Texas A&M stepping out of Longhorns’ shadow
e_SDLqBecause of where we’re located, going to A&M is better (for LSU fans) than going to South Carolina.” JOE ALLEVA, LSU athletic director
In Aggieland, it’s known as the 100-year decision.
A decision to break away from the old school ties and long-time conference affiliations, to leave behind a state full of bitter rivals and some bitter feelings has led Texas A&M to break from the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, where it officially becomes a member Sunday along with Missouri.
All (or most) of the Aggies’ exes may still live in Texas and the reconstituted Big 12, but to hear some A&M folks tell it, the move to the SEC is like coming home.
“I always tell people that Texas A&M has always been an SEC school in terms of our traditions, our spirit and our passion,” said Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications at Texas A&M. “We’ve just been positioned in the wrong conference.”
If that’s true, no one can say the Aggies didn’t try to make the best of it.
Texas A&M was one of the charter members of the old Southwest Conference way back in 1914 with schools like Texas, Arkansas, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and Rice. The SWC merged with members of the Big Eight (which by then included Oklahoma and Oklahoma State as long-time members) in 1996, but the years resulted in an increasingly strained relationship between A&M and its biggest rival, Texas.
When Texas secured a deal from ESPN for its in-house Longhorn Network — about the time Nebraska left for the Big Ten and Colorado headed to the Pac-12 — the Aggies started looking for their own exit strategy.
More than a year of searching resulted in a move to the SEC, where the opportunity to be out from under the Longhorns’ considerable shadow and shine as the lone SEC star in the Lone Star State were huge lures.
“There is absolutely no hierarchy in the SEC. Every member is equally valued at the table for every decision that’s made and treated with genuine respect,” said A&M President R. Bowen Loftin in a veiled slap at Texas and the Big 12. “That’s the way Aggies are.”
And the passion Aggies fans have for their athletic teams is something Loftin also feels is more of a fit in the SEC than the Big 12.
“The Aggie spirit is unmatched, but I think all these (SEC) schools clearly have a passion for who they are and a passion for athletics that’s certainly on par with Texas A&M,” Loftin said. “They do so in a way that is forward-looking and that instills a loyalty in their fan bases.”
The most passionate rivalry the Aggies are likely to have with any new fellow conference member is LSU.
With campuses separated by just 360 miles, LSU is closer to A&M than any other SEC member, sharing a region of the country that is overlapped by their loyal alumni and rabid fan bases. The greater Houston area is considered to be home to more LSU alumni than any city outside Louisiana.
“Because of where we’re located, going to A&M is better (for LSU fans) than going to South Carolina,” LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said.
The SEC has made sure the schools’ rivalry will only deepen. Not only was A&M placed in the SEC West along with LSU, but according Alleva, they will become each other’s season-ending football game by the 2014 season — replacing Arkansas, a Thanksgiving weekend spot formerly occupied by the blood feud that was the annual Texas-Texas A&M game.
LSU and A&M will also be each other’s permanent opponent in men’s basketball.
A&M’s transition to the SEC hasn’t been without its major road bumps, though.
Loftin announced in April that the school wouldn’t renew the contract of athletic director Bill Byrne, who lured coaches like LSU track dynasty builder Pat Henry and women’s basketball coach Gary Blair to College Station, both leading the Aggies to a combined total of seven NCAA titles since 2009.
But Byrne also drew criticism because of the Aggies’ continued lack of championships in football (A&M last won the Big 12 in 1998). He is being replaced by South Carolina A.D. Eric Hyman, the school that ironically has been designated as A&M’s permanent SEC East football opponent.
The desire to be a major player across the board in the SEC is clearly a mandate for Loftin.
“As I’ve heard from our fan base many times, to be the best you’ve got to play the best,” Loftin said. “We’re definitely entering the best conference in the country, and we’re going to be playing the best teams in almost every sport every year. We’re going to hone ourselves against a whetstone that’s been around awhile and proven itself to be the birthplace of champions.
“We will be part of that championship series as well.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.