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What's next for Baylor is a puzzle that won't be solved anytime soon

What's next for Baylor is a puzzle that won't be solved anytime soon

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With an Oklahoma-Texas exodus from the Big 12 a foregone conclusion at this point, it leaves Baylor and the other conference schools scrambling where to turn next.

Texas and Oklahoma will send letters to the Big 12 on Monday declaring that they will not renew their commitment to the conference once the current television contract expires in 2025, multiple media outlets, including 247Sports and The Athletic, reported Friday, citing unnamed sources. The Sooners and Longhorns have reached out to the SEC, according to reports, and it appears likely that the SEC will vote to accept the Big 12’s flagship programs, as only Texas A&M is opposing the move.

So, again, where does that leave Baylor? What’s next for the Bears? The Big 12 ADs met on Thursday, minus Oklahoma and Texas, in what amounted to an emergency contingency planning session.

After previously deferring comment to the Big 12 office, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades and Baylor President Linda Livingstone released a joint statement Friday afternoon that expressed concern over “the uncertainty of our conference and the potential impact on Baylor University.”

“For our state, it is critical to our economy and Texas’ overall reputation to maintain five ‘Power Five’ institutions, reinforcing the Lone Star State’s athletic preeminence,” the statement added.

Translation: If you believe in Texas (the state), you believe that the Bears, Longhorns, Red Raiders, Aggies and Horned Frogs are all Power Five schools. Problem is, those Power Five conferences could give a flip about the way the State of Texas is perceived.

Nothing will happen overnight, and the college sports landscape resembles the floor of a volcano right now, unstable and prone to eruption and change at any moment. Here’s what we know:

Texas and Oklahoma will be lame ducks for a while.Even if UT and OU inform the Big 12 next week, as expected, that they intend to leave, they’ll still be Big 12 members for the foreseeable future. The conference bylaws state that the schools would not be permitted to exit until June of 2023 at the earliest. The Big 12’s current TV contract with Fox and ESPN runs through the 2024-25 school year.

Contracts can be broken, and negotiations can be hatched, but if those bylaws are upheld that means two lame duck football seasons are forthcoming for the Sooners and Longhorns. That figures to be awkward, but the Big 12 has been through this before with Texas A&M and others.

Bowlsby said at Big 12 media days last week that the conference’s schools were paid “about $35 million” this year through its current TV deal and other revenues, about $4.5 million less than expected due to COVID-19. Unless a compromise is reached, a school leaving the Big 12 must notify the conference at least 18 months prior to departure, pay a buyout penalty equal to the next two years’ worth of distributed payouts, and forfeit all payouts during that 18-month time frame, according to the league’s bylaws.

So, if you want to see Baylor play Oklahoma, or TCU face Texas, you’ll get that chance in 2021, for sure, and possibly 2022 as well.

Divided, the Big 12 seems headed for a fall.

Only complete unity among the eight remaining schools will keep the league afloat. During the last round of conference realignment, the Big 12 schools agreed to remain together until 2111, a period of 99 years, according to The Oklahoman. But you see how long that lasted.

If Baylor and the other seven remaining Big 12 teams opted to stick together, they would make a sensible landing spot for a variety of Group of Five schools that include Houston, SMU, Memphis, Cincinnati, UCF, BYU and Boise State. A subtraction of Oklahoma and Texas and the addition of four of those schools would create a viable, competitive conference in football, as well as several other sports.

But it would still lack the big national brand names that Oklahoma and Texas offer. That would hurt the Big 12 in TV negotiations. In 2019, the Big 12 began shifting many games to streaming platforms through the league’s Big 12 Now initiative, minus, of course, those involving Oklahoma and Texas. The likes of UCF and SMU wouldn’t bring in enough eyeballs to score a lucrative TV deal for the next go-round.

Politicians are already getting involved.

As if the state legislature didn’t have enough to do, it will soon be asked to take sides in the longtime Longhorn-Aggie blood feud.

But the stumping has already begun.

“The lack of transparency by our flagship institution (Texas) is wrong,” tweeted state representative and Baylor alum Jeff Leach, who represents the Metroplex-based District 67. “Such a monumental economic and educational decision impacting the entire state must not be made in a bubble or on the forty acres. Working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the Big XII.”

The Texas Tribune reported that four prominent lawmakers, including Leach, sought an audience with Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday to discuss the idea of blocking UT from leaving the conference. But it could amount to grandstanding, since House Democrats have fled the state due to disapproval over a new voting restrictions bill and the next scheduled session for the Legislature is slated for 2023. By then, the Longhorns could be paying out the closing costs for their new digs in the SEC.

Baylor is attractive enough to join another league, but which one is a puzzler.

Already, it’s being reported that Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU have started making overtures at the Pac-12. If those three and, say, Oklahoma State jumped ship, it would certainly strengthen the Pac-12’s power and recruiting prowess as a football conference. But it would create some logistical nightmares for other sports. How many older Lady Bear basketball fans are going to stay up for a Baylor-Oregon conference game in Eugene that tips off at 9 p.m. Central?

Baylor’s religious background presumably works against it in a marriage with the Pac-12, anyway. There aren’t a lot of cultural similarities between Waco, Texas, and Berkeley, California. BYU makes far more geographic sense as a Pac-12 acquisition, and the conference has never given any indication that it was interested in bringing in the Cougars, partially because of BYU’s status as owned by the LDS Church and unwillingness to play on Sundays. Baylor’s stance on LGBTQ clubs, refusing to offer charters to such organizations, could hinder BU’s inclusion in a Pac-12 partnership.

Some fans and media members have proposed the idea of a “Lone Star State Conference,” a sort of newfangled Southwest Conference, if you will. In that idea, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech would join the likes of the state’s remaining FBS teams — SMU, Houston, North Texas, UTSA, UTEP, Rice, and Texas State — in a league heavy on proximity and state pride and low on national prominence and expected TV revenue.

Throw out the fact that a Lone Star Conference already exists. It’s the NCAA Division II league that includes the likes of UT-Tyler, West Texas A&M and Texas A&M-Commerce. Beyond that, while it’s a fun notion to consider, a Texas-based new SWC would be hard-pressed to entice ESPN or Fox to pony up big money for its TV rights. Couldn’t Baylor, TCU and Tech do better than Bally Sports Southwest?

Probably — but where exactly remains to be seen. In their statement, Baylor’s Livingstone and Rhoades said that the school’s administrators, regents, state legislators and other university leaders are “actively engaged in conversations with our Big 12 colleagues and others to ensure our University is in the strongest position possible now and in the future.”

The phrase “and others” seems notable, leaving the door open for Baylor to leave the Big 12’s leftovers if it gets that chance.

Baylor owns a strong academic reputation. A total of 148 athletes made the Dean’s List in 2020-21, the second-highest total on record, and it ranked 76th among national universities by U.S. News and World Report in that publication’s most recent rankings, as well as No. 31 in “best undergraduate teaching.”

It also has a strong athletic program across the board, including three NCAA titles in the past decade: two in women’s basketball (2012, 2019) and one in men’s basketball (2021).

But Baylor’s religious background, its place as a small private school, and its relatively small alumni base when compared to bigger state schools may prove problematic for the university in shopping for a new conference home.

“As the landscape of college athletics continues to change, we maintain an unshakable belief in the strength and resiliency of Baylor and the Baylor brand,” read the Livingstone-Rhoades statement.

What’s next for Baylor? It’s a mystery that won’t be solved anytime soon.

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