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Texas A&M could be latest domino to fall in conference shuffles

 

Matthew Stevens

 

Jackie Sherrill finally has his 'I told you so' moment with college football fans. 

 

In a strange twist, one of Sherrill's former programs is sending shockwaves through the sport with news he has been convinced for a long time would happen. 

 

The news came Wednesday, when Texas A&M announced it would leave the Big 12 Conference by July 2012 if it can find another home, preferably in the Southeastern Conference. 

 

"I'm 100 percent sure it's going to happen, and I've felt this way for going on two decades," Sherrill said in a phone interview Aug. 16. 

 

More than 20 years ago at a television studio in Houston, the former Mississippi State and Texas A&M coach, stood in front of a map and looked into the future landscape of college football. 

 

"I took every major program that are nowadays referred to as the Bowl Championship Series schools and put them all in four leagues," Sherrill said. "As I'm presenting this and moving teams around, I could see people's eyes widening, and some I'm sure thought I was crazy." 

 

Texas A&M, which has been in the Big 12 since its creation in 1996, said it will submit an application to join another, unspecified conference. If accepted, Texas A&M will leave the Big 12, effective June 30, 2012. 

 

"We are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically." 

 

If Texas A&M joins the SEC, Sherrill is convinced the partnership will be successful for both parties. 

 

"A&M is a good fit for the SEC from an academic standpoint when you think of their engineering, medical, and business schools," Sherrill said. 

 

Sherrill coached Texas A&M from 1982-1988 when it was in the now-defunct Southwest Conference. Sherrill went 52-28-1 in his seven seasons in College Station, Texas, and he felt like he was coaching in a SEC environment. 

 

"When you talk about recruiting against that many SEC schools and the architecture of the buildings, it felt similar if not the same," Sherrill said. "We would bring kids on visits and they would say it felt like an SEC school trapped in another conference." 

 

Recruiting talent in the state of Texas is an attractive selling point for the SEC, which has won five straight national championships. Every school in the SEC except for South Carolina has a player on its 2011 roster from the state of Texas. Arkansas and LSU are the only schools with at least 10. 

 

"It gives us a Texas draw. Certainly we would think the Texas student-athlete is going to see themselves attending SEC schools," LSU coach Les Miles said Wednesday in the coaches teleconference. "Hopefully this would give us an opportunity to be even more serious about those guys that are participating in football in Texas." 

 

Texas A&M would need the votes of nine of the 12 presidents of SEC member schools to allow it into the league. SEC officials have said it hasn't received an application from Texas A&M to join the league and that it would have no further comment. 

 

"We will certainly welcome them," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said in Wednesday in the teleconference. "They are a big-time institution, excellent athletic departments, all their sports are very good. They will be a huge addition to the SEC, and to get into Texas, just really increases SEC TV markets." 

 

The speculation about where Texas A&M will wind up has fans wondering what the landscape of the sport could look like in years to come. 

 

According to an Associated Press report, University of Oklahoma President David Boren said multiple conferences recently have shown interest in the Sooners. He said he expects to decide whether to leave the Big 12 Conference in the next three weeks. 

 

Texas A&M's decision and the resulting discussion has re-ignited talk about an article that appeared last year in Sports Illustrated. The story detailed how four Bowl Championship Series "super conferences" would split from the NCAA and form an organization for college athletics. It is a situation Sherrill, who has an ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA alleging 18 counts of wrongdoing, thinks "is a matter of when not if." 

 

"Behind closed doors the NCAA doesn't have one friend among the school presidents of big programs," Sherrill said. "It's a very big business." 

 

If Texas A&M joins the SEC, the league likely would look to add another member to give it 14 to balance the Eastern and Western divisions. Reports have suggested targets could be Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, and West Virginia. 

 

"I can understand why everybody wants to come to our conference," University of Mississippi football coach Houston Nutt said in his weekly teleconference. "I can understand why they want to get in. The stadiums are full, you're on TV every game, not just some games, every game." 

 

That exposure was part of the motivation behind the latest round of conference reshuffling that saw Nebraska leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Colorado leave the Big 12 to join the Pacific-10 Conference, which is now known as the Pac 12. Utah also left the Mountain West Conference to give the Pac 12 an even number of teams. 

 

With college football generating so much money through ticket sales and television contracts, some are skeptical about NCAA President Mark Emmert's public aggression to abolish consistent rule breaking in intercollegiate athletics. 

 

"I think the Dr. Emmert, the NCAA, and our school presidents are serious about trying to solve the problem we have and we do have one," MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said. "I'm just fearful how complicated this process is going to be to change the culture we've created." 

 

Sherrill was head coach at Texas A&M and MSU when the NCAA placed both schools on probation. He said the solution is simple. 

 

"You have to properly compensate the athlete that makes the plays because I've said my entire life that the game is won by players executing," Sherrill said. "If college athletics recruiting was anything like the competition for National Merit Scholars, everyone would be on probation for 100 years." 

 

While he declined to comment on the specifics of Texas A&M's situation and the possibility of it joining the SEC, Stricklin said he doesn't see schools withdrawing from the NCAA. 

 

"I really wonder if most of the super conference talk isn't a media generated thing," Stricklin said. "What I believe is college athletics and specifically college football has adapted itself as time goes on." 

 

Stricklin said he takes a lot from the book "Big Scrum" he is reading. It details how former President Teddy Roosevelt saved college football from becoming a too dangerous to play. Stricklin said the book shows college sports can evolve and overcome problems they face each generation. 

 

"College football fans have a way, because of their sport, to support something quicker than a lot of analysts think," Stricklin said. "I remember when people thought Penn State was too unusual for the Big Ten Conference, and fans now almost treat them like a charter member." 

 

Texas A&M will likely have to pay an exit fee to leave the Big 12 Conference, although the amount is unclear. Nebraska paid $9.25 million to join the Big Ten and Colorado paid $6.9 million to start play in the Pac 12. 

 

"I'm sure it's going to take the attorneys to talk first because the SEC doesn't want to be sued," Sherrill said. "What you're seeing is people wanting invites to the SEC and the league saying we'll let you know if we have room." 

 

Stricklin said all officials at MSU, which consistently has one of the lowest athletic budgets in the SEC, are monitoring the potential conference realignment and look at it primarily as a marketing situation on how to promote future scheduling. 

 

Stricklin believes the conference expansion talk is a signal the sport truly

 

 

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