Although momentum continues to build for Texas A&M's apparent move to the Southeastern Conference, some potential speed bumps surfaced Saturday that may prevent the Aggies from making a formal declaration at Monday's regents meeting.
An agenda item for the meeting includes authorizing the school president to "take all actions relating to Texas A&M University's athletic conference alignment." But Dan Branch, chairman of Texas' House Committee on Higher Education, said Saturday he has been told by A&M officials that it "may take up to two weeks" before closure can be achieved on finalizing a move to the SEC.
Such a move would require an invitation from SEC presidents, who will meet today in an emergency session to discuss league expansion. A New York Times report, however, citing an unnamed, high-ranking conference administrator with first-hand knowledge about the meeting, said a move by Texas A&M to the SEC has a "30 to 40 percent" chance of being voted down.
At issue, said the SEC official, is the question of what to do with a 14th school to accompany A&M into the league, which currently includes 12 members.
"We realize if we do this we have to have the 14th," the SEC official told the Times. "No name has been thrown out. This thing is much slower out of the chute than the media and the blogs have made it."
But the report did not dampen A&M's enthusiasm about joining the SEC or school officials' confidence that an offer will be extended.
Jason Cook, A&M's vice president of marketing and communications, said in an e-mail that school president R. Bowen Loftin would withhold comment on conference realignment until Monday's news conference in College Station. The scale of the news conference, Cook acknowledged, could be large or small "depending on what happens."
Asked specifically about the Times report, Cook responded: "We will decline to comment on rumor and speculation."
A&M's potential departure is considered serious enough that Big 12 administrators held two conference calls Saturday -- one with athletic directors, one with university presidents -- to discuss the issue. League officials characterized the exchange as a show of solidarity among league schools. A&M athletic director Bill Byrne did not participate, but league members expressed a desire to keep the Aggies in the Big 12.
If A&M departs and the league expands, Big 12 officials vowed in a formal statement Saturday to "aggressively move forward to explore expansion opportunities," although sources said it would add only one school. Realistic expansion candidates, said one source, include Brigham Young, Houston, Air Force and TCU -- likely in that order.
"Is A&M leaving for sure? I don't know that," Texas men's athletic director DeLoss Dodds told the Austin American-Statesman. "Everyone wants them to stay."
Branch, R-Dallas, stressed Saturday he has been assured by A&M officials that the purpose of Monday's regents meeting in College Station -- scheduled within hours after his committee set a Tuesday public hearing on the topic -- is not to circumvent Texas lawmakers while making a quick dash to the SEC.
"I've been told that's absolutely not the case," Branch said in a phone interview.
Instead, Branch said he has been assured by A&M administrators that Monday's action is more of a preliminary step, designed to allow Loftin to begin formal negotiations with the SEC if an invitation is extended.
Branch said he anticipates A&M representatives attending Tuesday's public hearing in Austin to explain their thought process regarding a move to the SEC.
"If this is a good thing for A&M, [Tuesday's meeting] will be an opportunity to tell a lot of people how this is a good thing for the state of Texas," Branch said. SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe also have been invited to testify.
The Times report said Loftin approached Slive three weeks ago and expressed regret about not joining the league last summer when A&M opted to remain in the Big 12. After Loftin's call, SEC officials asked A&M to figure out the legal possibilities of leaving the Big 12 based on existing contracts with the league and its TV partners. The SEC official said his league would be "very sensitive about being part of breaking a contract."
The timing of the exchange, and who called whom, also will be of interest to Texas lawmakers in determining if the SEC committed tortious interference in regard to A&M's TV contracts signed as a Big 12 member. If A&M leaves, the possibility exists that the Big 12's 13-year, $1.17 billion agreement signed in April with Fox Sports could be voided.
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760