Texas A&M President, Bowen Loftin
The saying goes that Texans like things bigger. So with this week’s public announcement by Texas A&M’s university president Bowen Loftin that his institution would forego a courtship by the SEC to join the biggest collegiate athletic conference in the country to remain in a smaller Big 12 minus Nebraska and Colorado, needless to say it hasn’t gone over well with the Aggie faithful.
Since the announcement was released Monday evening, a firestorm of anger and criticism over the decision to stay in the modified Big 12 erupted from Texas A&M students, former students, and fans onto Loftin’s Facebook page, Internet sports information networks like Scout.com, and social networking web sites where fans and supporters congregate. More importantly for Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne and the 12th Man Foundation which is the fund raising arm of the athletic department, a significant group of donors have vehemently condemned the move and have threatened to cancel season tickets and remove sizeable pledges to fund upcoming capital projects including the planned multi-million dollar renovation of its baseball stadium that is scheduled to begin in the next
This Aggie revolt has come with its share of controversy as well. Calls to the athletic department have flooded phone lines while e-mails are jamming university mail boxes. Some of the comments from angry fans have not been gracious to say the least and in some cases have crossed the line, especially for Byrne‘s tastes. In an episode that is gaining widespread attention on the Internet and across sports talk radio programs around the state, Byrne was so offended by one particular e-mail that he left a threatening voicemail to one former student and challenged him to a face-to-face physical confrontation at his office. That voicemail was digitized and released on the Internet which has only fueled the current
So what has the Aggies so riled up and why has the tease of joining the SEC become such an emotional and hot button issue that former students and high level university officials are coming to blows - literally? Actually, the list is long. It starts with wanting to play in the best college football conference in the nation and ends with needing to remove themselves from the oppressive shadow of big brother 100 miles away, the University of Texas.
While the drama of potentially separating from Texas has received the most headlines in the state’s press, the primary reasons for driving rank-and-file Texas A&M fans to the thought of joining the SEC is all about the product on the field and the cultural fit with the schools in the southeast. Aside from in-state rivals Texas and Baylor, Texas A&M has actually played LSU more times in its 100+ year program history than any other school in the Big 12 including Texas Tech. Baton Rouge is less than four hours from Houston where the greatest concentration of former students are located. Arkansas was a long-time rival in the old Southwest Conference and the two teams began a long-term neutral site series last
year at the Cowboys’ new stadium in Dallas.
There’s also strong ties to SEC powerhouse Alabama. Before his successful and distinguished tenure with the Crimson Tide that made him a legend, Bear Bryant resurrected a downtrodden A&M program during his brief stay in College Station in the 1950’s highlighted by the legendary training camp at Junction, Texas that was made into a high profile movie several years ago. At that camp as a young player was Gene Stallings who would later go on to coach at Texas A&M and eventually coach and win a national championship at Alabama in the early 1990’s. It just so happens that Stallings currently sits on the university’s board of regents and has been rumored to be an integral player in bringing Texas A&M and the SEC to the table last week.
Aside from natural rivalries and a cultural fit, it ultimately boils down to the product on the field and the passionate game day environment and tailgating experience that has most Aggie fans drooling at the thought of joining the SEC. While the thought of playing LSU, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama is daunting for a football program that is still trying to rebuild after the destruction left by Dennis Franchione, these weekly match-ups in the SEC had A&M fans energized when word leaked over the weekend that SEC Commissioner Michael Slive was in College Station for extensive meetings with A&M officials.
And finally, with the University of Texas showing little interest in the SEC and focused on a move westward to the Pac-10, A&M fans saw the chance of a lifetime to not only move to an elite athletic conference but to also shed itself of its in-state rival that has dominated and overwhelmed many of the state’s universities on a wide range of issues but most clearly symbolized in the world of athletics.
Many Texas A&M fans interpret those actions to be hostile and limiting at times, and those feelings were certainly justified last week when Texas threatened to never play the Aggies again in any sport if they followed through with its plan to spurn the Longhorns’ brokered deal with Pac-10 and join the SEC. A&M stood its ground and continued its due diligence with the SEC over the weekend which spurred even more excitement among the fan base.
Loftin, Byrne, and selected members of the board of regents met behind closed doors Monday afternoon for what many Aggies felt would be a meeting to put the finishing touches on a recommendation to its board of regents to accept an invitation to the SEC.
But surprisingly, President Loftin emerged from those sessions to announce on his Facebook page that his team elected to stay in a smaller Big 12 Conference after a last minute Hail Mary proposal submitted by Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe promised both A&M and Texas over $20 million in annual TV revenues.
That left Texas A&M fans and stakeholders stunned and furious. They felt betrayed that university officials were lured to stay in a watered-down Big 12 Conference because of short term TV dollars. Hundreds of angry messages immediately flooded Loftin’s Facebook page and a call-to-arms began among the rank-and-file fan base and most importantly the school’s large donors.
This revolt could culminate this weekend. In an ironic twist to this story, Texas A&M had previously scheduled its annual athletics advisory council meetings in Austin for what is typically a comfortable handshake affair where the school’s top donors are wined-and-dined and given a state-of-the-union update from A&M officials. Byrne and Loftin are still on the agenda to speak, but there’s no question that there will be few handshakes and many uncomfortable moments as a vocal segment of the donor group plans to make a last-ditch plea to resurrect the SEC plan and put pressure on officials to listen to its customers. Several recent large on-line polls favor joining the SEC by a an overwhelming 85-90% mark.
Despite the overwhelming disdain for this Big 12 proposal (that has yet to receive guarantees from TV executives on the $20 million of revenues promised by Commissioner Dan Beebe) and the threats of donors pulling the plug on valuable funding, there’s been little evidence so far that A&M officials are reconsidering this controversial decision. So all eyes are on Saturday’s meeting and whether a face-to-face meeting with angry donors will sway Monday‘s decision.
For more information and discussion regarding realignment and detailed Texas A&M team news and up-to-the-minute recruiting analysis, go to Aggie Websider on the Scout.com Network at Websider.com. The Aggie Websider is the longest running Texas A&M sports reporting service and discussion community on the Internet.
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