By Kristie Rieken
The Associated Press
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M is using its move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference as a chance to reinvent itself from a regional brand to a national one.
But first the Aggies wanted to introduce themselves, or as they would put it, say “Howdy” to their new conference.
Roll Tide? War Eagle? Get ready for “Gig ‘Em!”
In the last few months, one of the school’s initiatives has been using its website, Facebook, Twitter and various SEC forums to educate people about A&M and answer questions concerning some of the unique traditions at this once all-male military school — the male-only Yell Leaders instead of cheerleaders, for example, and the 12th Man tradition.
“I always tell people that Texas A&M has always been an SEC school in terms of our traditions, our spirit and our passion,” said Jason Cook, Texas A&M’s vice president for marketing and communications. “We’ve just been positioned in the wrong conference.”
If that sounds like a jab, well, it probably is. The school’s departure from the Big 12 was at time acrimonious and dominated by a falling out of sorts with Texas, its biggest rival. The Aggies were worried about the future of the Big 12 after the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, and the creation of the Longhorn TV network by Texas and ESPN simply made things worse.
Texas A&M began exploring the possibility of joining the SEC a year ago to increase the school’s profile nationally — as well as increase revenue.
They were welcomed into the league on Sept. 26 and will officially make the transition along with Missouri on Sunday when they will become the first newcomers to the league since South Carolina and Arkansas joined the conference in 1992.
Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, who led the charge for the move, has called it a “100-year decision” and believes the SEC is the perfect place for the university to flourish, not only athletically, but also in academics.
“There is absolutely no hierarchy within the SEC, every member is equally valued, at the table for every decision that’s made and treated with genuine respect,” Loftin says in a university video promoting the move.
The SEC allowed Texas A&M to begin co-branding merchandise immediately after the conference change was announced and the response so far has been huge, school officials say. In the first six months after the announcement, Texas A&M’s licensing revenue increased 24 percent, according to Cook.
That’s just one sign of the support among students and fans about the upcoming move.
“It’s been extremely positive and it’s actually grown,” interim athletic director John Thornton said. “It’s exciting. There’s a buzz and it’s just been consistent. I’ve been at A&M for over 30 years as a coach and an administrator and gone through the Southwest Conference and the Big 12 and there’s nothing you can compare this to. There’s just genuine, genuine excitement and anticipation.”
The change puts Texas A&M in the toughest football conference in the country, a fact not lost on new coach Kevin Sumlin, who was hired from Houston in December.
“There is no better, no higher level of competition in college football than the SEC,” Sumlin said.
That, Thornton said, is one of the most alluring parts of the change.
“Being a former student-athlete and a coach, I think that one of the appeals is to play against the best and I think that’s the exciting part of it,” said Thornton, who played basketball at A&M in the 1970s and was later an assistant basketball coach at the school. “We’re going to be challenged like we’ve never been challenged before, but that’s why you’re in it and that’s something that our coaches and our student athletes are fired up about.”
There have already been some challenges associated with the move. Texas A&M had to scramble to fill its non-conference football schedule over seven months.
The most controversial change, of course, was the end of the annual game against Texas, one of the oldest and most storied rivalries in college football.
Aggies versus Longhorns had always been about more than football, carrying a hint of the culture war pitting the state’s liberal intellectuals at Texas against the farming and military traditions of Texas A&M, which started as a military college and didn’t allow women until the 1960s. The game, which was first played in 1894, is on indefinite hiatus after the Longhorns said their schedule is full through 2018.
At least the Aggies will get the exposure that comes with playing in the SEC.
“There’s way more positives right now with what we’re going into than anything to hold onto as far as not being excited,” Thornton said. “I think the consensus is by far that the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Cook said Aggie fans who live outside of the area have been unhappy about their inability to watch football games on television in years past because they were mostly broadcast regionally.
“That’s going to change in the SEC,” Cook said. “Even their syndicated SEC network package is seen in 66 million households across the country.”
The school has slowly been replacing all of its Big 12 logos with SEC ones over the last few weeks. A key moment came on June 7 when the first SEC logo was prominently placed on the outside of Kyle Field, famous for that “Home of the 12th Man” sign. The tradition dates to 1922 when a short-handed Aggies team asked a former player, E. King Gill, to suit up, just in case.
The Aggies will wait until Monday to officially mark their entrance to the SEC by raising the SEC flag and flags from each conference member outside their indoor track stadium.
Loftin, Thornton and athletes and coaches from each of A&M’s sports will attend the event.
“What I like is the national stage that we’re going to be on now,” Thornton said. “We’ve always been in the national spotlight, but this is going to take it to another level.”