HOUSTON — The official Texas A&M fight song includes a line that bids farewell to Texas, "so long to the orange and white." By this time next year, Texas A&M may have said goodbye to a lot more than its storied, century-old rivalry with Texas.
Texas A&M announced Wednesday that it will leave the Big 12 Conference by July 2012 if it can find another home, preferably in the SEC.
The decision could set off another round of conference realignment in college sports and it raises questions about the future of the Big 12, which is starting the football season with 10 teams after losing Nebraska and Colorado. The Big 12 said it would move quickly to find at least one replacement for the Aggies but offered no timeline.
"The presidents and chancellors of the nine remaining member institutions are steadfast in their commitment to the Big 12," Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe said in a statement. "As previously stated, the conference will move forward aggressively exploring its membership options."
The Southeastern Conference said it had not received an application from Texas A&M to join the league and that it would have no further comment. The SEC has reaffirmed its 12-school membership, but remains open to expansion talks.
Leaving the Big 12 "is in the best interest of Texas A&M," said university President R. Bowen Loftin, who formally notified the league with a letter after earlier securing details on the withdrawal process. He said he hopes the move can be amicable and presumably hopes to negotiate a reasonable exit fee.
"We are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," Loftin said. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically."
Texas A&M, which has been in the Big 12 since its founding in 1996, said it will submit an application to join another, unspecified conference. If accepted, Texas A&M will leave the Big 12, effective June 30, 2012.
Texas, blamed by some for running off Nebraska with its deal with ESPN to set up its Longhorns Network, said it remains committed to the Big 12 even with its historic rivalry with Texas A&M in jeopardy. But Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds didn't address the game or even A&M by name.
"As we stated last summer, we are strong supporters and members of the Big 12 conference," Dodds said. "Recent events have not altered our confidence in the league. A Big 12 committee is in place to look at all options, shaping the future of the conference so it will continue to be one of the top leagues in the country."
Texas and Texas A&M first met in football in 1894 and the annual Thanksgiving game is a highlight of the season for many fans. Loftin said that a "primary criterion" when negotiating with another conference would be the ability to continue the rivalry, but there's no guarantee the new conference or the Longhorns would agree to such a deal.
Like Texas, Baylor has been in the same league with Texas A&M since the beginning of the Southwest Conference in 1914. With no push by Texas A&M to continue playing the Bears, they were disappointed that their football rivalry, which began in 1899, will end.
Baylor President Ken Starr still believes the Big 12 has a "bright future," even without the Aggies.
"We know that the Big 12 is an exciting and attractive conference for many reasons, including the quality of our academic programs, the strength of our athletic teams, the support of our loyal fans and the depth of our vibrant traditions," Starr said.
Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) left the league in July a year after a wild round of realignment that also affected teams in the Mountain West, Big East and WAC.
So far, the only school to publicly express interest in joining the Big 12 is SMU, the former Southwest Conference team that now plays in Conference USA and has climbed back to respectability after receiving the NCAA's only "death penalty" punishment after a pay-for-play scandal in the 1980s.
Another Conference USA team, Houston, could also be an option for the Big 12. Athletic director Mack Rhoades would not say Wednesday if he has been in touch with the Big 12 or any other conference.
"We're always going to look to get better, and look for opportunity," Rhoades said. "Whether that comes, whether that doesn't, I certainly can't answer that. But we're in a great conference right now, and we're going to continue to be a great member. But we're also going to do everything we can to get better."
Rhoades said he believes A&M's decision could be the first domino in changes across the landscape of college football.
"Right now, let's face it, that's the world of college athletics," he said. "Whatever happens here in the next week, two weeks, three months, who knows what the timeline is? I don't think it ends there. I think it's going to continue to evolve over the next few years."
The Big 12 has formed a committee to look for replacements.
"The chancellors and presidents of the Big 12 are committed to keeping our conference competitively and academically strong," said Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton, who serves as the chairman of the Big 12 board of directors. "We have a process in place that enables us to move aggressively regarding the possible expansion of the conference and to assure our members and student-athletes that we will take advantage of the most productive opportunities in the best interests of all."
The SEC said earlier this month it was happy with its current membership but left the door open to expansion, and the Aggies certainly wouldn't have made this move if they didn't believe they could eventually join the conference. The Aggies would need the votes of nine of the 12 presidents from the member schools for the SEC to allow them into the league.
The Big 12 agreed to a 13-year television deal with Fox Sports in April worth more than $1 billion, a contract that technically could be voided with Texas A&M's departure and lead to legal issues for the Aggies.
A person familiar with that TV deal told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the league has indications from the network that if a suitable replacement can be found that "they will be fine and keep the contract as is." The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details are not supposed to be public, also said that the contract could remain in force at a discounted rate even if the Big 12 had only its remaining nine teams.
The Aggies will also likely face an exit fee for leaving the Big 12, although it's unclear how much that could be. Nebraska paid $9.25 million and Colorado paid $6.9 million.
Texas state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said she had no plans to call for a public hearing on the Aggies' decision to leave. Zaffirini, who graduated from Texas, said she would be disappointed if the two schools end their football rivalry.
AP Sports Writers Chris Duncan, Stephen Hawkins, Jim Vertuno and John Zenor contributed to this report.
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