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Will Texas Politics Determine Big 12 Expansion?

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How far will the endorsements of Texas' top government officials go?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott threw in his two cents regarding Big 12 expansion. For him, Houston must be included, as his tweet below explains. Later in the day, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick joined in with his support for adding Houston.

Now wait a minute. The governor and lieutenant governor of Texas don’t determine if the Big 12 expands or who it takes, do they? No. Not directly. But they can wield some serious influence that ultimately forces the Big 12’s hand. How?

A brief history lesson is all one needs to understand the governor’s, and the entire Texas legislature’s, role in Big 12 expansion. In the 1990’s when the Big Eight and part of the Southwest Conference merged to form the Big 12, the Texas legislature played a huge role in Texas Tech and Baylor being added to the new conference.

Initially, it appeared the Big Eight was going to add just Texas while Texas A&M would head for the SEC. Realizing the imminent doom of the Southwest Conference, Texas Tech and Baylor tried to find a way to hop on the bandwagon with Texas. At the time, the governor of Texas was Ann Richards, a Baylor alumna. The lieutenant governor was Bob Bullock, a Texas Tech alumnus. The speaker of the Texas House of Representatives was Pete Laney, a Texas Tech alumnus. Lubbock’s state senator, and soon to be the first chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, John Montford, was president pro tempore of the Texas senate. David Sibley, a high ranking member of the Texas senate finance committee, was a Baylor alumnus.

The group (though the extent to which each individual was involved is debated) united to threaten Texas and Texas A&M’s access to the state's “Permanent University Fund”. The PUF began in the 1880’s, and it grants money to Texas and Texas A&M as the state’s flagship universities that no other universities, public or private, see a dime of. But with all these influential members of the legislature, Texas and Texas A&M legislators passed the message along to university officials: take Texas Tech and Baylor with us to the Big 12 or we’re going to lose out on a lot of money. And so it was done, Texas and A&M both went to the Big 12 and took Texas Tech and Baylor with them.

But what about this time around? Does Houston have enough influence and leverage in the Texas legislature to pull off something similar? They clearly have Governor Abbott’s support (a Texas alumnus) and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s (who went to school in Maryland) as well. Committee positions won’t be determined until the 2017 legislative session begins, but it is likely that Joe Straus will remain speaker of the house. He’s a Vanderbilt graduate from San Antonio.

With Texas A&M no longer a member of the Big 12, I don’t see their legislators getting their hands dirty with Big 12 politics, unless perhaps to spite the University of Texas. Houston already has the support of the University of Texas’ president. The question now is with A&M legislators likely absent from the battle, can an alliance of Houston and Texas strong arm Texas Tech, TCU, and Baylor, into voting for Houston? It will take eight of the 10 Big 12 presidents to add someone to the conference.

I don’t think any of the Texas schools should vote for Houston’s addition into the Big 12 because it would just elevate another in state program to prominence like it did with TCU, a mistake they shouldn’t make twice. It would harm revenue, recruiting, and the conference's perception nationally. Then again, when has the Big 12 ever done the right thing for the entire conference, as opposed to just looking out for the interests of the Longhorns?

Again, university presidents - not legislators - vote on conference expansion. But if alumni in the legislature report back to their presidents and say funding or some other collateral is on the line, the legislators’ influence can go a long way.

It worked in 1994 when Texas Tech and Baylor had the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, and two prominent senators on their side. Can Houston, and more importantly, their powerful ally of the University of Texas, make it happen again with Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick?