September 26, 2011

Aggies' flight signals end of era for UT rivalry

Texas A&M bids goodbye to the Big 12 in a “100-year decision.”

COLLEGE STATION -- The band played. The crowd swayed.

As Texas A&M's mascot, Reveille, watched from a spot near an updated Southeastern Conference logo featuring 13 schools --including A&M -- fans and administrators assembled in a luxury suite at Kyle Field belted out the first lines of the Aggie War Hymn:

"Goodbye to Texas University... so long to the orange and the white."

This time, the Aggies really meant it. A&M formally accepted membership in the SEC, effective on July 1, 2012, during a Monday ceremony that was equal parts pep rally and news conference.

The move capped a realignment process that took more than two months, starting with A&M President R. Bowen Loftin's initial contact with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive on July 21, and included a three-week delay related to potential legal issues.

Throughout the process, Loftin frequently referred to his school's move from the Big 12 to the SEC as a "100-year decision." During Monday's announcement, Loftin said: "Good things come to those who wait. This is a decision we will relish today, and every day, for 100 years or more."

The move became possible when SEC administrators removed the conditional status attached Sept. 6 to A&M's invitation, pending a waiver of legal claims by Big 12 schools. Slive said increased stability within the Big 12 in recent weeks triggered removal of the conditional status. He also made it clear that Missouri, a school reportedly interested in SEC membership, will not be joining A&M next season.

"We anticipate being a 13-team league" for the 2012-13 school year, Slive said.

Asked about the waiver of league issues in regard to A&M's move, Slive said: "We have not received assurances except in this way... When Oklahoma decided the Big 12 was where it wanted to be, we felt that the spirit of the letter we got [urging the SEC to invite A&M] was fulfilled."

Slive said Big 12 administrators, rather than SEC officials, initially pushed for the mutual waivers of legal claims in efforts to expedite A&M's departure. But when Oklahoma President David Boren indicated a desire to explore his school's conference options on Sept. 2 -- four days before SEC officials took the formal vote to invite A&M -- that caused Baylor and other Big 12 schools to change plans and retain their legal rights in regard to the move in case the Big 12 folded.

A&M's move probably means the end of annual football games against longtime rivals Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor after this season. Although Loftin and A&M athletic director Bill Byrne expressed a desire Monday to continue the Texas series, which dates to 1894, Texas men's athletic director DeLoss Dodds has called it "problematic" to continue the series as a nonconference game.

A&M football coach Mike Sherman cited scheduling-related "logistical problems" Monday that make the contest an unlikely annual event.

"There's no question it's one of the premier games in the country," Sherman said. "It's a shame that it won't continue... It's a game that I think kids in the state of Texas look forward to."

Starting next year, A&M's younger players will face matchups against LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Florida -- the four SEC schools that have combined to win the last five BCS championships.

"We'll start new rivalries. It doesn't really matter," said left tackle Luke Joeckel, a sophomore from Arlington High School. "We came here to play for A&M and didn't really care who our opponents were."

Asked how A&M would fare in its new league, sophomore right tackle Jake Matthews said: "I think we definitely will be able to compete."

Slive said adding A&M will allow his league to rework existing network television contracts, which could mean additional revenues for A&M -- eventually. But A&M faces exit fees it must pay the Big 12.

Under league bylaws, A&M would be required to forfeit roughly $28 million to compete in the SEC next season, based on projected revenues. A&M officials seek to lower that figure through negotiation, a move that allowed Nebraska to pay only $9.25 million based on projected revenues of $19.37 million when it left in 2010.

"We think we know what the range will be [for a settlement figure] and we're ready to move forward," Loftin said.

Although linebacker Sean Porter, a junior, expressed excitement about the opportunity to play in the SEC, he acknowledged he will be glad to stop talking about the move.

"It's been a distraction," Porter said. "It's nice to get it out of the way. I'm glad today is the last day I'll have to answer questions about it."

Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

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