In 2011, when Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin announced the Aggies were departing the Big 12 for the SEC in what he called a "100-year decision," the Aggies were ridiculed, scorned and even threatened with legal action by Baylor president Ken Starr to block their departure.
Now, a decade later, after striking out on their own, the Aggies and the SEC fit together like a Yell Leader and a pair of overalls, and, outside of Group of 5 schools who crashed the Power 5 party like Utah and TCU, they seem to be the clear winners of realignment.
The Aggies landed a prime spot as the lone Texas school in the SEC, have reaped the financial windfall, and A&M fans' enthusiasm has allowed the school to pour money into facilities and to be at the top of the food chain in coaching salaries.
The fit has been so good, it's a wonder it took so long to make it happen, especially because the Aggies have long had their eye on heading Southeast. But in Texas, football and politics go hand in hand, and it took some remarkable developments for the Aggies to finally fulfill their dreams.
Loftin, an A&M alum who had a chance to pilot his Aggies toward a new future, can look back on the past decade with immense pride. Since becoming interim president in 2009, Loftin had been uncomfortable with the lack of stability in the Big 12. He'd already felt unease with the Big 12 after attending his first meeting of the conference's board in Dallas in 2009 when he was interim president.
"That was sort of eye-opening," he said. "It was pretty clear how things worked. One school was pretty much in charge of how the conference was going to go. [Then-Big 12 commissioner Dan] Beebe was clearly beholden to that school. That gave me pause."
In 2010, when it was clear that Texas was considering a move to the Pac-10, Loftin asked his counterpart, Texas president Bill Powers, what was going on. "I can't talk about that," Loftin said Powers told him. "But don't worry, we'll take care of you."
To Loftin, it was another level of condescension from his rivals in Austin that the little ol' Aggies didn't deserve a say in their own future.
"I took that very personally," Loftin said.
The SEC and A&M had long had their eyes on each other from afar. In the early 1990s, the Aggies' head coach, R.C. Slocum, met with SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to gauge the league's interest in Texas A&M should the Southwest Conference come undone. Both the SEC and the Aggies were intrigued by the fit.
Some of the state's biggest power brokers, Gov. Ann Richards and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, wanted to avoid a split between the Aggies and the Longhorns to preserve the rivalry. When the SWC officially died, the same politicians threatened to cut off state funding to A&M and Texas if they didn't see to it that they could take Baylor and Texas Tech into a merger with the Big Eight to form the Big 12.
"R.C. was very much in the middle of a very proactive conversation back in the '90s as the Southwest Conference was falling apart," Loftin said. "At that point, it was pretty clear to people like him that the SEC was the right place for us to be. But that wasn't what the politicians wanted."
The politicians again called the A&M and Texas presidents to the mat to avoid another split in 2010, and the Big 12 hung on by a thread, despite losing Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-10. The Texas schools were asked to try and play nice.
But in 2011, everything changed.
"That's when a great thing happened," Loftin said. "Texas announced their partnership with ESPN to form the Longhorn Network."
After the 20-year, $300 million deal was announced, the discussions that Loftin had been having with the board of regents about exploring the Aggies' options gained urgency. The Aggies always felt like Texas was only interested in its own benefit and not what was best for the conference, but there was now a concrete example with its own individual revenue stream outside of the league's television rights. All the political opposition couldn't overcome the groundswell of support Loftin suddenly had.
"When the LHN was announced, that just galvanized our former and current students," Loftin said, saying there were suddenly fewer people on the fence about breaking ranks and leaving the conference and splitting with the Longhorns. "We went from 50-50 to 95-5 [in favor of the SEC] almost overnight."
Ivan Maisel wrote on ESPN: "After all these years, Texas A&M let Texas get to it. Texas, which has won four national championships since the Aggies last won one. Texas, which has built a colossus of a program, complete with its own network. Texas, which has always looked down its nose at Texas A&M in the way that state universities always belittle the land-grant institution. And now, Texas, which pushed and pushed to take a bigger piece of the pie. Why? Largely because it could, at least until it pushed too far."
Predicted to be chum for the SEC's sharks, the Aggies are 77-37 in nine seasons in the league despite arriving in the same division during a historic dynasty run by Alabama.
While their 42-31 record in conference play isn't stellar, the money is pouring in and the pieces have started to fall into place since Jimbo Fisher's arrival three years ago. The Aggies are 26-10 and 17-8 in the conference under Fisher, including a 9-1 campaign last year that included a loss to Alabama and an Orange Bowl win over North Carolina. Their No. 4 finish in the AP poll was their highest end-of-season ranking since 1939.
By all accounts, the A&M football program is on an upswing, and almost every reason can be attributed to their new conference home. In their final six seasons in the Big 12, the Aggies' highest-ranked recruiting class in ESPN's database came in at No. 16 in 2007, and in two seasons, they didn't rank in the Top 25. Fisher's 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes ranked No. 3 and No. 6 and featured players plucked from well outside the Aggies' normal turf in Texas and Louisiana. Fisher's 2021 class ranked seventh in the ESPN rankings, and included players from Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Carolina, New York and even a blue-chip offensive lineman from Australia.
Former A&M and Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who played for Bear Bryant at A&M in the 1950s before coaching the Tide to a national championship in 1992, was on Texas A&M's board of regents when Loftin originally explored the SEC move in 2010. While he wasn't there when the official move was made, he was a big supporter of the decision.
"I felt like the best football conference in the country was the SEC," Stallings said. "You win football games with football players, you don't want them with schemes. I just felt it's gonna help A&M in recruiting to be affiliated with the SEC more so than it was in the other conference."
Former Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin can be credited with kick-starting A&M's move, using the arm and legs of Johnny Manziel to upset Alabama and win him a Heisman Trophy en route to a No. 5 finish in 2012. It was a shock to college football fans, who expected tough sledding for the newcomers. For A&M fans, it was a frenzy, and they showed their enthusiasm with their wallets.
That year, between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013, the Aggies raised $740 million, more than $300 million over their previous record. It was the most ever raised by a Texas university. That allowed Loftin and the 12th Man Foundation, the school's athletics fundraising arm, to press on with a goal they'd long envisioned: a renovation of the school's storied Kyle Field.
"The magical season we had in '12 was exactly the right context in which we could approach major donors and make this happen," Loftin said. "We raised a quarter-billion dollars toward [Kyle Field] pretty quickly. That was a pretty amazing deal. The fundraising engine really got revved up pretty, pretty high."
The final $484 million renovation wasn't just a facelift: Several parts of the stadium dating back to 1927 were imploded and completely rebuilt, modernizing many of its amenities and adding more suites. But most importantly, it raised the stadium's capacity to 102,512, becoming the largest stadium in the SEC. When tickets went on sale for the new venue, they sold out in 18 minutes.
Athletic director Ross Bjork, who formerly worked at Missouri from 1997 to 2003, said he was frequently asked about A&M and the SEC when conference realignment was in full swing while he was athletic director at Western Michigan.
"Wow, that's perfect," he said. "The reason why is the size and scale of the institution, the flagship nature, the traditions, the fan support. I mean that's, that's really what the SEC is known for. I came to Kyle Field in 1998, 2000 and 2002 and saw the passion, the size and scale of Texas A&M and to me, there was really no place like it in the Big 12."
Bjork said from afar, it was clear that Texas A&M was serious about providing the resources to compete in the SEC.
"Kyle Field is the prime example of that," he added. "Normally people come and kind of retrofit, they add on pieces here and there. A&M decided to tear down three sides of the stadium and build, really, a brand-new stadium. Not many institutions do it that way."
The new stadium, of course, led to other revenue pouring in. For the fiscal year that ended in August 2011, before the conference move, the 12th Man Foundation's annual donations were $20.6 million. For 2019-2020, the most recent year that numbers were available, that number more than doubled to $44.5 million -- 93% of which comes from donations that earn priority privileges toward season-ticket purchases. In 2019, average attendance at Kyle Field was 101,608, which ranked first in the SEC and fourth in the nation. That year, the Aggies sold more than 50,000 season tickets, and students bought another 34,476 sports passes for home games.
The enthusiasm for the new traditions was tempered by the loss of a rivalry game with the Longhorns after 118 meetings. Loftin spoke fondly of his first A&M-Texas game as a freshman, and understood the loss of the game was less than ideal.
The SEC is made up mostly of schools like A&M: huge state schools, big stadiums, rabid football fans. Where arrangements like Nebraska and the Big Ten still feel strained, this marriage was an easy one. For instance, LSU and A&M had played 50 times before they were ever in a conference together. Arkansas was a longtime SWC foe. For Aggies fans, swapping one rivalry for several new ones was well worth it.
"Every weekend now is like a bowl game. ... It's just such a more intense, wonderful atmosphere to go watch a football game." Tim Wylie, Texas A&M alum
Tim Wylie, an A&M alum who works in real estate in Austin, attended every game between the Aggies and the Longhorns from 1956 until their last game in 2011. His 94-year-old dad, Roger, had been to every one since 1944. They miss the Texas rivalry, but have found the new schedules to be a suitable tradeoff.
"I think we're over that," Tim Wylie said. "Every weekend now is like a bowl game. I mean, you go to Georgia, that's like going to a bowl game. It's not like going to a Kansas game where there's 30,000 people. It's just such a more intense, wonderful atmosphere to go watch a football game. I miss the Texas game, but overall, I think A&M is in a better place."
According to the 12th Man Foundation, Texas A&M has played in five regular-season conference football games in the SEC that were watched by more than seven million viewers. Over that same span, the Big 12 had one game total that drew that many fans.
"It's a larger stage," Stallings said. "When they play a game, wherever they play it, it's in a big stadium and it's a sellout."
Wylie added that more away fans travel to Kyle Field now from bigger SEC schools and more Aggies travel to away games than they used to.
"Putting it simply, there are a lot more bucket-list stadiums that you want to go to in an SEC game than there were in the Big 12," Wylie said. "I mean who wants to go to Waco? Most people have been to Fort Worth. Nobody wants to go to Kansas. But you know, we've been to LSU, we've been to Alabama. Still on the bucket list is Tennessee or The Swamp [at Florida]."
You won't find any signs of regret among A&M fans. Maybe they're also just happy to be away from another old foe and in charge of their own destination.
In May, Fisher spoke to the Austin A&M club and the question came up -- as it often does -- about the rival Longhorns and his opinions on how A&M should proceed with the rivalry.
"Being in the SEC is a lot more prestigious and a lot more profitable," Fisher said to raucous applause. "Our league just had 65 players drafted. They had 22 in the whole league ... I mean, we had more than 22 first- and second-round draft picks. I respect them and they got a great program. But listen, we're gonna do what's best for A&M."
The SEC move has certainly fit that bill for the Aggies.
In the past 10 years, the university has completed the new Kyle Field and spent $24.3 million to renovate its baseball stadium, Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park. In 2019, it opened Davis Diamond, a new $28.6 million softball complex and E.B. Cushing Stadium, a $39.8 million track facility.
"The resources we've been able to garner from being in the SEC have made a big impact on A&M," Loftin said. "We have a lot of new facilities here, a lot of great ones. I think we're going to hopefully get tennis [facilities] done soon. That's the last one to get done in terms of some major improvements. That wouldn't have been achievable in the timeframe we're talking about had we stayed in the Big 12."
Fisher said when A&M hired him that he "grew up in the SEC" and knew what it took to win in the league. The school famously gave him a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed contract to pry him away from Florida State. His assistant coach salaries also total about $7.5 million annually, ranking only behind Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson in assistant pay. It was a statement-hire and commitment.
Maybe the move inspired the Aggies to finally go all-in on chasing greatness. Everything is coming together at the right time to challenge for an SEC championship. The Aggies are thinking big.
"I think that [Fisher] has done a good job, and this year is going to be an awfully important year for A&M," Stallings said. "They've recruited extremely well and they've got a tough schedule. And if they could just beat Alabama -- they had a great year last year but if they beat Alabama they would have a chance to win the national championship -- I just tell you, it would be an outstanding accomplishment."
For Bjork, who previously was athletic director at Ole Miss, it's satisfying to see Texas A&M becoming a factor in the SEC after decades of being unable to make the leap when it wanted to.
"I could see what was being stirred up in the late '80s, early '90s," Bjork said. "Maybe it just took a little longer to get there, maybe it took some drama along the way, but it finally happened. It's been a no-brainer, a home run, whatever adjective you want to describe. It's been a perfect fit."