There have been plenty of rumors and guesses about Big Ten expansion, ever since commissioner Jim Delaney announced that the conference was studying the issue. But this week offered the first concrete clues from school officials who are actually in the position to know.
First was the rumor first floated on the University of Texas rivals.com site, that the Pac 10 was prepared to offer invitations to Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado. The Colorado athletic director later said that he believed the report was true.
Second was an email from Ohio State University president Gordon Gee, in which he encouraged Delaney to get in touch with Texas president Bill Powers, “who would welcome a call to say they have a ‘Tech’ problem.” The email was among several obtained by the Columbus Dispatch in a freedom-of-information request, and Gee acknowledged it was genuine.
Gee wouldn't say what he meant by a “‘Tech’ problem,” and several newspapers were at a loss to explain it, but it is not difficult to figure out. ‘Tech’ clearly refers to Texas Tech, the “little sister” of three Texas state schools in the Big XII—Texas and Texas A&M being the other two. Naturally, all three play each other in football every year.
It is likely that wherever Texas goes, A&M will go with it. The Longhorns have played A&M in football every year since 1915. They've also played Oklahoma nearly every year since 1902 (they skipped a few seasons in the early party of the 20th century). It is highly doubtful that Texas would want to give up either rivalry. But it is equally doubtful that the Longhorns would agree to play in another conference, while being locked into two annual rivalry games with BCS-level opponents. If the Longhorns and the Aggies move together, presumably that would leave the Sooners as their only annually contested non-conference rivalry.
The Texas–Texas Tech rivalry does not have the same pedigree as the others. The two schools have played annually only since 1960. It is also a lopsided rivalry, with the Longhorns winning nearly 75 percent of the time.
So, what is the “‘Tech’ problem”? If Texas and Texas A&M join the Big Ten, it would probably spell the end of the Bix XII as we have known it. The more prominent football schools in the conference would not have trouble finding homes elsewhere. Nebraska and Missouri, for instance, could very well join the Big Ten, as well; the Pac Ten would probably take Oklahoma and Colorado. But “little sister” Tech would likely find itself in a non-BCS league, like Conference USA. That wouldn't sit well with Texas politicians, especially if Tech had the double blow of losing its annual rivalry games with both the Longhorns and the Aggies.
Here, then, is the significance of the Pac Ten's allegedly forthcoming invitation to six schools, including Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, which has a similar “little sister” status in its home state. It's a scenario that would make Texas and Oklahoma politicians smile, as in any other plausible expansion scenario, both would be at risk of finding themselves in lesser conferences. But would the notoriously conservative Pac Ten, which treasures its academic reputation and requires unanimous agreement to add a new member, really welcome all six of these institutions? Several of them, particularly Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, are not in the same academic league as the rest of the Pac Ten.
But if the Big Ten is willing to at least entertain adding Texas and Texas A&M, both of which are in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), it would under no circumstances accept Texas Tech, which is not. That, in a nutshell, is Bill Powers’s “‘Tech’ problem.”
Most schools claim publicly they are loyal to the conference they are in—whatever they may be saying behind the scenes. But when the University of Texas says it is committed to the Big XII, they just might mean it. The Longhorns have been toying with the idea of creating their own cable television network. They are, perhaps, the only school in the nation that could do this. With their own network, plus the disproportionate share of Big XII television revenue that they already get, the Longhorns would be sitting pretty. But if the Big Ten nabs Nebraska and Missouri, and Colorado goes to the Pac Ten (with or without Oklahoma), Big XII membership might be a lot less attractive.
Among the three conferences the Longhorns could plausibly join, the Big Ten is the most attractive. The average Big Ten school is 1,022 miles from Austin, whereas the average Pac Ten school is 1,377 miles away. Six Pac ten schools are farther than any in the Big Ten. Except for Penn State, every Big Ten school is under 1,200 miles from Austin. Except for the two Arizona schools, every Pac Ten institution is over 1,200 miles and two time zones away. While the SEC might be closer geographically for the Longhorns, the SEC does not have the academic reputation of either the Big Ten or the Pac Ten.
I think there is very little doubt that Texas is the big fish that Jim Delaney and Gordon Gee would love to hook. Whether they can depends on how big a “problem” the “‘Tech’ problem” really is.