat or would they add a member to replace A&M? If so, who? And depending on what the SEC and Big 12 do in terms of potentially adding new schools, what does that mean for the rest of the college football landscape? If you're a conference realignment buff, the possibilities are endless. Is this another step towards the much-anticipated development of four sixteen-team "superconferences" (an eventuality I continue to oppose, even though I think it is inevitable)?

Of interest to me as a University of Houston fan is the speculation that the Cougars could be called upon to join the Big 12 if and when the Aggies go east. Cougar faithful, after all, desperately want out of Conference USA, which does not automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series and is therefore one of the "have-nots" in the college football world. Getting into the automatically-qualifying Big 12, and being able to play major schools like Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma on a regular basis, would be an enormous step up for the program. Houston is definitely in the mix, if the Austin-American Statesman is to be believed:

The Big 12 school official told the Statesman he had heard that the Big 12, to survive in the event of A&M's departure, would consider inviting Notre Dame and Arkansas to join, but he admitted those schools were unlikely to be interested. Other possibilities, the source said, include Houston, Louisville, Brigham Young and Air Force. He saw TCU — which joins the Big East next year — as an unlikely school to approach.

The Cougars definitely have their supporters. An official with Texas A&M apparently feels that Houston would be a "viable" replacement for the Aggies in the Big 12 (although once they leave the conference, A&M will obviously have no say in the matter). Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel says that Houston is his "clubhouse leader" for inclusion in the conference. Houston's inclusion in the Big 12 also has support from elected officials, and even the Chronicle's Richard Justice - a UT alum who has been accused of slighting UH in the past - has written in favor of Houston's inclusion.

Working against the Coogs, of course, are the program's traditional Achilles' heels: attendance and facilities. While Houston's football attendance has definitely been on the upswing over the past few years, the 31,728 fans per game the Cougars attracted last season (their best since 1981) was well below the 40,043 fans per game that Baylor, which has the Big 12's lowest attendance, attracted last season. And while Cougars appear to be on track to top the 10,000 mark in season ticket sales for the second consecutive year, it's still below the goal of 15,000 tickets that UH athletics director Mack Rhoades has set and is well below the 25,000 or 30,000 that a BCS-AQ conference like the Big XII would like to see. It can be argued that UH will be able to sell more season tickets in the Big 12, since local sports fans are more likely to come out and see the Cougars play Texas and Oklahoma and Texas Tech than they are to see Conference USA opponents like Marshall or Central Florida or Tulane, but the Big 12 would much rather see current commitment from Houston's fan base rather than future potential.

As far as facilities are concerned, a fundraising campaign to replace the small and aging Robertson Stadium continues. As of this afternoon $60 million has been raised, which is half of the new facility's estimated cost. Negotiations continue on naming rights for the lead gift, which would push the fundraising total past the $80 million mark where bonds for the remaining cost can be issued and groundbreaking could occur. Another $40 million, however, is required for upgrades to aging Hofheinz Pavilion, and efforts to secure those funds have not yet begun. There is speculation that the Cougars could address their facilities problems in the short-term by playing football games at Reliant Stadium and basketball games at Toyota Center.

There are other issues affecting Houston's potential inclusion as well, and television is at the top of the list. The Houston area is already a strong SEC market, what with all the alumni of LSU and other SEC schools living in the city, and A&M's transfer to the SEC will make it more so. Can the addition of Houston "shore up" the lucrative local television market for the Big 12? Maybe, but adding the Cougars certainly won't replace the number of television sets that the Big 12 is going to lose at a state or national level when A&M leaves.

Then there's the University of Texas. They rule the Big 12 roost, and the conference isn't going to do anything that's not in the Longhorns' best interest. Does Texas want to give Houston an advantage in the fertile Houston recruiting area by elevating the Cougars to BCS-AQ status? Has UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds gotten over his anger regarding the "bleachergate" embarrassment of a decade ago?

A lot, of course, will depend on what answer the Big 12 receives from the other schools they approach as a possible replacement for Texas A&M. As the Statesman article notes, Notre Dame and Arkansas are unlikely to agree to join the Big 12; the former is happy as an independent and the later is happy in the SEC. TCU, likewise, is beginning their first season as a member of the autmatically-qualfying Big East (their fourth conference affiliation since the Southwest Conference exploded) and probably isn't looking to make another move right now. For those reasons, I've heard from various sources that BYU is at the top of the Big 12's list. That program has traditionally been successful and has a nationwide television following through the Mormon church. But they're also beginning their first season as a football independent, they have their own TV contracts, they don't play sports on Sunday (which would create scheduling headaches for basketball and non-revenue sports) and they're geographically distant from the rest of the conference. If BYU says no, the Big 12 could always approach Air Force or Louisville instead of Houston.

As of right now, I am skeptical that the Cougars will be invited to join the Big 12. There are just too many factors - low season ticket sales and a geographically-limited television market chief among them - that work against Houston's favor. I think the only way UH gets the nod is if all of the aforementioned schools say no and/or the conference receives political pressure to replace one Texas public school with another.

Depending on what happens, however, opportunities for the Cougars to move up in the college football world could nevertheless occur if A&M's shift to the SEC sets off a row of falling dominoes that, for example, opens up a spot for UH in the Big East. For that reason, the University of Houston needs to make itself look as attractive as possible to potential conferences. Fans need to buy season tickets and keep Robertson filled to capacity on game day. The administration needs to continue its fundraising efforts in its quest to upgrade the university's dilapidated sports facilites. And the team needs to continue to perform on the field. In that regard, a repeat of last year's 5-7 disappointment would be a disaster.

(In my perfect world, the Cougars would be joining the Aggies in a move to the SEC. But Elvis will be seen riding a winged unicorn across the downtown skyline before Houston is playing the SEC.)

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