HOUSTON — Texas A&M dealt a blow to the Big 12 Conference on Wednesday, saying it plans to leave by July 2012 if it is accepted by the SEC or another league.
The move, which had been expected, may set off another round of conference realignment in college sports. The Aggies have made it clear they want to join the 12-member Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 said again after the announcement that it will move swiftly to find at least one replacement for the Aggies.
University President R. Bowen Loftin notified the Big 12 in a letter and said departing the league "is in the best interest of Texas A&M." He said he hopes the move can be amicable and presumably hopes to negotiate a reasonable exit fee.
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 it is accepted, Texas A&M will leave the Big 12, effective June 30, 2012.
"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 in a statement. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically. Texas A&M is an extraordinary institution, and we look forward to what the future may hold for Aggies worldwide."
The SEC said Wednesday that it had not received an application from Texas A&M to join the league and that it would have no further comment.
The move by Texas A&M leaves questions about the future of the Big 12, which is down to 10 teams after 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.
"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."
So far, the only school to publicly express interest in joining the league 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."
Texas, blamed by some for running off Nebraska with its deal with ESPN to set up its own Longhorns Network, said it remains committed to the Big 12 with its storied rivalry with Texas A&M clearly in jeopardy
"As we stated last summer, we are strong supporters and members of the Big 12 conference," Texas athletic director DeLoss 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."
Loftin sent a letter to the Big 12 last week formally telling Beebe they were exploring all options and asked the conference to outline the process to leave. On Monday, the university said it had received a letter from Beebe outlining the withdrawal procedure.
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. There is a chance the contract could be voided by the Aggies leaving the conference, which could lead to legal issues for Texas A&M and its new league.
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.