Amid the shock, fury and endless ripples that have come from Texas and Oklahoma’s imminent departure from the Big 12 to the SEC, one aspect of the seismic shift has been largely overlooked — Texas waving the white flag on its brand dominance.
In the past two decades, Texas flexed its institutional ego as relentlessly and destructively as any athletic department in college sports. The Longhorns’ insistence on the Longhorn Network and superiority complex sent Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and their old rivals, Texas A&M, scurrying for other leagues. Texas also prevented Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma from joining the Pac-10 with them by trying to jam the Longhorn Network down the conference’s throat at the 11th hour.
Texas was the Big 12’s bully, and it constantly reminded everyone of it. Essentially, Texas’ belief in its imminent football dominance was so big that it felt like it could carry a league no matter who was in it. Even when the on-field results stopped dictating that.
And that’s the most remarkable part of Texas going to the SEC, as the Longhorns are essentially admitting what’s been glaringly apparent on the field over the past decade — they’re not special. Texas’ move to the SEC is an admission that it's just like everyone else, something the school’s 52-46 conference record the past 11 years and “TEXAS IS BACK” punch lines have indicated.
“This is who they are,” said one long-time Big 12 official. “They’re going to be fighting for sixth or seventh place in the SEC.”
Since Texas can’t win with consistency, it's joining a league that better positions it to do so. This isn’t really about money for Texas, who led college athletics with more than $200 million in revenue prior to the pandemic.
The most fascinating part to those who’ve felt Texas’ boardroom blunt force is the notion that Texas is giving up the right to bully a league, dictate direction and operate like oligarchs. The notion of Texas standing in line and waiting its turn is gleeful to folks who’ve been on the business end of Texas’ domineering style in the Big 12.
The Longhorns’ air of superiority also leaves the Big 12’s future dim, as Texas nixed Big 12 expansion in 2016 when adding Cincinnati, Houston and UCF would have fortified the league’s future and had it much better positioned for the long term. (Even Oklahoma had interest in Cincinnati.)
Texas is now going to be a member of the rank-and-file in the SEC, which surely would make the Texas of DeLoss Dodds, Bill Powers and Mack Brown break out in hives thinking about it. Texas stuck up its nose at the SEC’s culture and its non-Vanderbilt academics, and now it’s slinking there under a cloud of mediocrity looking for an identity. Texas is the muscle car that did donuts endlessly in the gas station parking lot. Suddenly it needs to ask the business next door for a jump.
If you’d shown this glimpse of the future to any Big 12 members during realignment a decade ago, they’d have laughed in your face. Now, plenty are laughing behind Texas’ back when they’re not wringing their hands over the league’s future.
How fast can Texas compete in SEC, shed its 'country club' rep?
So how will Texas fare in the SEC in football? Well, the roster certainly isn’t constructed for immediate competition. We’ve dug into the timeline of when Texas joins the league, but remember this is a program that has watched Oklahoma win six straight league titles. And even the Sooners have struggled mightily in the College Football Playoff against the SEC, losing the three CFP appearances against the SEC by an average of 17.3 points.
Where does that leave Texas as first-year coach Steve Sarkisian tries to navigate this? Well, the views are mixed. A veteran NFL area scout who has gone through Texas for years made a few interesting points to Yahoo Sports about the Longhorns’ readiness for the SEC, which the scout has also covered for years.
“I think it’ll be a leap,” the scout told Yahoo Sports. “But I don’t think it’s like the Grand Canyon or anything. I think a lot of it has stemmed from their culture and always thinking they are better than they are. If the new leadership there can turn that tide a little bit … and play with more of a blue-collar attitude, it’ll help. They’ve got talented kids and they’ve had talented kids. It’s been more of the consistency in terms of getting them to play up to their potential. They’ve just underachieved for other reasons than just talent.”
He added: “I laugh at the recruiting thing. They’ve had talented guys there. For whatever reason, they haven’t developed them. They’ve had talented skill players. It’s not like you go to practice there and say, ‘These guys look awful on the hoof.’”
The two biggest areas the scout identified that Texas needs to upgrade are playmakers on offense and the offensive line. He compared Texas’ transition to the SEC to the same as A&M’s, which was expedited during the Johnny Manziel era but then backslid to more of a slow-burn rise to playoff contention last season.
How can Texas do it? A culture change is the start, as keeping players focused and grounded amid the bright lights of Austin has long been a challenge. He said there’s long been a stigma in NFL circles that “this is a Texas kid,” which translates to a “country club” vibe and “some softness,” even during Brown’s heyday when the Longhorns won big.
“I don’t know if it’s something that a coaching staff can overcome,” he said. “’We’re Texas and we’re the greatest.’ Maybe the SEC will help them in that respect. From not thinking they are the top dog all the time.”
It was interesting to poll a handful of Texas assistants on the SEC move. All agreed that it would be a big jump, as one pointed out the SEC had 65 NFL draft picks this past spring and the Big 12 had 22, 10 from Texas and Oklahoma. Texas will also need to truly run the ball, which the SEC’s man coverages force much more than the Big 12. “Sark is a good football mind, but he also had the best offensive roster in the country,” one former UT assistant said. “That makes a huge difference.”
The variable for Texas will be the potential for name, image and likeness in Austin as a lure. Another former assistant said Texas “might be the best program in America with the SEC next to their name” in the next three to five years. “It’s not a national brand right now,” he said. “It will be one soon again.”
The coach said that Austin’s allure in the NIL world will be a huge variable. And once the roster resets, Texas can continue to flex that. He theorized that the Longhorn Network provided an anchor to keeping Texas a regional school as the sport became more national.
Even when it has been mediocre, Texas has managed to compete for the sport’s top ranking in drama. And now that it's ditching the Big 12, the looming question over the next decade will be how it operates among the rank-and-file after years of pushing around its Big 12 brethren in the boardroom.
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