Comfort Zone: Texas A&M gearing up for first run through SEC

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Lee Cross rolls a mean burrito.
He’ll fill it with whatever you ask, and true Aggies know well his place of work.
Freebirds is across the street from the college. Sounds humble, doesn’t it, for a school with more than 50,000 in enrollment?
The A&M campus, spread wide with active train tracks running between the baseball and football stadiums, fits the well-worn clichampé that things are just bigger here.
Like the burritos at Freebirds. It’s raceless and classless, and Cross, 25, sees the people and hears what they have to say.
“A lot of people when it first happened were like, ‘Oh my gosh, why are we leaving the Big 12?’ A lot of people were not scared but … it’s our comfort zone,” Cross said.
Sometimes stepping into the uncomfortable yields big results. That’s what Texas A&M is banking on.
The Aggies have fewer than 20 days remaining as member of the Big 12 Conference.
While store fronts trumpet 7.1.12 as a day of milestone achievement, and t-shirts with SEC logos are readily available – there’s nothing with Big 12 left on the shelves – the support for the move, which was solid to begin with, has steadily gained momentum.
Depending on who you talk to, there were various levels of support for the move initially.
But as July 1 gets closer, there’s a sense of excitement.
In the beginning a younger, more internet savvy groups of Aggies was vocal about making the move, the older generation more reserved, noted for its concern for breaking away from traditions.
Like playing Texas.
One long-time observer of Texas A&M athletics estimates support for the move at 70 percent.
Others say the approval rating for the decision is much higher.
“It’s as close to 100 percent as I’ve ever seen A&M fans get behind anything,” said Billy Liucci, owner and senior writer of the independent website TexAgs.com. “That first weekend in September is when you will really see Texas A&M fans embrace the SEC and this new journey for Aggie athletics and the university. The whole nation will really see how excited and passionate Texas Aamp&M fans are about this move.”
Texas A&M will open its football season Aug. 30 in Shreveport, La., a neutral-site game against nearby Louisiana Tech.
The following weekend the Aggies will play their first home game, one that counts in the SEC standings against Florida.
When the Gators get to the few square miles of real estate known as “Aggieland,” they need to hope for an afternoon kickoff, Liucci says. Kyle Field has a capacity of 83,002, but its record crowd is 90,079 for a 2010 game against then-No. 9 Nebraska.
Night games are special in many venues, but when A&M students are standing the entire game, kissing dates, locking arms and swaying to the Aggie War Hymn, you can’t be just barely better than the Aggies to win at Kyle Field, according to Liucci.
“A team has to be at least 10 points better than Aamp&M to win at night at Kyle Field,” he says.
Bigger in Texas
Jason Cook has tried to describe that first SEC game for his co-workers and A&M fans.
“I’ve told people it will be like the Texas game times 10,” says Cook, the school’s vice-president for marketing and communications.
Cook knows; he’s got an SEC degree. Born in Tupelo, Cook grew up in southeast Texas. He returned to Mississippi for his Higher Ed needs, graduating from Mississippi State where he would later serve as an employee in athletic media relations.
Cook has played an important role in helping A&M president Bowen Loftin feel comfortable in making the SEC decision, which could be the most remembered decision of his administration for better or worse.
“It really was a total team effort, a combination of unique timing, having our leadership on the same page. I was able to bring unique perspectives about the SEC to our president and board of regents. I’ve maintained extensive contacts throughout the SEC, and that’s been a very vital part of our transition process,” Cook said.
While Cook may have been viewed at work as an “SEC insider,” he wasn’t even the leading SEC insider in his home. That would be his wife Leann Cook, a Texas A&M graduate who worked in the SEC office as an assistant commissioner for championships for nine years before leaving in 2003.
Cook lays out convincing arguments for A&M to jump to the SEC, one of them Texas history students are quite familiar with – independence.
He said feelings of “inequality and inequity” within the Big 12 helped spur interest in a move. When the University of Texas in 2010 started rumblings about joining the Pac-10 and encouraging its Texas brethren to come along for the ride, A&M had no interest.
The Aggies also had no interest in the competitive advantage it believed Texas would gain from its $300 million Longhorn Network deal with ESPN.
For a time things settled down in the Big 12, but “some issues continued to manifest themselves,” Cook said.
Making sense
The SEC moves just makes sense, he says, on so many fronts, including A&M’s history as a land-grant institution, its traditions and its east Texas geography.
“There is a lot of excitement to chart a new course for our institution and be our own university,” Cook said. “It’s a much better environment in the SEC. Everyone is working for the betterment of the conference. It’s a different strategy.”
It’s also a different strategy to turn loose of a rivalry with Texas, which abruptly dropped A&M from its schedule in all sports upon news of the Aggies move to the SEC.
Cook is hopeful that “cooler heads will prevail” over time, and the Aggies and Longhorns will be rivals once more.
Liucci believes that if you gave A&M fans the choice everyone of them would choose moving to the SEC over remaining in the Big 12 for the sole purpose of continuing the rivalry with Texas.
“I have a funny feeling that rivalry will go on any time the NCAA can match them in the postseason,” he said.
Cook says switching to the SEC was about three things: to showcase Texas A&M on a national level, to maximize the school’s assets already in place and to bring about conference stability.
“All the rest of the conferences are still very unstable right now. That’s not the case with the SEC. We wanted to make sure that we had a place, and we couldn’t have found a better one,” he said.
Since news of A&M’s move to the SEC became official on Sept. 25, 2011, time has passed, fears of the unknown have settled a little bit, and the confidence of the Aggies – if it had waned – is returning.
Middle of the pack
There is the feeling in College Station that A&M arrives in the SEC West as a mid-level football competitor, closer to the leaders than the bottom feeders and not intending to remain in the middle of the pack.
Cook – the co-chair of the school’s athletics director search committee – offers a robust endorsement of new coach Kevin Sumlin.
There’s no better time than the present to make the move, he says, even while there’s no full-time leader at the head of athletics.
“Our new coach, Kevin Sumlin, everybody across the country wanted him, and we’re kicking off an expansion and renovation of the football stadium right now, it’s just a really good time to step in. There’s a lot of momentum and a lot of trajectory for Texas A&M,” Cook says.
The people at Freebirds want to believe but stop somewhere short of “all in,” at least at the moment.
“They’re excited for coach Sumlin, because he has a great resume coming in. A lot of people are scared, because he’s coming from the University of Houston, not a big football program like A&M,” Cross said. “I would put them in the middle right now. I never really paid attention to the SEC until now. I know the powerhouses like LSU, Alabama and Auburn are going to be in our division.”
Cross, though, is willing to leave the comfort zone and step into the great unknown of the SEC. He believes the reward will far outweigh the risk in the long run.
“Everyone has high expectations, and no one wants us to fail. We just have to put our trust in the administration. Coach Sumlin, the team, those guys are out to do a job, they’re out there to play football, and the community and student groups, we have to back them up 100 percent.”


parrish.alford@journalinc.com