[Updated 8/25: According to Texags.com, which has been on the leading edge of this entire situation, Texas A&M has requested that the Big 12 outline the process by which they would leave the conference, including what the financial penalty would be. This appears to be the final-step in a legal tiptoe before A&M is allowed to leave the conference without a major lawsuit.]
Original Post 08/12/2011:
Though nothing will be set in stone until at least Sunday, when the SEC Presidents have a meeting (and then likely Monday, when the Texas A&M Board of Regents meets to formally approve the move), it seems like pending any huge change in circumstances, Texas A&M will be leaving the neutered Big 12 and joining the SEC for the 2012-2013 season.
This is a reactive move by A&M to secure their long-term future as part of the SEC’s huge TV-deal after Texas signed an exclusive deal with ESPN to set up the Longhorn Network specifically to cover Texas sports. This would severely limit the viability of a new Big 12 TV package, as Texas is the most financially desirable of the programs. Last year’s departure of Nebraska and Colorado from the conference also left the Big 12 with only 10 teams and without a conference championship game, which is another huge financial haul for the member schools.
Volumes could be written about how this affects football, but this is a swimming website, so we’ll instead look at how this will affect the swimming landscape.
For the Texas men, this is a pretty short-and-simple story: they won’t have a Big 12 Conference Championship to compete for. Though Missouri is an improving program under Greg Rhodenbaugh (and they likely won’t be in the Big 12 much longer after this either), the conference is unlikely to fund a championship when there are only two programs. They may try to add a few “provisional members” like we see in the new Pac-12 to expand the Championship, but regardless, any semblance of competition for the Texas men within the conference is totally gone.
The Texas women, however, will benefit, given that in the recent term, A&M has had the upper-hand at the conference meet (though Texas usually wins the dual meet). The Aggies have won 3 of the last 5 Big 12 titles, though Texas is the defending champion, and the two had really built an exciting rivalry with close finishes at almost all of those 5 meets. Now, the Texas women won’t have any concerns about resting for the conference meet to win a title, though there’s too will only be a four-team meet after Nebraska’s defection to the Big Ten last year. On the women’s side, the only remaining programs would be Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri, and of course Texas.
There’s a big possibility that the Big 12 will drop the sport altogether, as the number of swimming programs have dwindled heavily in the past decade. Theoretically, Texas might make the last move, and react to A&M’s defection by joining the Pac-10 or SEC as well, as has been rumored (more lightly) for a couple of years. They will be a hard sell, however, with their exclusive ESPN TV contract. I think it’s more likely that they go independent, along with Oklahoma, after the Big 12 is totally disasembled (which is what could truly happen). That means that the effect on Texas’ swimming programs is totally up in the air.
For the SEC, this would greatly improve their depth with the addition of two top-12 type of programs. For starters, A&M’s facilities are comparable to most in the SEC. They have a luxurious indoor 50-meter pool, a 25-meter diving well with a full array of diving apparatus, an outdoor 25-yard, and plenty of seating. It’s certainly a facility that would be worked into the host rotation for the SEC Championships (they hosted both men’s and women’s NCAA’s in 2009).
The women’s side, which would then include five programs that placed in the top 12 at NCAA’s last year (Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Tennessee) would then rival the Pac-12 in terms of overall depth (they only had 4 in the top 12, though they were all in the top-5).
The women’s meet is always a barn-burner, and though teams will have to give up all hopes of creating long conference-title dynasties, it will make the meet itself way more exciting. An adjustment here for the A&M women will be that they’ll have to be careful to stay within their own ideals. Many SEC teams swim their best times at the conference championship meet, whereas A&M has been better about peaking at NCAA’s the past few years (in general terms, there are exceptions either way), but with such a competitive meet, the temptation will be there to use some of that taper a bit early. Unlike club swimming, college swim teams don’t exist in as much of a bubble, and most compete within an NCAA framework and culture.
On the men’s side, Texas A&M finished 13th last year, though they are typically a touch higher than that. Their sprinting trend would fit in well with the likes of Auburn, and this would only increase the parity of the conference along with Florida, Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee. The A&M men don’t have the same depth as some of those other programs, but they rely heavily on building killer relays that way outperform their individual scoring and place them well at NCAA’s.
The A&M men don’t typically swim many in-season meets. In a new, 9-team conference, however, they may have their hands forced by the conference into swimming more dual meets than they’re used to. I foresee a situation where the conference introduces more tri-meets (similar to the Big Ten and their quad-meets) to keep travel expenses lower.
From another perspective, this could negatively affect the Longhorns. Though the affect is not nearly as great as it would be in football, gaining greater access and visibility to the Texas recruiting grounds would be enormous for big programs from small states in the SEC (like Auburn, for example). Though by no means does Texas have a monopoly on the in-state recruiting scene (the top recruit for both men and women this year left the borders), simply having the big recruits coming out of that state more familiar with the SEC universities in general will be a positive for those programs. In general, the SEC schools haven’t recruited Texas well at all – out of the top 10 recruits in the classes of 2010 and 2011, only three have gone to the SEC, and those three have been the 8,9, and 10 recruits on the women’s side this year going to South Carolina, Arkansas, and Auburn.
The Texas-Texas A&M rivalry will definitely survive in swimming, and the two will probably meet at least once in a dual meet every year. It will be interesting to see if A&M continues swimming Missouri or not, as there was a nice little rivalry developing there, as well.
Though this is not the first conference change we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s the first that will have any real affect on college swimming. Past movers have either been schools without swimming programs (Colorado) or those that don’t usually do much damage on the NCAA scene (Nebraska, Utah).
This is exciting times in the changing NCAA landscapes, and while I will lament the demise of the Big 12 that I’ve become so familiar with living in Aggie and Longhorn country, I think that this is truly the best move for Texas A&M as both a University and an athletics program. The increase in football revenues will surely have some effect (even if it’s a small effect) on the monies spent on the swimming programs, which is always a positive.
How the SEC would look after the change. Number in parenthesis is the team’s finish at NCAA’s in 2011. Notably, every SEC team except for the Vanderbilt women and Kentucky men scored at NCAA’s in 2011.
Texas A&M (#13)
South Carolina (#36)
Texas A&M (#10)
South Carolina (#29)