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.
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.
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."
The Southeastern Conference 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 SEC said it had not received an application from Texas A&M to join the league and that it would have no further comment.
The Big 12 would like to move as quickly as possible to replace Texas A&M, sources within the conference confirmed to ESPN's Joe Schad.
The Big 12 believes BYU would consider an invitation -- despite just declaring its independence in football -- because joining would ease scheduling concerns and provide more direct access to the BCS. One administrator said the Big 12 does not have issues with BYU's policy of not playing on Sundays.
"There is much speculation right now regarding conference affiliation that seems to change by the hour," said BYU associate athlethic director Duff Tittle in a statement. "Commenting on such conjecture is not productive and creates a distraction for our program. As we enter the 2011-12 athletic season, BYU is focused on the opportunities ahead. We are excited about our relationship with ESPN as a football independent and our affiliation with the West Coast Conference."
Two administrators said it was unlikely the conference would add an in-state school such as TCU, SMU or Houston because it would not necessarily add television value and because the footprint of Texas is already covered.
"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 conference wants to add one school as quickly as possible but has not ruled out the possibility of an additional three teams in the future.
"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."
Texas, blamed by some for running off Nebraska with its deal with ESPN to set up its Longhorn Network, said it remains committed to the Big 12 even with its historic rivalry with Texas A&M in jeopardy. 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 A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said in a blog post Wednesday that the departures of Nebraska and Colorado and the creation of the Longhorn Network made the Big 12 "considerably different" than it was last summer -- when he said the Aggies should remain in the league.
"There have also been other developments during the past several months that have caused a great deal of uncertainty within the Big 12," Byrne said in the blog. "You all know the landscape of the Big 12 Conference was altered by the creation of the Longhorn Network."
He mentions the network's attempts to televise high school games and the "attempt to coerce Big 12 schools to move their football games in Austin" to the network. Byrne also said that Texas A&M was not offered the chance to join the Longhorns in the venture.
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.
Houston 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."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was asked about the
Big 12 on Wednesday.
"Notre Dame is firmly committed to its motto of football
independence and Big East affiliation in those sports sponsored by
the Big East," Swarbrick said.
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.
Information from ESPN college football reported Joe Schad and the Associated Press was used in this report.