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August 13, 2011

Big 12 pledges unity as A&M stares down SEC

The Big 12 board of directors - minus Texas A&M - pledged their commitment to a nine-member conference during a call Saturday afternoon if the Aggies were to bolt for the Southeastern Conference.

But the Big 12 board are reaching out to A&M to stay in the Big 12.

The Big 12 board decided if A&M left and the league was to expand, it would be by only one school, sources said.

The early candidates would include BYU, Air Force, TCU and Houston, sources said.

But the Aggies will not go off to the SEC without some questions directed at both Texas A&M and Mike Slive, the commissioner of the SEC.

There appear to be real legal questions from the Big 12 about the SEC's role in A&M's apparent decision to leave the Big 12 and if tortious interference is involved in possibly breaking the Aggies' contracts with their current television partners.

Multiple sources said the 13-year Fox television deal signed by the Big 12 in April for $1.17 billion can be voided if Texas A&M leaves. The sources said if the SEC, which has had ongoing conversations with Texas A&M since Mike Slive was on the College Station campus during last summer's realignment, could be seen as the instigator in A&M's actions, it could constitute a lawsuit against the SEC as well as a lawsuit for damages against individuals involved.

A&M's lawyers have also been looking at the legal ramifications of a move to the SEC, a source close to A&M said.

The Big 12 engaged in a high-dollar ad campaign earlier this year to promote the new, 10-member conference that will roll out during football season. And officials across the Big 12 are wondering if Texas A&M knew even then that it would try to relocate to the SEC.

Sources close to the situation say Sunday morning's meeting of the SEC presidents - believed to be in Atlanta, according to one source - is now the most important moment of this year's college realignment drama.

There have been conflicting reports about if the meeting was canceled. But The Associated Press confirmed Saturday night that it's still on.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who has said, "I can get to 16 schools in 15 minutes," now needs to convince his presidents that he knows what he's doing. According to sources close to the situation, only Florida president Bernie Machen and Georgia president Michael Adams have been in contact with Slive about the SEC's current expansion plans.

The other 10 presidents will apparently be getting a whole lot of critical information from Slive whenever he meets with them. If those presidents, who heard a report of the SEC possibly adding schools such as Missouri, Clemson and Florida State from ESPN's Doug Gottlieb Saturday, are not on board, this story could take a serious left turn.

The New York Times quoted an SEC official who said there's a 30 to 40 percent chance the SEC presidents could reject Texas A&M.

An official at a school in the Big 12 said, "If you asked me last night, I would have said it was 90 to 95 percent that Texas A&M was gone to the SEC. Now, I would say either 50 percent or less. The SEC meeting on Sunday is huge. If they hit the pause button, I don't think it happens."

Several sources said if Texas A&M was to stay in the Big 12, it would take a lot to rebuild the relationship between Texas A&M and Texas but that it was doable.

House Higher Education Committee chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, told Orangebloods.com Saturday he has received assurances from A&M that the Aggies' regents board won't be finalizing a move to the SEC on Monday.

Branch on Thursday set a meeting of his committee for Tuesday and invited Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin and Texas A&M regents chair Richard Box along with Big 12 and SEC officials to discuss the Aggies' plans.

Then on Friday, A&M's regents moved an Aug. 22 meeting to Monday, one day ahead of Branch's committee hearing in what looked like a maneuver to out-flank lawmakers. But an A&M source said the regents were likely to vote on Monday to empower Loftin, the school's president, with the ability to make any decision in the matter on behalf of Texas A&M.

"It's my understanding the regents meeting on Monday is to begin negotiations, not complete them - assuming the SEC extends an offer," Branch told Orangebloods.com. "It would be important to the Legislature that the regents not complete anything before lawmakers get to ask some questions.

"It's my understanding from talking to A&M officials that it may take a week or two weeks to finalize any conference realignment anyway."

An administrator at a Big 12 school told Orangebloods.com that the Atlantic Coast Conference has a meeting planned for Monday with its 12 schools to reaffirm their commitment to each other.

ACC commissioner John Swofford released a statement Friday that said, "As I've said previously, we'll continue to be mindful of the collegiate landscape and what's best for the ACC and its member institutions. With that said, I've received no indication from any of our 12 Presidents that they have any intention of being affiliated with any conference other than the ACC."

Gottlieb reported Saturday that Missouri, Clemson and Florida State could be joining Texas A&M in the SEC.

Missouri athletic director Mike Alden denied any contact between the Tigers and the SEC to several media outlets, including PowerMizzou.com. Behind the scenes, Missouri is also telling the rest of the Big 12 that any contact with the SEC hasn't happened.

But a source close to the situation said Missouri may be able to deny everything right now because talks between Mizzou and the SEC haven't started yet. However, for the SEC to avoid any legal liability in terms of tampering or interfering with the Big 12's contracts, sources have said the SEC needs schools to approach them and apply for membership. Important semantics as the maneuvering unfolds.

A Big 12 official told me that Oklahoma continues to tell the rest of the Big 12 that it is not interested in joining the SEC. The SEC definitely reached out to OU during its courtship of Texas A&M, the source said. The source said Bob Stoops has indicated to OU officials that the best path to win championships is in the Big 12, not the SEC, in part because the Big 12 no longer has a championship game.

The Houston Chronicle reported Friday that Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe told an unnamed A&M official that Texas was the key to the Big 12 and that the league would survive without Texas A&M.

Big 12 associate commissioner Bob Burda told Orangebloods.com Saturday, "That's patently untrue misinformation from an unnamed source."

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