COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Texas A&M always has been in a league with a solid foothold in Texas since joining the Southwest Conference in 1914.
The Junction Boys, the 12th Man and the Aggies’ military culture are all part of the rich and storied tradition Texas A&M has built while playing in a conference with several other teams in the Lone Star State.
Now that A&M is looking to ride away from the Big 12 and its longtime rivals and into the Southeastern Conference, questions abound about what this would mean for the university and the Texas teams left in its wake.
Some worry that a departure by the Aggies would jeopardize the future of the Big 12, which already is down to 10 teams.
Texas A&M moved to the Big 12 after 82 years in the Southwest Conference, but always has competed in a conference with rival Texas and Baylor. The Aggies have played against fellow state school Texas Tech since the Red Raiders joined the SWC in 1958.
In this football crazy state, many are worried about what a departure by Texas A&M would mean for the annual football game, now held on Thanksgiving night, between the Aggies and Texas.
The teams first met in football in 1894 and the rivalry is one of the oldest and most spirited in college football. It’s a highlight of the season in the state and a tradition those in Texas and beyond would hate to lose.
Countless football memories are linked to the annual meeting.
Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant’s 1954 team, which survived his grueling and now storied camp in Junction, Texas, played the Longhorns. Texas A&M’s only Heisman Trophy winner, John David Crow, was a member of the first Aggie team to beat Texas at Memorial Stadium in 1956. It was against the Aggies in 1998 that the Longhorns’ Ricky Williams broke the Division I-A career rushing record in a 26-24 win.
The Aggies want to figure out a way to keep the game on the schedule, even if they bolt. But with so many variables, there’s a chance it could be eliminated.
"If we were to negotiate with another conference — SEC or anybody else — a primary criterion would be our ability to continue a nonconference contest each year and hopefully on Thanksgiving Day or thereabouts with our friends at UT-Austin," Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said last week. "That’s a historic rivalry. We see no reason why it could not continue under a different conference arrangement if they chose to do so."
Even if the schools were able to work out a deal to meet for a nonconference football game each season, it would be nearly impossible to guarantee that other sports such as men’s and women’s basketball and baseball would be able to meet their arch rivals each season.
Some Aggies are upset that the school hasn’t struck a deal to leave the Big 12 already. Loftin understands the concerns, but says he won’t be rushed into a decision of this magnitude.
"We look at anything we might do — remaining in the Big 12, changing conferences — as a very long-term prospect, a 100-year kind of decision," he said. "You don’t make those decisions lightly or quickly. We really want to take our time and think about this very carefully, listening to internal voices and external voices."
Loftin says the Aggies are contemplating leaving the Big 12 as a way to make sure the university’s "visibility is nationally enhanced." A move to the SEC would certainly have the Aggies and their sports programs exposed to new fans in different parts of the country, but it’s impossible to know how it would impact their success on the field just as they’ve become a power in other sports.
The Aggies’ men’s and women’s track teams have both won three straight NCAA team championships, and the women’s basketball team picked up its first national title this season.
Loftin has met with all the head coaches at Texas A&M about the process and says he’s available to answer any questions they have as the school considers a move.
"I felt very comfortable that all the coaches understand that we’re looking at a lengthy process here to go through and evaluate what we might or might not do over time," he said. "It’s very important to me that the coaches have a vehicle by which they can speak with me."
All that is certain is that the Aggies are in the Big 12 for now and the football team is preparing for a season with a No. 8 ranking and high expectations. Coach Mike Sherman spent the first few days of camp focusing solely on football with his team. Last week he began sharing some of the off-field expectations of being an Aggie with his players.
"We talk about different things about our program and what it means to be an Aggie," Sherman said. "We talk about our core values ... and then we talk about different elements of A&M and what it means to play here."
Most of his players don’t need to be reminded of the tradition they are joining, as it has been ingrained in them from a young age thanks in part to seeing the Aggies and Longhorns meet each season.
"It is one of the real reasons I wanted to come here," said sophomore offensive lineman Jake Matthews, son of NFL Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews. "All the coaches and great players that have come out of the school and the tradition and all of the passion that the university has, I’m getting excited now just talking about it. It’s something that really attracted me to come here, so it’s a big deal."