It doesn't feel all that long ago that then-governor Ann Richards used her political pull to ensure that her alma mater, Baylor University, wouldn't be left behind when the old Southwest Conference fell apart. But, amazingly enough, it's been 20 years since any game has been played under the SWC flag, and the entire landscape of college athletics has changed remarkably in those two decades.
Once Arkansas bailed for the SEC in the early 90's, the writing was on the wall for the super regional, Texas-centric league. Baylor, Houston, Rice, SMU, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, and Texas Tech would keep the lights on for a few more seasons, before the conference was disbanded for good, merging with the Big 8 to form the first edition of the Big 12. Texas, A&M, and Tech were no brainers - big public schools with brand names and big pocket books. Houston found a home in the newly formed Conference USA - they had been the last school to join the SWC, so I guess they weren't a priority when it shuttered - leaving SMU, Rice, TCU, and Baylor as the odd schools out. Well, should have, that is.
For the four small private schools with little to no recent success on their side, the future looked dim. SMU had seen it's football program completely shutdown for two seasons due to the NCAA giving the Ponies the 'Death Penalty' after years of violations were uncovered. TCU wasn't much cleaner, and hadn't made much of a case for themselves since surviving their sanctions. Rice... well, academics are clearly the priority there... and Baylor was Baylor. Except they had one big voice on their side, the Governor.
Much has been said and many words written on just how much of a role Baylor alum and then Texas Governor Ann Richards played in dragging her beloved Bears along for the Big 12 ride. But even the staunchest supporter can't argue that her voice was heard in the final negotiations. And any college football fan outside of Waco would likely tell had it not been for her considerable influence, the Bears would have taken a similar path to TCU, and maybe never found their forever* home.
Of course... there's another side to the story, one that says that it wasn't so much Governor Richards as it was Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, another Baylor grad who also has a degree from Tech.
* forever used very lightly in this instance. Nobody knows what the future holds for the moribund Big 12
Yesterday, in light of recent announcements that the conference had unanimously voted to pursue expansion whole-heartedly, current Texas Governor (and University of Texas alum) Greg Abbott tweeted out that expansion was a "non-starter" if the Cougars weren't tops on the list.
This is a bit of a different scenario than what was facing Baylor 20 years ago - the NCAA is frankly probably more powerful than any state government - but Texas politicians have been more than vocal in the past about the future of the state's universities, both of the public and private nature. It also doesn't hurt that one of Houston's most powerful booster's is one of Abbott's biggest donors; Tilman Fertitta is the chairman of the Board of Regents and a billionaire in his own right.
After Abbott declared his stance on Big 12 expansion, everybody wanted a seat at the table, including Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick:
And possibly most importantly, University of Texas President Greg Fenves:
As we look at opportunities for Big 12 expansion, I support considering @UHouston for the conference. UH is a huge asset for Texas.— Greg Fenves (@gregfenves) July 21, 2016
Oklahoma President David Boren, generally the most outspoken proponent of expansion, has yet to share his feelings on the Cougars via Twitter or any other media outlet:
Asked David Boren for a response to Greg Fenves' support of Houston for Big 12 expansion. His response: (1/2)— John E. Hoover (@johnehoover) July 21, 2016
"As Chairman of the Big 12 Conference, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the prospects of any individual university." (2/2)— John E. Hoover (@johnehoover) July 21, 2016
So what does this all mean? Houston and BYU were the choices of Big 12 coaches based on an informal poll conducted during Big 12 Media Days, and both make a ton of sense when you line then up next to the conference's supposed expansion checklist. Having the support of the two most powerful politicians in Texas, as well as the president of the university who is generally thought to be pulling the strings, certainly doesn't hurt Houston's chances. But for the schools both within and outside of the state, adding a fifth Lone Star school could spell disaster as far as recruiting talent-rich Texas is concerned; especially for schools like Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Iowa State, who mine the state well but could easily lose their foothold to a rising Houston team.
Personally, I don't buy that Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick can actually make proclamations about how or when the Big 12 will expand, let alone who they'll do it with. If Houston does measure up as the best option, they'll be invited. But it won't have anything to do with a couple bold proclamations on Twitter or politicians trying to throw their weight around a business that they have no real leverage with.
What I do buy is that Texas has a vested interest in not opposing Houston's bid to join the Big 12, as has been laid out by people with much more insider knowledge than me. With expansion already being politicized, it makes sense that the powers that be at UT would take the opportunity to support the Cougars in exchange for the university to stop their opposition to the UT system expanding into Houston. I also subscribe to the theory that anti-expansion Texas would trade Houston for the Longhorn Network in order to get Oklahoma behind the Cougars.
If the Big 12 expands, and while that is certainly likely but not guaranteed, and Houston makes the cut, it will show just how much power Texas has within the conference. The opposition to a fifth Texas school has been well-chronicled, and it takes a super majority - eight votes - to approve a new member. Can the Horns throw their weight around to get the requisite support? We will find out soon enough.