Farmers Flight!

Texas A&M’s decision to ditch the Big 12 (and those teasips in Austin) for the SEC set off a frenzy that seemed to touch everyone, from students and sportswriters to a certain former yell leader. But when the Aggies and Longhorns square off on Thanksgiving for the last time ever, a lot more than pride will be on the line. It will be the final chapter in a bitter rivalry that started with the constitution of 1876—and has defined the state of Texas for more than a century.
Photograph by Randal Ford

The first thing a visitor to the Texas A&M campus sees, as he comes into town from the west and makes the turn onto University Drive, is the football stadium, a giant hulk of white concrete with “Kyle Field” emblazoned on one side in huge maroon letters. The stadium is usually deserted in midsummer, but on July 21, a Thursday, the Zone Club, in the north stands, was occupied by a group of people who would change the course of Texas A&M and the entire fabric of the state.

Hours earlier, the board of regents had assembled for a closed-door meeting in an annex across the street to determine A&M’s athletic future. One of the people in the room was R. Bowen Loftin, who has been president of the university since February 2010. A physicist by training, Loftin retains a certain professorial demeanor. He is partial to bow ties and white dress shirts, and on this occasion he had not deviated from his favorite mode of dress. He listened carefully as the regents discussed their predicament. It was a version of a discussion that they had been having privately since the previous summer, when the Big 12 Conference nearly came apart following the departures of Nebraska (to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-10). At that time, A&M had flirted with the idea of heading east, to the Southeastern Conference. The Big 12 had managed to hang together, but now new trouble had opened old wounds. The main sticking point was that the conference leadership was not enforcing agreements that had previously been made, and to make matters worse, from A&M’s perspective, the main beneficiary seemed to be the University of Texas, which had recently announced a new $300 million television venture with ESPN, the Longhorn Network.

A little after two that afternoon, the regents and Loftin emerged and marched across Joe Routt Boulevard, named for an Aggie football hero killed in the Second World War. They entered the massive stadium and made their way to the Zone Club, where they convened an open meeting to discuss general university business. Loftin stepped outside to the patio behind the club. The day was sweltering, but he did not loosen his tie nor roll up his sleeves. To the north, he could see almost the entire campus spread out before him—the Memorial Student Center, which, according to tradition, no Aggie may enter without first removing his cap; Rudder Tower, named for A&M’s greatest president, General James Earl Rudder; and far out in the distance, the field that was the final location of Aggie Bonfire, the site where, on a tragic day in 1999, the stack collapsed, causing the deaths of twelve Aggies. Loftin may have paused for a moment, gazing at these landmarks, to consider the magnitude of what he was about to do. Then he whipped out his iPhone and called a number he had programmed in the previous summer. It belonged to Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, the most fearsome collection of bruising football players this side of the NFL.

“Well, well,” said Slive. “I was just thinking about you. I was sitting here on my porch in Birmingham with a cigar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, wondering if you might call.”

Loftin got straight to the point. “Commissioner,” he said, “based on my sense of what’s right for Texas A&M, we’re very interested in discussing our possible membership in the Southeastern Conference.”

Slive took a sip of his drink. “I believe the SEC would favorably consider that.”

And so it began. This phone call, and the process it initiated, would soon send shock waves throughout the state and ultimately lay waste to the world of college sports as we know it. That afternoon, speaking to reporters, Loftin used the word “uncertainty” five times to describe the future of the Big 12, a fitting introduction to the confusing, dramatic, and unpredictable twists the story would take over the ensuing weeks. At first, discussion of A&M’s possible departure smoldered on sports pages, message boards, blogs, talk radio, and Twitter. The flames were fanned on August 10, when a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked Rick Perry—the first Aggie governor and soon-to-be-first Aggie presidential candidate—about the rumors. “As far as I know,” Perry responded, “conversations are being had.” Two days later, the story exploded when A&M posted notice of a meeting in which the regents would vote on “Authorization for the President to Take All Actions Relating to Texas A&M University’s Athletic Conference Alignment.” On August 15, the board gave Loftin that authority.

Almost immediately the entire region descended into frenzied conjecture. Would the SEC take the Aggies? Would Oklahoma go too? What would happen to the Big 12? Would it collapse? Add another school? Which one? BYU? Notre Dame? Would Texas go independent? Would Texas go to another conference? What about Texas Tech? Everyone had an angle to play. Mega-lobbyist Buddy Jones, the chairman of the Baylor University Board of Regents, swung into action to save his school’s position in the Big 12. Houston-area legislators signed a letter to conference officials asking them to support the University of Houston as the replacement for A&M, and Lieutenant Governor David Dew­hurst was said to back U of H’s candidacy. The national media began to catch on, and stories appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Forbes. Administrators at A&M were deluged with interview requests. When I tried calling the university, I got a recording saying, “Your call will be completed as soon as a line is available.” None ever was.

A&M finally confirmed its intentions on August 31, when Loftin sent beleaguered (and soon-to-be-deposed) Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe a letter informing him that the Aggies were headed to “another athletic conference.” The drama would have a few more twists—most notably the Act III appearance of former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, now

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