HOOVER, Ala. — A media scrum crowded Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey as he removed his headphones on radio row at the league's media days. Sankey smiled as he stood. He knew why the scrum was there. He had his deflective answer prepared.
Minutes before, a wave of conference realignment news spread from a report by the Houston Chronicle that Texas and Oklahoma had reached out to the SEC about potentially leaving the Big 12 Conference and joining the league. An announcement could come within a couple of weeks, the newspaper reported.
Radio interview to radio interview, Sankey responded to each reporter's question the same way.
Have there been any discussions about Oklahoma and Texas?
"I'm talking about 2021 this season."
Outside of Texas and Oklahoma has there been any discussion about expansion at all?
"I'm focused on the 2021 season."
Why would expansion be attractive?
"I'm focused on the 2021 season."
No athletic official outright confirmed or denied the report.
The SEC remained mum. A Texas official shared a statement with The Advocate that said, "Speculation always swirls around collegiate athletics. We will not address rumors or speculation." An Oklahoma official shared a similar one with The Athletic: "The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don't address every anonymous rumor."
Ah yes, rumors and speculation. This is all too familiar. It was almost 10 years ago when similar rumors and speculation spilled around Texas and Oklahoma and their apparent attempts to join the Pac-12 Conference.
The two schools have acted as the powerbrokers in the Big 12 since the league was established in 1994, and, by the time those Pac-12 rumors arrived, Colorado had already ditched the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Nebraska had left for the Big Ten.
Then, in September 2011, Texas A&M was officially accepted into the SEC, bringing the Big 12's spat over conference equity and the arrival of Texas' new Longhorn Network with ESPN to a climax. Missouri left the Big 12 to become the SEC's 14th member months later.
The Big 12 has since been largely considered behind the SEC and Big Ten in terms of competitiveness and marketability. Oklahoma has won six Big 12 titles in a row in football, and, even in its league dominance, has posted an 0-4 record in its playoff appearances.
The SEC and Big Ten have both won national championships in football in the past decade and signed mega-deals with major TV networks. The Big Ten announced a six-year deal with ESPN and Fox Sports in 2017 worth $2.64 billion, and, in December, news broke that SEC will leave CBS for ESPN in a mammoth 10-year deal worth $3 billion.
Meanwhile, the Big 12's TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. There is apparent disinterest in a similar mega-deal with the league. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported in May that TV networks declined to negotiate a new deal with the Big 12. The report provides speculation that Oklahoma and Texas would potentially shop around for a better situation.
News of the two schools' interest in the SEC was not received well by officials from Texas A&M. The Aggies and Longhorns remain in-state arch-rivals despite having not played each other in football since 2011.
Texas A&M has found success since its move to the SEC. The Aggies produced a Heisman Trophy winner in former quarterback Johnny Manziel during an 11-2 campaign in 2012, and last season, the program nearly made its first appearance in the College Football Playoff with a 9-1 record and ended the year ranked No. 4 in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork made it clear the school is not interested in ceding its independent advantages by linking up again with Oklahoma and Texas in the same conference.
"There's a reason why we left (the Big 12)," Bjork told KABZ-FM, 103.7 in Little Rock. "And that was to have our own identity, to be in our own governing structure. We're a flagship university. We have the size and scale where we deserve to be in the SEC. It's been a great fit and we want to maintain that. And that'll be our position moving forward. Everybody in the SEC knows that. But I can't predict what's going to happen."
Any conference expansion would need to be approved by at least a two-thirds vote by the league's presidents and chancellors, according to the SEC bylaws, and with Sankey's continuous rebuff of questions, it's not apparent if discussions for such a vote have even began.
So, for now, people are left with rumors and speculation. That and a laugh-provoking quip from Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher after he was asked about Texas and Oklahoma inquiring about joining the SEC.
"I bet they would," Fisher said.