The Longhorn Network: What Does It Mean for the SEC?

The Internet has been abuzz with the latest happenings coming out of Big 12 country, where the Longhorn Network (LHN), owned and operated by ESPN but programmed exclusively for the Texas Longhorns, is set to launch on August 26. Whither the importance for Kentucky and the SEC? There are two specific reasons, expounded upon below.

 

POTENTIAL CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT

Well, recent rumors are that the other Big 12 powers-that-be, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, are growing increasingly unhappy with the LHN and Longhorn "lordship." Just a year after it appeared that realignment talk and the "super-conference" model had been settled for the foreseeable future, whispers have swiftly started again. According to Matt Hayes at Sporting News, the Sooners and Aggies have significant concerns about the potential recruiting advantages the LHN will provide. The concern is so great that both schools may be considering a switch in conference affiliation to the vaunted SEC.

The crux of the matter is the potential televising of high school football games on the Longhorn Network. Dave Brown, an ESPN VP and one of the LHN leaders, was interviewed by an Austin radio station in June. It garnered little mention at the time, but over the past week, sports websites have started calling attention to a choice quote (after the jump).

 

"We’re going to follow the great [high school] players in the state. Obviously a kid like [unsigned Texas verbal commit] Johnathan Gray. I know people [Longhorn Network subscribers] are going to want to see Johnathan Gray, I can’t wait to see Johnathan Gray.

"Feedback from our audience is they just want to see Johnathan Gray run whether it’s 45-0 or not, they want to see more Johnathan Gray. So we’re going to do our best to accommodate them [Longhorn Network subscribers] and follow the kids who are being recruited by a lot of the Division I schools. Certainly some of the kids Texas has recruited and is recruiting and everyone else the Big 12 is recruiting.

"One other thing, you may see us, I know there’s a kid [unsigned Texas verbal commit] Connor Brewer from Chapparal high school in Arizona. We may try to get on one or two of their games as well so people [Longhorn Network subscribers] can see an incoming quarterback that’ll be part of the scene in Austin."

It's a quote that Sports By Brooks called "college football's first nuke," a sentiment echoed by Longhorns blog Barking Carnival (also part of the SBN Network). Neither Oklahoma nor Texas A&M has publicly commented on the matter, and the Aggies may or may not be discussing a conference switch in a special regents meeting today, originally called to address the LHN.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has remained similarly non-committal, yet sounds open to change.

"It is my job to make sure the SEC is the premier league," Slive said. "For me to exclude any action that would preclude that from happening would be inappropriate."

Last year, Texas A&M may or may not have been in serious discussions to make a solo jump from the Big 12 to the SEC, and that move may or may not have had serious ramifications on the BCS landscape. However, a combined jump by Texas A&M and Oklahoma will almost assuredly alter the conference hierarchy as we know it.

The SEC would likely jump at the chance to add both OU and A&M. The two programs are amongst the top 25 football programs in the country, and have also had recent success in basketball and other non-revenue sports. From a media standpoint, the SEC would acquire top 10 media markets in Dallas and Houston. And recruiting would be poised to take yet another leap. SEC universities already have unfettered access to fertile southern high schools in recruiting hotbeds like Georgia and Florida; just envision adding the state of Texas to the equation.

Then consider the realignment domino effect. The SEC may not stop at 14, instead choosing to truly go "super-conference" by adding other Big 12 schools like Oklahoma State or Missouri, or poaching the ACC for a Florida State or Clemson. That would leave the Big 10 and Pac-12 to make similar power plays, while throwing the viability of Notre Dame remaining independent (or Texas going independent) into question.

But give credit to the Longhorns: they know when to push and when to pull. Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe announced that plans to televise any high school football games have been put "on hold" until decisions have been made by the NCAA and the Big 12 on how to proceed. Burnt Orange Nation, SBN's Texas blog, agrees with the sentiment.

Think of it this way: There are a number of ways that realignment could play out, each with a different end position for Texas. Although we might be able to conclude that all of the possibilities would be acceptable, among those endgames, not only would some would be decidedly better than others but the range between the best- and worst-case scenarios for Texas would be substantial.  That is, the best-case scenario would be a lot better than the worst.

That, really, is why Texas fans should be careful not to flippantly blow off today's story with bravado.  No, Texas doesn't "need" Texas A&M and/or OU, and yes, Texas's position of strength means that there a number of quality options involving partnerships with one, both, or neither of those schools.  But returning to that range of realignment outcomes for Texas, the event defining the far end of the worst-case scenario side of the spectrum arguably is: Texas A&M and Oklahoma bolt for the SEC, and do so on an accelerated timeline (in the next 1-2 years).

And so the matter may indeed be settled for the time being.

 

A NEW ANGLE IN RECRUITING TACTICS

Even if conference realignment doesn't come to pass, the Longhorn Network is still trying to pioneer the exceedingly gray area of recruiting. "Hey, high school student-athlete: do you want to be on TV? Don't mind that Longhorns logo in the corner; that's just how we roll."

It's a practice that Recruitocosm (a sister blog to the aforementioned Barking Carnival) calls "above board," meaning that Texas is putting everything on the table for the NCAA to judge. There are no black market Willie Lyles shenanigans or Cam Newton ignorance claims happening as far as Texas is concerned.

What is the hang-up? The NCAA bylaw in question is 13.10.3, which states:

A member institution shall not permit a prospective student-athlete or a high school, college preparatory school or two-year college coach to appear, be interviewed or otherwise be involved (in person or via film, audio tape or videotape) on:

(a) A radio or television program conducted by the institution's coach;

(b) A program in which the institution's coach is participating; or

(c) A program for which a member of the institution's athletics staff has been instrumental in arranging for the appearance of the prospective student-athlete or coach or related program material.

Texas has done its best to distance itself from the LHN. Its simple claim is that because the network is owned and operated by ESPN, Texas or its coaches have no direct involvement with any and all programming matters, including the televising of high school games (never mind that the game will be running on a station touting all things Texas, all the time).

Technically, Texas sounds in the clear. Texas, the institution, does not appear to be in violation of any of the bylaws as written above.

But fundamentally? Here's a quote from Ben Kercheval of College Football Talk.

And, if the NCAA decides to continue sitting on its hands when it comes to the UT/ESPN/high school football relationship?  The Association needs to never again bring sanctions against any Div. 1-A football program for "recruiting violations".  Simply put, if televising potential in-state — and specifically targeted out-of-state — recruits on your own television network is not a violation, how could The Association ever again look any school in the eyes in the future and accuse them of doing something illicit in gaining an advantage in recruiting?

Keep in mind that this is the same organization that ruled that an eventual Heisman Trophy winner was eligible to play because he was unaware that his dad was peddling him for cash that may or may not have ever changed hands.

Meanwhile, Texas AD DeLoss Dodds is towing the company line, and as mentioned above, the LHN is backing off its grand ideas for now.

"We do not want to use it as a recruiting advantage. We don't want it tied to Texas," Dodds said. "ESPN knows we don't want to violate any NCAA rules and they don't want to."

The former is a lie, of course. The Longhorn Network is as optimal a recruiting tool that a university can tout (legally, natch). The latter is true, though. Texas has prided itself in "playing fair" and is simply pushing the envelope of legality, letting the NCAA regulate before going forth and conquering.

So what happens if the NCAA deems the televising of high school games as fair play? Well, see the Cam Newton saga. It sure sounds like parents and handlers are free to demand pay-for-play handouts. Just make sure the student-athlete never knows and money never actually exchanges hands (or ensure that the NCAA can't prove a money trail).

In that case, expect the SEC to jump into the deep end. Envision the SEC Network broadcasting a Bishop Gorman game featuring Shabazz Muhammad, or a Berkeley Prep game featuring Nelson Agholor. Oh by the way, we'll throw up some Kentucky and Florida propaganda every so often, and hey did you know that the ESS-EEE-SEE IS THE BEST DANG CONFERENCE IN THE LAND?!? 5 STRAIGHT BCS CHAMPIONSHIPS!! FLORIDA FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS!! BOOM MF!! LEBRON JAMES JERSEYS!! JOHN CALIPARI IS KIND OF AWESOME!! YOU WILL GET DRAFTED IN THE NBA LOTTERY!!

It's almost a wonder that no athletics department has dreamt of the possibilities before.

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