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Big 12 lives to play another day

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By The Staff

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Staring at extinction, the Big 12 is once again in play.

The beleaguered conference made a rousing comeback Monday, when Texas declined an invitation to join the Pac-10 and decided to stay in the Big 12.

Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M quickly followed the Longhorns by recommitting to the conference after commissioner Dan Beebe convinced his members they would make more money in television and media deals in a 10-team Big 12 then in a 16-team Pac-10.

A person with direct knowledge of discussions among the Big 12's remaining members said Texas is clear to set up its own TV network and keep all proceeds in exchange for remaining in the Big 12. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because final details had not been worked out.

"Everybody is feeling much more confident the Big 12 is going to survive," the person said. "Everybody's going to be making more money."

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin provided additional details regarding A&M's decision in a letter addressed to 'The Aggie Family' posted on the school's web site Monday night. He said by remaining a member of the Big 12: "We were able to more than double our financial return to the levels being offered by other conferences."

Loftin added that another consideration in staying in the conference was maintaining Texas A&M's "strong foothold" in the state and preserving rivalries that date back "more than 100 years."

All that talk about the Pac-16, the first super conference that would span from Seattle to the Lone Star state? Done.

"University of Texas president Bill Powers has informed us that the 10 remaining schools in the Big 12 Conference intend to stay together," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. "We are excited about the future of the Pac-10 Conference and we will continue to evaluate future expansion opportunities under the guidelines previously set forth by our presidents and chancellors."

Powers declined comment when asked by the AP about details of the deal that kept Big 12 together.

The conference, born in 1996 when the Big 8 merged with members of the Southwest Conference, seemed to be falling apart last week when Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-10) decided to leave over the next two years. Now the Big 12 its back, though there are still questions about how it will conduct its business.

Among those that still need to be answered by Beebe is how and why the Big 12 will be more lucrative now, especially when it cannot hold a conference title game with only 10 members.

Beebe did not return phone messages Monday, but plans to hold a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Last year, Big 12 schools divided between $7 million and $10 million each depending on how many appearances they made on regional and national TV. At Big 12 meetings earlier this month, Beebe said he expected huge increases in rights fees from both Fox and ESPN.

The more lucrative contract with ESPN runs through the 2015-16 academic year, while the Fox deal is reportedly in its final two years.

The Big 12 has increased the financial reward for every one of its members since it began play in 1996. The Big 12 distributed $139 million to its members this past fiscal year, more than ever.

"We're excited about the Big 12 Conference and for its continued growth," Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said in a statement. "The University of Missouri has certainly prospered during its time in the Big 12, and we are looking forward to future opportunities in the years ahead."

The news about the Longhorns, Sooners and the rest of the Big 12 South powers staying put was especially good for Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Iowa State and Missouri — the five schools in danger of being left homeless if the conference dissolved.

Baylor football coach Art Briles, a Texas native who has spent his entire career in the Long Star state, put it this way: "I got resuscitated. You can take your hands off my chest. ... I'm extremely excited, it's like being given new life."

As for the Pac-10 and Scott, who was trying pull off a bold move that would have dramatically changed the landscape of college sports, they are left looking for at least one more member to get to 12 by 2012 when Colorado is set to join.

Scott's next target? Utah from the Mountain West Conference would seem a likely candidate.

Scott's plan was to add Texas (with Notre Dame the big prize in the conference expansion game) along with its main Big 12 South rivals — Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

Because Texas is the richest and most powerful of the Big 12 schools, the Longhorns were seen as the lynchpin to the deal. Wherever Texas decided to place its cash cow football program, the rest of the schools would seemingly fall in line.

But Texas A&M had represented a wild card, with school officials meeting with Pac-10 and SEC officials in recent days. If the Aggies were serious about leaving for the Southeastern Conference, no matter what Texas did, it was unclear whether that would have prompted the Longhorns, Sooners and the rest to decide the Big 12 was not worth saving with only nine members.

But that SEC flirtation turned out to be nothing more.

"Texas A&M is a proud member of the Big 12 Conference and will continue to be affiliated with the conference in the future," Loftin said in a statement.

In the letter posted on Texas A&M's web site, he addressed why the remaining 10 Big 12 schools chose to stay put.

"At the end of the day, 10 of the 12 schools in the Big 12 — including Texas A&M — have determined that the conference was definitely worth saving due to our collective strengths in academics, national competitiveness, geographic fit and overall financial value," Loftin wrote.

Officials at Oklahoma State and Oklahoma issued similar statements, with OSU president Burns Hargis singling out Beebe for his "bold moves and intense efforts."

The news that the Big 12 survived spread quickly.

"That's great news," said Scott Drew, whose Baylor men's basketball team advanced to the South regional final in the NCAA tournament a few months ago. "Obviously, we're very excited and pleased about the 10 schools staying together. It will be great to continue the rivalries and traditions."