Missouri to explore leaving Big 12

ST. LOUIS -- It wasn't too long ago that Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton spoke of "working every day to hold the Big 12 together." Now he's been tasked with helping decide whether the Tigers are the latest program to leave a troubled conference fighting for its future.

University curators voted unanimously Tuesday night to consider leaving the Big 12 instead of committing to the league for the long term. The governing board's members agreed unanimously after a four-hour closed meeting at the system's St. Louis campus to give Deaton authority to look elsewhere, specifically "any and all actions necessary to fully explore options on conference affiliation....which best serve the (school's) interest."

And Deaton, the conference's public face through its recent turmoil, is resigning as chairman of the Big 12's board of directors to avoid the obvious conflict of interest.

Just one day earlier, the conference announced that presidents and chancellors of the remaining nine members -- including Deaton -- had agreed to equal revenue sharing and to seek approval from each university to hand over the most lucrative television rights to the conference for six years.

Now it looks as if the Big 12 might be losing two members for the second straight year.

"The University of Missouri is a member in good standing in the Big 12 Conference, and I anticipate the University will continue to be a member of the Big 12," interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas said in a statement released soon after Missouri announced its intentions.

One year ago, Nebraska defected from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, and Colorado left for what is now the Pac-12.

"What brings us here tonight is that the Big 12 Conference is now requesting that its members make binding, long-term irrevocable commitments to the conference," said Steve Owens, interim president of the four-campus University of Missouri system. "We don't fault the Big 12 Conference. It is something it should be doing in order to promote stability."

If Missouri were to leave the Big 12, one college administrator characterized it as "a shocker. I thought they were leveraging it, and leveraging it well, but my sense was that all along they wanted to stay in the Big 12."

Speculation has centered on a possible Missouri move to the Southeastern Conference, which recently agreed to accept Texas A&M from the Big 12 starting next year.

A Missouri university official familiar with the discussions involving conference affiliation told The Associated Press Wednesday that the school hopes to join the SEC, but would have preferred an offer from the Big Ten.

Missouri hoped to join the Big Ten in 2010, but the league chose Nebraska. The university official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the school has not commented publicly about its intentions, said the Big Ten remains Missouri's top choice, but that conference "has no interest."

Deaton declined to specifically answer a reporter's question about interest in the SEC on either the school's part or the other conference. He said there is no timetable for the decision, whether by a self-imposed deadline or a Big 12 loyalty demand.

"We're going to be exploring options generally and will be making no comments about specific areas where we have begun to look at," he said.

Conceivably, Missouri could remain in the Big 12, Deaton said, but the Tigers are officially on the market now. And the SEC could use a 14th member to balance a league that now has an odd number of teams.

"We certainly are not ruling out continuing in the Big 12," he said. "But we want to be sure to do what is best for our university."

SEC athletic directors were meeting Wednesday at the league's headquarters to discuss the logistics of Texas A&M's entry as the conference's 13th member.

But a possible addition of Missouri is not on the agenda, a source with direct knowledge of the meeting told ESPN.com's Andy Katz.

The meeting was scheduled several weeks ago and is focused on the Aggies' integration into the league next season, conference spokesman Charles Bloom said.

The Big 12 also announced Monday that it had re-activated its expansion committee, but Neinas has said there was not yet a consensus on how many teams the league would like to ultimately end up with. Deaton is a member of the Big 12's expansion panel.

A Missouri move would mean the Big 12 is likely to add at least two teams and that could put the Big East on guard again. That conference has already had two members -- Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- poached by the Atlantic Coast Conference and is trying to recruit new members.

If the Big 12 wanted to stretch farther east, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia of the Big East could be targets. There has also been speculation that the Big 12 could pursue BYU, TCU, SMU, and Houston.

One Big East coach feared the worst, telling ESPN.com via text message, "the big east is finished."

Missouri has been a Big 12 member since the conference began 15 years ago and was a charter member of the Big Eight, the Big 12's predecessor. Its border contests with Kansas are part of one of the most storied -- and oldest -- rivalries in college sports, with conference affiliations that began more than a century ago.

Owens, Deaton and board chairman Warren Erdman kept their public remarks brief. Missouri athletics director Mike Alden, who joined the other three at a news conference announcing the decision, did not speak and declined comment afterward.

Other curators were escorted out of the building by campus police officers. Curator Wayne Goode, who left the meeting on his own, declined an Associated Press interview request.

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and Pat Forde and The Associated Press contributed to this report.