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August 15, 2011

HURT: Expansion delayed, not dead

It was no surprise the august Dr. Bernard Machen, president of the University of Florida, came out of a Sunday morning session with the other CEO's of Southeastern Conference schools and issued a statement composed in equal parts of hefty words and elusive meaning.

But, like most tough things, Machen's statement regarding the Texas A&M-to-the-SEC issue can be boiled down to something easier to chew on. In fact, it can be reduced to four words that everyone from here to Texas can understand.

"Hold your horses, boys."

Despite the stampeding stories out of Texas last week, there was no compelling reason for the SEC to rush to embrace Texas A&M, which could have bolted the Big 12 last year and didn't. That doesn't mean there isn't any interest in Texas A&M. Machen's statement didn't permanently seal the SEC borders to the Aggies, or to anyone else. But it did slow things down to a more orderly pace.

There are legal reasons for caution, primarily television contracts that amount to millions of dollars. Texas A&M has plenty of money, but does not want to breach those contracts, for good reason.

The SEC has plenty of money, too, but doesn't want to deal with charges of tortious interference by extending its hand to a school that is already married to another league. The marriage may get done, but it won't be a midnight elopement. It has been done in the proper way.

Contracts do matter, more than emotion, although this does appear to be an emotional time for Texas A&M. The relationship of the Aggies to the Texas Longhorns seems different in some ways from the Alabama-Auburn relationship. Obviously, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is heated - in recent months, probably overheated. But, while some fans on both sides would probably like to see their rival tossed out of the SEC entirely, neither is so disgusted with the other that there is any serious discussion of packing up and leaving.

It's far better, the thinking in Alabama goes, to stay cooped up together, screaming and throwing dishes at one another. And that's probably the correct course. As nasty as the internecine fighting gets, it's preferable to an outright divorce.

On the other hand, looking at Texas-Texas A&M from the outside, the Aggies simply seem to have had more than they can stand with the Longhorns. A&M probably has its fiscal reasons for making a move, but it seems to have psychological ones as well.

It feels like the headlong Aggie rush in the SEC's direction was less about getting away from the "Big 12" as a conference and more about getting away from the University of Texas. Perhaps the Longhorn Network was the last straw, but Texas A&M fans probably felt a million straws had been piled on before that one. Texas fans, on the other hand, probably view the whole thing as a Texas A&M tantrum.

Texas A&M could still end up in the SEC if it walks - rather than runs - in an orderly fashion. The league presidents mentioned "the future" in Machen's statement, and the future could be a few years or a few days, or never, depending on how things go. That may mean contracts.

That may mean lining up another member (or three others) for a bigger SEC. It seems certain to mean that the Aggies get to spend another year in a conference that they'd just as soon leave, about as happy as Nick Saban at a year-long press conference.

But for the time being, the SEC presidents have mandated the horses should be held - and that was wise, if only so everyone involved can collect their breath and consult their lawyers.


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