Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Aggies and the SEC

When the name of Texas Gov. Rick Perry surfaces in news reports in the other 49 states these days, it is most likely in connection with the recent announcement of his candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

But here in Texas, folks aren't concerned with his presidential ambitions. At least, not yet.

Maybe Texans have been a bit spoiled, but they aren't terribly impressed with the mere announcement that a Texan is seeking the presidency. Many have done that.

Come back and talk to them if and when Perry is the nominee. They should have plenty to say. He's been governor for a decade.

Barack Obama's immediate predecessor, of course, was elected governor of Texas twice, and his father, who wasn't born in Texas but represented one of the state's House districts in Congress at one time, was vice president for eight years and president for four. The Democrats even nominated a Texan for vice president.

Two other presidents in the 20th century were born in Texas — Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson.

As I say, the presidential campaign isn't what folks in Texas are talking about right now. Their immediate concern, as always, is football — and lately they are interested in what the future holds for Texas A&M.

Perry's fate they will find out about in due course.

In recent days, word got out that A&M wanted to leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, and journalists who were following Perry as he coyly made his way to South Carolina (where he sought to upstage the Iowa straw poll by announcing his presidential intentions) asked him about it.

Perry, as you may know, graduated from A&M in 1972. Currently, he probably has the highest profile of any A&M grad, and it is assumed by many that the governor has some special insights and/or connections to the decision makers in College Station.

If he does, though, Perry didn't mention it.

"As far as I know, conversations are being had," the Dallas Morning News quoted Perry as saying about the situation. "That's frankly all I know."

Turned out, Perry was right. Conversations were "being had."

And, apparently, because of those conversations, the decision makers in College Station jumped the gun a bit and announced that the Aggies were moving to the SEC. Problem was, the invitation hadn't been extended.

At least, not yet.

That was the encouraging part for Texas A&M, its student body and its supporters across the nation. The Aggies were not flatly rejected by the SEC — which, with five consecutive national championships divvied up between four schools, must be regarded as America's elite football conference.

The SEC left the door open for future expansion — which could very well include Texas A&M — after it carefully surveys the terrain. That says something, I think, about A&M and the SEC.

A&M's football program has struggled in recent years, but the Aggies seemed to be turning the corner last year, winning their last six regular–season games (including victories over Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech and arch rival Texas). Some weaknesses were exposed in their Cotton Bowl loss to national power LSU, but, overall, the season left a good taste in the mouths of Aggies everywhere.

The 2010 season was the Aggies' most productive since 2006 and the closest they have come to a double–digit victory season since the 1990s. Preseason polls have A&M ranked among the nation's top programs. The sky seems to be the limit.

Well, except for one problem that I think played a key role in the collapse of the old Southwest Conference — and is probably contributing heavily to the impending collapse of the Big 12.

What is the problem, you may ask? It is the University of Texas' commitment to sucking all the oxygen out of any conference in which it competes.

UT did that in the old Southwest Conference, where it routinely pounded schools like TCU, Baylor, Rice and SMU, usually handled programs, like Texas Tech and Houston, that occasionally emerged as threats and usually repelled Arkansas and A&M, which were the most persistent challengers. It cast a huge shadow over the other teams in the conference with its vast financial resources, its massive and influential alumni base and its athletic prestige.

In fact, the only three games that made the Longhorns break a sweat most years were their contests with OU, A&M and Arkansas.

(That may have been the most shocking thing about legendary coach Darrell Royal's final season in 1976. In two decades as UT's coach, Royal never had a losing season — but, in 1976, Texas lost as many games as it won. Texas lost to Baylor and nearly lost to SMU — and was just another team when Royal departed.)

In the early 1990s, Arkansas made the decision to join the SEC. Perhaps athletic director Frank Broyles and the decision makers in Fayetteville realized that it was becoming the Longhorn Conference, and it was doomed to collapse under its own weight.

Maybe the decision makers in College Station are sensing the same thing in the Big 12 today. Nebraska and Colorado have already left the conference, and A&M may have realized that no conference will ever be big enough for Texas and even one other big–time program — let alone two or three or four.

The SEC is clearly big enough to accommodate several big–time programs, and it is open to the idea of adding more. A&M is on the SEC's list of prospects.

All it needs is to be patient for a year or two.

No comments: