Supporters of the University of Houston have indicated they would consider dropping their opposition to the University of Texas’ expansion in Houston in exchange for a deal that allows the Cougars to join the Big 12 Conference, the American-Statesman has learned.
The possibility of a backroom deal mixing politics and big-time college sports emerged Thursday as numerous state officials weighed in on the Big 12’s intention to expand by two to four schools from its current 10.
“Big 12 expansion is a non-starter unless it includes University of Houston,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted.
Then, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick followed with his own support via Twitter, saying “any BIG 12 expansion must include @UHouston or NO DEAL.”
University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves also tweeted his support for Houston. “As we look at opportunities for Big 12 expansion, I support considering @UHouston for the conference. UH is a huge asset for Texas,” Fenves said.
The show of political collaboration comes at a delicate time in the academic relationship between Texas and Houston. UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven angered University of Houston officials with a surprising purchase of 332 acres south of the Texas Medical Center in Houston last year. So far, UT has yet to outline its long-term plans.
An official close to the deliberations told the American-Statesman that Houston officials have signaled they would drop opposition to the construction of a UT satellite campus on that land in exchange for help in getting into the Big 12.
“I have talked to boosters of the university who have floated that concept,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat who lives five blocks from the University of Houston campus. “In these circumstances, people use the tools that they have, and that’s one of the tools the University of Houston has. All’s fair in love and war.
“They didn’t ask anybody before they came and did that,” Coleman added. “I’ve always said there’s a deal there. A deal could be made. It can be. This is not an impossible thing.”
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, laughed at the idea. One of the most-tenured legislators said Houston’s push to join the Big 12 and UT’s land purchase are two separate issues. He supports the former but unloaded on the latter.
“For anyone to think there’s a swap there, I say not only no, but hell no,” Whitmire said. “They are separate and apart. I have heard from at least four other UT universities that they are concerned about the diversion of resources from their institution to a proposed, very expensive, unpurposed site in UT-Houston.”
Whitmire said that school officials overpaid for the land and that he believes UT purposely bought the land after the last legislative session to avoid oversight. “If you’ve got that kind of money to speculate in real estate, then maybe you’ve got too much money,” Whitmire said.
UT’s land purchase is now under state review. “UT System paid fair market value for the Houston land, and we consider it a wise investment,” said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokeswoman for the UT System. “We’re cooperating fully with the State Auditor’s Office.”
Renu Khator, who serves as chancellor and president of the University of Houston System, was traveling and unavailable Thursday.
Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, said opposition to UT’s land purchase was not a bargaining chip.
“Nobody’s put that on the table. Nobody from UT has officially put that out there,” Fertitta said. “We don’t know right now what UT is really trying to do in the city of Houston. … We know they didn’t follow proper protocol with the state of Texas to do it to begin with. Come sit down and talk to us, OK?”
McRaven, however, denied a deal was in place.
“There’s no connection between these two matters,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “Chancellor McRaven has repeatedly said that he looks forward to making the case for the benefits that can come to Houston and Texas from this initiative in Houston. He’ll continue to do so, regardless of what the members of the Big XII decide with respect to conference expansion and the University of Houston.”
Eight of the 10 current Big 12 schools must vote to approve a new member. The Statesman reported Wednesday that sources indicated UT officials would not block Houston from joining the league. However, out-of-state schools could form an alliance against Houston. It’s thought the six non-Texas schools — like Oklahoma and Kansas — do not want to add a fifth Texas team.
Also, Houston officials would owe the American Athletic Conference a $10 million exit fee to join the Big 12, a source familiar with the process said.
“I just think it’s a no-brainer,” Whitmire said. “I’m glad to see the state’s leadership building a strong consensus for that position, and I just hope our friends at state schools and private schools will support the idea.”
Thursday’s coordinated social media push stands in contrast to how things were done in the mid-1990s, when Houston was left behind and Texas joined the Big 12 after the breakup of the Southwest Conference. Now, via Twitter, public support can manifest itself and turn into a movement.
“It’s not the old days,” Coleman said. “We’ve always been a step-child, quite frankly — Cougar High and all that crap. The reality is we crawled our way to the top.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story was updated with a statement from Chancellor McRaven that was sent after the original publication time.