AUSTIN, Texas — When the Longhorn Network launched in 2011, the 20-year, $300 million partnership with ESPN set up Texas with its own 24-hour television showcase that sent shockwaves across college sports some say can still be felt today.
Rivals in the Big 12 Conference bitterly complained the swaggering Longhorns were stomping over the rest of the league, and would reap an unfair recruiting advantage amid that shower of cash. Some worried Texas was about to become a runaway train in college athletics.
Twelve years after the studio lights flickered on, the network will soon go dark: LHN will be folded into the SEC Network when Texas joins the Southeastern Conference next summer. This academic year is the last for a pioneering effort that forced new NCAA rules, laid the groundwork for emerging conference networks and played a role in what would be a decade of realignment.
“Yeah, it was bold,” said former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, the architect of the idea for LHN. “We built something we can be proud of … I think it’s a big loss for Texas to have to give it up.”
Dodds’ vision was to build something that would elevate Longhorns athletics beyond football and basketball. He wanted more exposure for volleyball, softball, baseball and other sports. Once it got rolling, LHN would broadcast nearly 200 live events annually from across all Longhorns sports – the first live competition was a volleyball match – school graduation ceremonies and even student fashion shows.
But in the television business, football is king. ESPN wanted to tap into a massive Texas alumni base and the passion around a Longhorns program that had won a national championship in 2005 and played for another in 2009. It saw Texas as a national brand that fans could watch across the U.S. if they had the right cable provider.
“We’re going to cover (Texas) football like it’s never been covered before,” Burke Magnus, then senior vice president of college sports programming for ESPN, declared when the deal for LHN was announced.
That meant a broad range of behind-the-scenes programming, including pre-game and post-game coverage. Some of it was too much: Former Texas coach Mack Brown was annoyed that the network’s cameras were always watching.
“Our rivals all got Longhorn Network and they watched us practice. They could text each other and say ‘so-and-so looked good,’’” Brown said. “You had to ask to turn cameras off.”
One idea never came to fruition. An ESPN executive mentioned in a radio interview that LHN was considering airing high school football games of a top recruit.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Brown said. “I also thought it would never happen.”
He was right. The blowback from Big 12 members was swift. Angry rivals considered it a step too far in the recruiting wars.
“That can’t happen … Are you kidding me?” then-Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel said at the time.
The NCAA quickly ruled that a school or league-affiliated network could not broadcast high school games.
But the emergence of LHN, coupled with the perception that Texas already held too much sway over the Big 12, proved to be a tipping point for some. Colorado and Nebraska had already left the previous year. And by the start of the 2011 season, Texas A&M announced it was going to the SEC. Missouri followed the Aggies a few months later.
Dodds said he believes those schools would have left the Big 12 anyway. Still, he notes some irony in the Aggies’ departure since the network initially was intended as a joint project with Texas A&M because he didn’t think Texas had enough programming to carry a 24-hour operation. He also thought the schools would have to pay for the network themselves and it would be easier and cheaper for two schools to do it.
Texas A&M declined. It wasn’t until Fox offered $3 million a year, and ESPN countered with its even larger deal, that Dodds realized Texas really had something.
“A bonanza” of money, Dodds said. “It was just unbelievable.”
There were initial struggles to secure deals with cable and satellite carriers to get LHN in front of viewers. Critics snickered Texas created a network simply to show reruns of Vince Young’s game-wining dash to victory over Southern California in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
But LHN eventually found its way into more homes, in front of more viewers, and began to take shape. Soon LHN was producing coverage of all Texas sports, from rowing to volleyball to swimming.
And it had to be good, said Pat Lowry, vice president of production for ESPN.
“It was always about doing good television. I wanted the quality to be just as good as anything we saw on ESPN,” Lowry said.
Some opposing teams were suspicious and didn’t want to talk with LHN reporters or let them into pregame warmups.
“There were times different coaches were like, ‘No we don’t want you to be in here,’” Lowry said.
The money ESPN threw at Texas in 2011 isn’t as surprising anymore. The Big Ten struck a $7 billion deal across three networks in 2022. Texas will land in the SEC just in time for a new $3 billion conference deal with ESPN that gives the network the broadcast rights to all league football games.
LHN will be shuttered without the football team delivering on the initial hopes. Since a 13-1 finish in 2009, Texas has gone 91-72 with five losing seasons and hasn’t won the Big 12. In this final year of the network and the Longhorns’ final year in the Big 12, Texas will start the season ranked No. 11 and is the favorite to win the league.
The Longhorns home game Sept. 16 against Wyoming will be on LHN. The network will broadcast much of the season for the defending national champion Texas volleyball team as well as dozens of women’s soccer matches, men’s and women’s basketball, softball and baseball.
By next football season, LHN will have been absorbed by the SEC Network and various ESPN platforms and its studio will be closed, ending a one-of-a-kind network that may never be duplicated.
“I would want (people) to remember the quality and caliber of programming,” Lowry said of LHN. “I think anytime you start talking about conference realignment, everybody will look at A&M leaving and going to the SEC as the beginning of all of this … That, I think, will be its legacy.”
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