LSU Chancellor Mike Martin: SEC Watching Cautiously

By: The Eagle-By MATTHEW WATKINS
By: The Eagle-By MATTHEW WATKINS

LSU Chancellor Mike Martin said this week that the Southeastern Conference is proceeding cautiously as it considers whether to accept Texas A&M into its ranks, but he expects the Aggies will eventually have an opportunity to join.

"I think there is going to be some more conference realignment," he said in an interview with The Eagle. "Whether Texas A&M is held up or not, I believe at some point A&M will have the option of joining the SEC and I still believe that at that time the invitation will still be open to do so."

But how that would happen is unclear. Martin met on Tuesday night with the 11 other SEC chancellors and university presidents with plans to accept A&M into the conference. That was foiled at the last minute, however, after it was made clear to the presidents that one school, Baylor, was keeping its right to sue the conference if A&M left the Big 12.

The SEC instead opted to accept A&M under the condition that the rest of the Big 12 assure them that they won't sue. Since then, other schools have indicated that they are keeping their rights to sue, too.

"I think it has been a little frustrating to those of us on the SEC board because it has been hard to get a handle on specifically about what is going on in the back rooms in the Big 12," he said.

So the future is now uncertain. A&M has indicated that it still hopes to join the SEC. But Baylor has made no public sign of willingness to back down.

Baylor is a relatively small school with a small fan base and likely wouldn't be attractive to major conferences, though rumors have circulated that the Big East might be willing to consider it. The school has improved facilities in recent years and hopes to build a new stadium, but the disbanding of the Big 12 would likely mean millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Martin said he wouldn't say "hard and fast" that A&M wouldn't ever be able to join the SEC without Baylor's approval. The conference's presidents and chancellors simply decided to let A&M go back and work with the commissioner and Big 12 schools to reach a mutually acceptable conclusion.

"I don't think we would say that one school will dictate this outcome," Martin said. "On the other hand, since I am not privy to those conversations, I can't say whether it is one school or more than one [holding it up]."

After the SEC's action Tuesday night, the Big 12 met on Wednesday to discuss its future. Various publications using anonymous sources reported conflicting information about which schools were joining the resistance.

Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have all stated that they will not sue. Iowa State and Kansas haven't given up their rights, but also haven't made any public threats. Kansas State and Missouri officials have remained silent on the issue.

Many expect that if Baylor can be assured that the Big 12 will stay together, it will allow A&M to leave. BYU has been mentioned as a possible replacement. If it were to join and Oklahoma, which has publicly discussed leaving, were to restate its commitment, the standoff might end.

Meanwhile, A&M fans continue to impatiently await admittance to the SEC. The A&M Student Senate on Wednesday passed a non-binding resolution "requesting that the Big 12 support Texas A&M's move to the SEC."

And many fans question whether any suit against the Aggies would be successful. Nebraska and Colorado were allowed to leave the conference last year and faced no lawsuits and A&M has followed the exit procedure laid out in Big 12 bylaws, they say.

But even if the suit against the SEC would be weak, its members likely want to avoid it, said Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at the University of Marquette Law School. Any suit would likely bring expensive legal fees, an unwelcome pretrial discovery process and public controversy, Mitten said.

"Their concern is that they could be sued on the theory of tortuous interference with contractual relations -- that they interfered with the existing agreements with the Big 12 member schools and they did something to induce Texas A&M to breach its existing conference obligations," Mitten said. "They don't want to get involved in the litigation that is expensive even if you win."

Mitten said there is precedent for such a lawsuit. In 2003, members of the Big East sued the Atlantic Coast Conference and the University of Miami minutes after Miami left the Big East for the ACC.

Lawyers representing the Big East schools said at the time that they were seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The case ended up being settled out of court for $5 million, which is less than the exit fees Nebraska and Colorado paid to leave the Big 12.

Martin said LSU has been one of the leading proponents of accepting A&M into the SEC. The schools have a long history of playing in football, LSU has a large number of fans and alumni in Texas and College Station is closer to his school than most SEC members, Martin said.

"We also took some comfort knowing that we handled the Aggies pretty well in the Cotton Bowl last year, so we might get a couple of wins out of it too," he said with a laugh.

But, Martin said, the SEC isn't interested in breaking up conferences or forcing realignment. They would only support the move if it doesn't cause major fighting between Big 12 members.

"We ought to occasionally as academic leaders step back and say, 'How does this affect the student athlete experience? Let's try to be as positive and collegial as possible,'" he said.

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