Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Will Houston be able to use politics to force their way into the Big 12?

Several of the big time realignment bloggers have put forth the possibility of "political pressure"  in Texas forcing the Big 12 to add The University of Houston.  As I stated in an earlier article, I think it is an unlikely idea, but as a champion of unlikely ideas,  I think I have a certain responsibility to investigate how such a thing might be possible, who would be the power broker behind it, and how it might happen.

Here's one thought.

The Who

Let's talk about the Houston Cougars and Tilman Fertitta.

Fertitta may be an unknown to a lot you.  I didn't know much about him either.   He is the Billionaire owner of the Landry's restaurant chain.  It would not be misleading to say that he built that chain from scratch.  He is quite an accomplished businessman with a net worth of $2.4 Billion.

He the is the chairman of the UH Board of Regents.  By all accounts he is a powerful guy with a lot of powerful allies.

His last name may be familiar to UFC fans.  His family comes from Galveston.

(For what its worth, a UFC follower believes he has found ties that link the Fertitta family line to the Mafia ---  I am mentioning this only because I am going to delve into the wealthy and politics and you kind of have to mention that when you are talking about dealing in political influence. Damning people by distant association to criminal elements is something I have never really felt is really fair, even in situations where it is accurate---Not saying that is the case here.  People should judge you by your actions, not those of your grandparents or ancestors. Tilman Fertitta and his wife do a lot of charity work, so balance that as you will.)

Fertitta is a vocal advocate for UH.  That's an extremely admirable trait for a school that needs and deserves a strong advocate.

I think really the worse thing I can say about him specifically is that unfortunately he is sometimes probably too vocal.

He made headlines in February by telling the Houston Chronicle editorial board that the state legislature should threaten the funding of UT and Tech unless the Big 12 admits UH.

Well technically the quote was slightly more vague...his actual strategy for the state legislature which he voiced to the editorial Board was"Put pressure on the [university] presidents; say, 'If you don't do this, we're not going to fund you for this'... ....That's the way to do it.".

See....This probably sounded better in his head.  The philosophy isn't an awful one--especially for random politicians to make, but it isn't a great strategy for someone in his position to be quoted espousing.

There are only two public universities in the state of Texas in the Big 12 --- Texas Tech and UT.  So...Who's funding was he really threatening?

He went on to tell the Big 12 schools to "Be a big boy, step up and put this school that has almost 50,000 students and is so high profile, has so many of the top schools in the United States, it's a tier one university -- we belong in the Big 12, ....We're a big, major school with an unbelievable history in athletics and academia."

It certainly was an unusual ploy.  To call out the Texas schools who play at "the big boy level" about needing to man up or something (?) and...uh....reach down (?)  to help Houston, a school that has no attributes that merit them consideration from any other power conferences and finish by fluffing your numbers and achievements.  (This position in particular seems to be one that he was rightly ridiculed by a fan over adopting.)

When you tell someone to "be a big boy" you are questioning their manhood.  You are implying they have a level of fear of a situation and they are not facing it like a man.  Again, it is really horrible wording.

How do you reach a conclusion that the Big 12 not admitting Houston is because the member schools are scared of doing so?  It isn't like Houston offers some tremendous value that other available candidates do not match or exceed. It isn't like Houston is going to join the Big 12 and dominate the conference.

I think he'd have done far better to acknowledge UT as the "King of Texas Universities" (tweaking A&M a bit, currying some favor with UT alums, and ensuring the appropriate press coverage) and then use the coverage to stress the win-win potential for the state and UT in meeting their goals by the Big 12 adding Houston.

He wouldn't be the first Billionaire to be tone deaf to his own words.

What about the state?

Adding Houston appears better for the state of Texas than the Big 12 itself, but is that even something our state leadership would attempt to do?  ...In general, our state politicians don't go out on a limb to be principled regardless of political costs.  It would be more accurate to say they spend their days "out conservativing" each other and preparing their campaign points for their next primary challenge. 

Certainly adding UH would improve the value of UH degrees. That would be a move to enhance a long term position for the state.

It would be like supporting a community based ban on fracking.  Or pollution control.  Or not selling our toll roads to investors.

Lets call a spade a spade. We don't do long term planning in the Texas state government.

Now are our politicians for sale? Absolutely. 100%.  

Could Fertitta and other rich UH Boosters be buying support in the Texas legislature?  It's very possible.  There is too much smoke out there and he is swaggering too much for me to think there is nothing going on politically.

Take his latest comments "I think there's a better than 50 percent chance in the next 24 to 36 months that the University of Houston is in a major conference."

That is a confident Billionaire.

Houston's academics aren't at the level where they would get academic consideration from the PAC, Big Ten, or ACC.  Certainly you can build a compelling case for the SEC to consider them, but the SEC's expansion philosophy over the last 25 years suggests that such a move would be extremely out of character.  So he is almost certainly talking about the Big 12.

You can argue that UH is putting a real focus on trying to get into the Big 12, but isn't everyone not in a power conference?  What is the edge he perceives UH to have?  Everything circles back around to the idea that Texas politics will come into play...

But to what end?  Politicians may be happy to take a check to try to sway UT and Tech or even Baylor or TCU to add Houston.  No politician minds dangling carrots in front of UT.  But the stick?  No.  Politicians are not going to want to piss off UT fans.  That could totally end your political career in Texas.

At the end of the day, boosters and politicians who love UT and Tech are not going to appreciate what the Chairman of UH's Board of Regents had to say last spring.

UT is not going to be excited about UH.  TCU is immensely grateful to finally be in the Big 12.  They aren't going to lead a revolution against UT.  Tech recognizes their academics aren't good enough to be cavalier about their relationship with UT.  Baylor doesn't hit me as a school that wants any more Texas schools elevated to compete with them for recruits.

So how could this ever work?

The How

How exactly is he going to get the 8 votes they need for admission?  I would think OU and  maybe OSU are likely their only advocates today.

The most plausible thing I could come up with for UT would be to adopt the strategy that Virginia state politicians came up with.  They had the University of Virginia vote against any ACC expansion that didn't include Virginia Tech.

(Now this doesn't matchup with the ACC situation because the ACC was desperate to get expansion approved before the Big East figured out some way to prevent their raid.  The Big 12 is about as unmotivated to look at expansion as any troubled conference I can remember... besides the last version of the football WAC.)

If OU and Houston are allies, then presumably UH would just need one more vote to prevent ANY other school from getting the 8 votes required for admission to the Big 12.   If they could find a third school, their advocates could in theory similarly put a block on any Big 12 expansion unless UH was included.

The thing is I can only come up with one school who might consider being that third advocate.  West Virginia.  Why? Because of divisions.

The conference is not going to add Houston as a single team for 11.   If Houston comes in, the conference would likely go to 12. 

Who gets pushed out of the Big 12 south?  Possibly Oklahoma State.  That would very much hurt their football recruiting.  In that, I think already this is a tough sell.  Could the trio force Baylor into the northern division?  Possibly.  I am not sure that Baylor truly has allies. That could be a solid strategy.

(Another potential strategy could be forcing the conference to add 4 schools, creating natural 7 team divisions.  If TCU, Baylor, and Tech are facing a realignment Russian Roulette with one of the trio going north or two more schools added to the north --- BYU and CSU to keep all the Texas schools together?--- 14 could be a very real number.)

West Virginia on the other hand might really enjoy not having to travel to Texas.  West Virginia would likely do very well in a division with all the northern Big 12 schools who can't recruit at a power conference level (Kansas, KSU, and ISU).  The Mountaineers might regularly dominate the north division and occasionally score an upset in the conference title game that gets them into the playoffs.  12 (or 14) is a good number for West Virginia.

Lets say that West Virginia wants expansion and is hoping for a candidate who can help their recruiting.  That's an easy play, almost every eastern candidate would. Either Memphis or Cincinnati would be ideal, but USF or UCF would work as well. 

Today, the vote might be a light lean towards BYU and Colorado State or possibly Houston. 

If West Virginia joins an OU/OSU voting block, they can totally block that.   The only thing that would have to happen to make this a pretty workable plan is that the motivation to expand has to be there. 

I think that means the Big 12's strategy of back loading the schedules of their football contenders has to fail.  I thought back loading was fairly brilliant, but after seeing the committee totally ignore the polls leading up to the first playoff projection this year, now I question if that strategy is going to work. 

You see, the committee looks at the teams from scratch every week.  This means until the Big 12 elites plays every other Big 12 school, their "quality wins" will likely lag behind those earned by other conferences' members. This makes total sense out of the committee ignoring the polls. I can totally see Big 12 teams scoring quality wins and still floating in  the 6-10 range right up until the final week of Big 12 play.

So far the playoff updates seem to support that.  To me, I see Clemson, Notre Dame or Stanford, Alabama or Florida, and the Big 10 champion in.  The Big 12 might have to hope for Stanford to beat Notre Dame and get upset in the Pac-12 title game. Even then LSU might sneak in!

The Big 12 has been the second best conference in America for the last 2 years.   Getting passed over again would cause Big 12 heads to explode at TCU, Baylor, UT, and OU.  The conference membership  would likely want to green light immediate expansion.

UH, for it's part, would be good at football at the right time,  they have a nice new (but undersized stadium) and members of their athletic department that appear tasked with trying to get them into the Big 12, but I question if that is enough to get them in.

If the Big 12 wants to expand and they are blocked from getting the 8 votes for the candidates they prefer, I think they would concede to the minority and get the schools they can vote in to correct the situation keeping them out of the playoffs.

Pushing money into politics

Maybe we are looking at the wrong state legislatures?  Certainly one would think it would be a ton cheaper to buy influence in state legislatures in Oklahoma (population 3.6 M) and West Virginia (1.8 M)... Those are not rich states and their population bases are small.  That means there is not the scale of political bribe money floating around like there can be in Texas.


Should the conference decide to expand and should Houston's allies try to employ this strategy, what would prevent UT and Tech from just telling Houston's "advocates", "You want Houston. We will never accept UH...but we could stomach Rice."

That's not ideal for OU, but is probably workable in recruiting terms and the association might help OU's academic reputation a bit. I have to think OSU will vote with OU.  It would certainly work for West Virginia.

Buying key politicians may not keep those schools on plan.


Houston's leadership is clearly very proud of it's strategy...whatever it is. 

If anything I have hit on is some or all of their strategy, I am not sure if it is as sound as they think. 

For what's worth, I hope they get in.  I seriously doubt Big 12 expansion will mirror my idealized thoughts on the matter, so why not Houston?  I was a big fan of Phi Slamma Jamma and the Southwest Conference growing up...
I'll even throw this in. Fertitta was appointed to a term that ran from 2009-2015.  Should the Big 12 miss the playoffs again this year and immediately add Houston --- crediting Fertitta for his leadership in making UH a viable candidate --- there could be a huge personal benefit for UT's boosters. 

Pretty much everything about the Aggies' move to the SEC has far, far exceeded Aggie expectations. That suggests it is a bubble.  How long will this bubble last?

Adding Houston could and probably would hurt A&M a lot.  The SEC West is the best recruiting division in college football.  All seven members finished in the top 25 at the FBS level last year.  Losing a few Houston recruits could drop TAMU's talent to the bottom of that division and trigger a domino drop of factors.  TAMU could see a steady decline in state-wide media attention paid to the Aggies and a disappearance of their new found recruiting dominance as their records fall off.

And what does this have to do with Fertitta?  You see the guy who appointed Fertitta was Rick Perry, the Aggie Governor who largely made the Aggies departure to the SEC possible by stifling any potential political action to keep the Aggies in the Big 12.  Imagine the fun UT boosters could have thanking Aggie boosters should A&M's recruiting atrophy and they  Aggies fall back to being a conference also-ran. 

That would be delicious.

Anyway, lets see what happens in the next 36 months.

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