Texas A&M has not left the Big 12 conference. But the Aggies took a symbolic step in that direction Thursday.
A&M has asked the Big 12 to outline procedures it should follow if it decides to leave the conference, a move A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said may be "in the best long-term interests" of the school and the state.
In a letter dated Wednesday to Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, Loftin said A&M would support the Big 12's efforts to seek a new member if A&M left the league. Loftin did not mention the Southeastern Conference in his letter, but he acknowledged ongoing discussions with the SEC, initiated by A&M, during an Aug. 15 news conference.
Loftin's letter is viewed as the first of several steps the school must take to legally extricate itself from existing contracts with the Big 12 before it could accept an invitation from the SEC. It prompted a statement from Beebe, who expressed a "strong desire" to keep A&M in the league but said the Big 12 is "poised to move aggressively with options" if the Aggies depart.
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Likely expansion targets include Brigham Young, Houston and Air Force. Officials may also approach Notre Dame, which has repeatedly turned down Big Ten expansion overtures.
Beebe said Loftin's letter "will be addressed" by the league's board of governors, which is scheduled to meet Saturday. From all indications, A&M is fully committed to becoming the third school to leave the Big 12 since last June, following Colorado (Pac-12) and Nebraska (Big Ten).
"As I have indicated previously, we are working very deliberately to act in the best long-term interests of both Texas A&M and the State of Texas. This truly is a 100-year decision," Loftin said in a statement released Thursday by school officials. "While we understand the desire of all parties to quickly reach a resolution, these are extremely complex issues that we are addressing methodically."
Loftin said A&M is "seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide... as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs. As a public university, Texas A&M owes it to the state's taxpayers to maximize our assets and generate additional revenues both now and well into the future."
A&M spokesman Jason Cook called Thursday's action "the next step in a process" aimed at bringing clarity to a possible move.
A Big 12 source drew a parallel between A&M's action and the initial letter Nebraska sent to Big 12 officials last summer, saying the school intended to withdraw from the league contingent upon an invitation from the Big Ten. Nebraska left within two weeks and will compete in the Big Ten this season.
In his letter to Beebe, Loftin said his correspondence was "not a notice of Texas A&M's withdrawal from the Big 12" but an acknowledgement that the school is "exploring our options."
Big 12 sources confirmed that, as part of the process of changing conferences, A&M must first withdraw from the Big 12, then apply to the SEC and receive approval from at least nine of the 12 existing members. At that point, A&M could accept an invitation.
John Sharp, A&M's incoming chancellor, has publicly supported an SEC move, calling it "a wonderful opportunity." A&M athletic director Bill Byrne issued a statement Thursday expressing support for Loftin.
On his Twitter account, former A&M football coach R.C. Slocum, the winningest coach in school history, said: "This will prove to be an important day in the history of Texas A&M."
At issue for A&M from a legal standpoint is how much the school would have to surrender in forfeited revenues if it leaves the Big 12. Under league bylaws, a move to the SEC by the start of the 2012 football season could cost more than $28 million, based on projected revenues.
But Nebraska surrendered only $9.25 million to leave, based on projected revenues of $19.37 million. A&M seeks a comparable discount and, during his Aug. 15 news conference, Loftin said league bylaws were "confusing" and left "a lot of room for interpretation."
One source indicated a reasonable departure figure could be $11.2 million, the amount A&M received in conference revenues last year. A&M also might be asked to surrender a signing bonus promised to all schools -- and yet to be distributed -- as part of the league's 13-year, $1.17 billion contract signed in April with Fox Sports. The source said the amount of money A&M must leave behind would be "a key part" of upcoming negotiations if the school heads to the SEC.
DeLoss Dodds, Texas' men's athletic director, said: "We would love to see A&M in the conference. If they feel like they have to go, we wish them the best."
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Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760