It’s high-stakes political football as Texas ‘supports’ Houston entry in Big 12

On Tuesday, the Big 12 announced it would begin contacting potential expansion candidates. Less than 48 hours later, we already have a new clubhouse leader.

In a surprising and frankly unusual twist, University of Texas president Gregory Fenves tweeted Thursday: "As we look at opportunities for Big 12 expansion, I support considering @UHouston for the conference. UH is a huge asset for Texas."

You knew as soon as the Big 12 disclosed its intentions to expect all manner of furious lobbying by the respective candidates. But lobbying on behalf of a candidate — by one of the Big 12 presidents who will ultimately make the decision — is a whole other ballgame.

And of course, Fenves is not the president at any old university. We’re talking about that school in Austin.

Fenves’ endorsement runs contrary to what many of us (myself included) had long assumed, which is, Texas would be reticent about empowering another in-state program and in turn potentially hurting its own standing in such an important recruiting city. Given that Texas essentially dictated the Big 12’s future during its flirtation with the Pac-10 in 2010, many will now conclude that Houston’s ticket is all but punched.

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

First of all, few things in life are more political than conference realignment –€“ especially in the state of Texas. Most likely, Fenves’ message was intended less as a call to action on behalf of Houston but an attempt to deflect blame if that school ultimately doesn’t get in. After all, his tweet came just hours after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent one of his own declaring: "Big 12 expansion is a non-starter unless it includes the University of Houston."

If you’re the president of Texas, it’s generally in your best interest to stay on the right side of the governor.

(Side note: Abbott is merely the latest in a string of Texas governors to butt their heads into conference realignment. Ann Richards famously stumped for alma mater Baylor’s inclusion in the original Big 12 circa 1994, and Rick Perry reportedly pushed hard for his beloved Texas A&M Aggies to join the SEC.)

Also, just because Texas supports Houston doesn’t mean the other Big 12 schools do. Under Big 12 rules it only takes three schools’ no votes to thwart a potential candidate. It might be that TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor feel more threatened by the upstart Cougars than do the Longhorns. And some believe it’s the exact opposite situation –€“ that the six non-Texas schools aren’t keen on adding another Lone Star member.

That being said, is Kansas or Iowa State really going to oppose Texas? Their own continued fortunes are directly tied to those of Texas and Oklahoma. If they want a particular school, they’re probably going to get it.

Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Houston, especially coming off a 13-1 season and Peach Bowl win over Florida State. And of course there’s a much-better chance the school could hang on to coveted coach Tom Herman if he knows the program will soon gain Power 5 status.

But at this early stage we don’t necessarily know what the Big 12 is looking for in potential candidate — because its own leaders don’t. By all accounts, prior to Tuesday morning they weren’t even planning to pursue expansion.

Of course, that’s not going to stop those of us who cover college sports for a living to continue furiously trying to handicap the leaders. Previously I’ve said Cincinnati was the leading candidate. I’m now inclined to say it’s Houston.