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Different motives behind supporting candidates

IRVING, Texas -- The last week in the Big 12 was, well, so very Big 12.

Going into the week, few, even insiders within the conference, would've predicted that the league would stunningly vote to pursue expansion.

Even fewer could've guessed that two days later the University of Texas would throw its weight behind the one expansion candidate prevailing wisdom suggested the Longhorns would've been dead-set on blocking.

Even by Big 12 standards, it was a wild week for the conference - setting the tone for what should be a dramatic couple of months that figures to shape the immediate future of the Big 12, while also determining its long-term viability.

"The Big 12 marches to the beat of its own drum," one industry insider said.

"It's incredibly fascinating."

What happened?

When the presidents and chancellors entered the conference room at the Four Seasons hotel in Irving last Tuesday, the expectation around the league and among the leadership of expansion hopefuls was that the Big 12 would finally quash the expansion debate, at the very least in the interim.

Oklahoma president David Boren had been pushing for expansion, but in conjunction with the implementation of a conference network. He rightly believed more eyeballs and content would be critical to getting a network off the ground. But when the TV partners balked during the three-day Big 12 meetings in June, Boren backed off expansion, too.

Monday of last week, however, the expansion flame that had seemingly been doused was reignited. That evening, multiple reports surfaced that the ACC and ESPN had agreed to a deal on a conference network beginning in 2019 - leaving the Big 12 as the only major conference without a network.

It's unclear as to whether the ACC network revelation was the impetus to the Big 12 taking expansion action. But to whatever level, it was a factor, according to multiple sources. So too were the -- as commissioner Bob Bowlsby put it -- "conclusionary presentations" of the Big 12's hired consultants BHV and Navigate Research, which have been pushing for the conference to be more aggressive to enhance its long-term stability. The combination of the two resulted in a unanimous vote authorizing Bowlsby to begin negotiating with expansion candidates.

"While we had a setback in terms of interest from media partners on a conference network. ... there seems to be some competitive advantage (for expansion) to get into a playoff, and obviously financial advantages," Boren told ESPN.com last week. "We're going to continue to look at those questions, separate and apart from the potential of any kind of a network."

That, however, wouldn't be the only Big 12 bombshell.

What is Texas up to?

As surprising as the expansion announcement was, Texas president Greg Fenves' sudden endorsement of the University of Houston's candidacy over Twitter was just as shocking. The common-held thought around the league was that Texas would be Houston's biggest roadblock to Big 12 entry; instead, the Longhorns have emerged, at least on the surface, as Houston's champion.

But are Texas' motives pure?

The Austin American-Statesman was the first to report late last week that Texas might be more interested in building a $450 million research center on 300 acres of land in Houston than simply helping the Cougars get into the Big 12.

Since the inception of the conference, when Texas Governor Ann Richards helped Baylor get into the league, Texas state politics have played a heavy part in every realignment turn in the Big 12.

This time could be no different.

According to those reports, Houston boosters indicated they would consider dropping their opposition to Texas' expansion into Houston in exchange for the Longhorns helping the Cougars get into the Big 12.

Two sources at Houston denied to ESPN.com that any quid pro quo had been agreed to. Furthermore, longtime State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) emphatically denied to the Statesman that any exchange behind closed doors was taking place.

"For anyone to think there's a swap there, I say not only no, but hell no," he told the newspaper.

Either way, whatever the motive, with Texas playing its hand on Houston so early, it has placed the Big 12's other flagship school in an interesting spot.

Oklahoma and Boren could agree to support Houston's candidacy, effectively sealing the Cougars' Big 12 entry, provided that Texas would agree to what the Sooners want.

What does Oklahoma want?

Boren, the Big 12 board chair, has been mum on which schools he prefers for expansion, though the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in May that he had been in communication with then-University of Cincinnati president Santa Ono.

"You are truly an outstanding leader and knowing that you are at the helm in Cincinnati makes me even more inclined to support your cause," Boren wrote to Ono in an e-mail last year. Ono, however, is set to become the president of the University of British Columbia in August.

Boren could also try to put the network back on the table, but at this juncture, that could be a long-shot if not an impossibility. Through pro-rata agreements, Big 12 TV partners ESPN and Fox are already contractually obligated to pony up roughly $25 million per year to the league for each expansion candidate the conference adds. In other words, if the Big 12 adds four schools, ESPN and Fox would be on the hook for an estimated $700 million through the end of the current TV deal that runs through 2024-25.

More feasibly, Boren will be able to demand Texas support Oklahoma's school of choice in exchange for his vote for Houston.

But who might that school be? And who else will emerge as expansion favorites?

Are there legit candidates emerging?

Will the Big 12's TV partners push for an extension to the grant of rights, similar to 10-year extension the ACC signed?

Will the additional $50 million a year tempt the league to expand to 14?

With Texas apparently behind it, Houston appears to be the early favorite. The Cougars will be pitching to the Big 12 that the SEC has gained a stranglehold on the Houston TV market, which is the 10th-largest in the country -- and that only the University of Houston can help bring it back. Last year, only two Big 12 games -- Oklahoma-Texas and Baylor-TCU -- ranked in the top 10 of TV games in the market. The SEC, meanwhile, produced six of the 10 games in Houston, including the top 3. Houston's games against Temple and Navy, however, placed fifth and ninth for the year in the market.

"The SEC right now owns the city of Houston from a TV ratings standpoint," said billionaire businessman and Houston board chair Tilman Fertitta, who pointed out that adding Houston would help boost the ratings for ancillary Big 12 games in the Houston market, as well. "Those eyeballs in Houston are extremely important to the Big 12.

"The Big 12 needs to own Houston, not the SEC."

At least one Big 12 president has concerns about adding another Texas school.

"I feel a lot of the (Big 12) presidents feel the league is Texas-heavy already, which helps with the Texas school, Iowa State president Steven Leath told the Ames Register.

Like Houston, BYU will also be heavily involved in expansion discussions. Unlike other candidates, these Cougars avoided getting caught politicking Big 12 leaders in e-mails and refrained from talking publicly about the Big 12, until late last week.

"As of (Tuesday), it became real," BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told ESPN.com Friday. "They've said, we're now looking at (expanding)."

By any measure, BYU has the best football tradition of any non-Power 5 program out there, with the seventh-most wins in the FBS dating back to 1980.

BYU's candidacy, however, is complicated. The school does not play games on Sundays, due to its affiliation with the Mormon Church. That wouldn't affect football, but it would affect scheduling in several non-football sports, notably soccer and baseball. Despite this, Holmoe told ESPN.com that BYU will be pushing for full membership. But he also acknowledged that the Cougars would be open to a football-only agreement.

Football prowess won't be the only point of contention as the Big 12 mines candidates. And academics could be an underrated factor, especially if the league opts to expand by four.

Boren mentioned "academic standards" as one of the five core criteria the league will consider, along with competitiveness of athletic programs, fan base, access to media markets and overall reputation. That could bolster Tulane's dark-horse candidacy, while damaging South Florida's. Last week, ESPN reported the NCAA is investigating South Florida's men's basketball program on allegations of academic fraud.

As one industry insider and a Big 12 AD reiterated, the presidents will be making the call on which schools will be invited, and "academics could play a bigger role than you might think."

According to sources, Central Florida, Connecticut and Colorado State have also garnered support from different corners of the Big 12.

Central Florida operates in a top-20 TV market and sits in the middle of one of the top recruiting hotbeds in the country.

Some view Connecticut as the Big 12's gateway into the populous Northeast, including the coveted New York City market. The Huskies also have already touted their $71 million athletic budget, which dwarfs that of several expansion candidates. UConn boasts a solid academic profile as a state school, too.

Colorado State will have a new on-campus stadium completed by 2017, and claims it can bring the Denver market, which ranks 17th nationally. According to the Coloradoan newspaper, Denver also features more than 35,000 Big 12 alums.

"We are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end, and will benefit from an affiliation with the schools that are currently in our conference," Bowlsby said. "It's important that they strengthen the family and we strengthen them."

The University of Memphis is banking that applies to it.

The school continues to have the delivery-services giant FedEx, based in Memphis, backing its candidacy. FedEx has pledged to sponsor a Big 12 championship game if Memphis is invited, though it's unclear what advantage that is for the Tigers. One Big 12 insider suggested the league would have no issue landing a sponsorship for its title game, which is returning to the conference next year. Memphis, however, has also promised to make a $500 million investment in academic and athletic infrastructure over the next five years.

"We're looking at those schools that not only have arrived competitively," Boren said immediately after the Big 12 vote, "but have a huge potential to improve their competitive capabilities by becoming members."

The race to get into the Big 12 has officially begun. Suggesting one fascinating week in the Big 12 will be the first of many to come.