Senior College Football Columnist

Messing with Texas: Realignment two-step is killing traditions


In a friendly, wondrous land where everyone says "howdy," college football is still loved up for what it isn't.

Ultimatums. Presidential posturing. Networks. Back-stabbing. Revenue splits.

It is a place where the 12th Man in the stands cheers for a 12th Man on the field. It is a place where a girl is kissed by her date after each touchdown because he's the one who brung her.

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There is yell practice at midnight. Deceased mascots have their own graveyard. Not only that, they have their own speaker piping in play-by-play on game day.

This is a place where, for now, SEC stands for a diner marquee that might read "Steak and Eggs At Our Counter." Texas A&M may be leaving the Big 12, but nothing is leaving Texas A&M's soul.

"I went to school there one year," said an octogenarian who will return to the College Station this week. "I go back and visit the dormitory where I lived. I love going to the A&M campus."

And in some small way, it will love Boone Pickens back. Never mind that Pickens could buy Kyle Field with his pocket change and turn it into an upscale condo development. Oklahoma State's billionaire booster will be there Saturday to soak up the history. Pickens' Cowboys and the Texas A&M Aggies will play what is arguably the biggest game at Kyle Field in almost 40 years. That's how long it has been (1975) since two top-10 teams played at A&M.

All of it comes against a backdrop that resembles a shroud. A&M says it is sticking to a decision to migrate to the SEC in 2012. What remains of the Big 12 is expected, for now, to remain together -- at least until the next family feud breaks out.

All of it threatens to one day damage Texas' football culture. Even with the Big 12 attempting to patch things up, there remains the danger of homegrown football being scattered to the four winds. Make that six winds when you consider that culture came close to being exported to the SEC, Pac-12, ACC, Big East, Conference USA and whatever remains of the Big 12.

Texas and Oklahoma have come this close to joining the Pac-12 -- twice. Had Texas not stayed in the Big 12, the ACC was an option. TCU is headed for the Big East in 2012. Had not administrative knuckleheads come to their senses, the Big 12 remnants were destined to merge with the Big East remnants.

Strangely, Conference USA is now the state's most homogeneous major-college conference with four in-state schools -- Southern Methodist, Texas-El Paso, Rice and Houston.

"I think people have to understand, things change," said Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. "When I grew up I watched Ohio State-Michigan, then right after that Oklahoma and Nebraska came on. Those days are over with."

Our game's traditions are unraveling likes threads being pulled slowly from a stadium blanket. Enjoy them while you can. After this season, A&M is going to a place that knows nothing of the Aggie War Hymn or that "howdy" you get from everyone on campus.

Texas schoolboys grow up longing to be part of that tradition. Now their talents are going to be flown to places likes Gainesville, Tuscaloosa and Starkville. Texas A&M suddenly becomes the westernmost outpost of the SEC instead of resting in the middle of Big 12.

"I'm going to be gone by the time any of that takes place," said Ryan Tannehill, the Aggies' senior quarterback. "We're just excited right now to be in the Big 12."

But can the Big 12 be just as excited? A lame duck on its farewell tour could win the conference title. There's a long way to go but the Aggies are in the process of reclaiming some of their lost glory. Former walk-on Caleb Russell has successfully replaced All-American Von Miller at outside linebacker. Russell was earlier voted 12th Man, the walk-on who best reflects the spirit in the stands. Jeff Fuller is one of the best receivers in a great receivers' league.

Tannehill is one of those native Texans, from Big Spring. His dad played at Texas Tech. Tannehill switched from receiver to QB last season, then led the Aggies to a six-game winning streak. The 9-4 record equaled A&M's most wins since 1998.

"It's something that the majority of people have in common [in Texas]," Tannehill said. "If you want to talk to somebody about something random, football is a good starting point."

Now it's all headed Southeast. Sumlin sees it slipping away is in his fourth year as the Cougars' head coach. Before Houston, he spent five years at Oklahoma. Before that, Sumlin was the Aggies' offensive coordinator for two years.

Depending on which way the Big 12 recasts itself, Houston could soon be taking the place of A&M in the Big 12. A few years ago such a thing would have been unheard of. But if the last few months have taught us anything, it's that history and traditions are the first to go in this conference reshuffling.

Syracuse didn't blink when considering giving up its longtime basketball heritage in New York with the Big East tournament when it went to the ACC. The Nebraska-Oklahoma showdown was first altered by the formation of the Big 12 then discontinued altogether when the Huskers went to the Big Ten.

The epic Texas-Texas A&M game each Thanksgiving weekend seems like it is on life support. Neither school seems to have much stomach for playing after bickering over the Longhorn Network.

"It looks like there's more of those to come," Sumlin said. "It's hard for the fans and the alums to see traditional rivalries go away. But it's becoming apparent to me that regional rivalries are going to be a thing of the past. It just is."

You wonder where the Lone Star State's football culture is headed. Legions of fans still watch schoolboy football on Friday, take in a college game at one of the state's 11 FBS programs on Saturday and then root on the Texans or Cowboys on Sunday. But when so many colleges are threatening to go so many places, what's to become of those magical weekends?

"As much as we talk about realignment ... we better go back and make sure we're taking care of the [high school] players," Texas' Mack Brown said. "If not, we're not going to have a game."

Consider the "pod" of teams that almost went west to the Pac-12. Along with Texas and Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State also recruit heavily in Texas.

"For parents to have to travel all the way across the country to see their kids play, puts a bigger burden on that," Brown said. "Right now with the regional leagues, the parents can go see their kids play. These kids are working their guts out year round for us to have a show on Saturday."

That's why we need to hold on tight to Oklahoma State-Texas A&M. It's not a longstanding rivalry. But it is a remnant of something that may be gone soon. It is only the ninth conference game in Big 12 history between two top-10 teams, not including the Texas-Oklahoma Red River Shootout. It is the first such top-10 conference game in the Big 12 in three years.

"There's a buzz in the air," Tannehill said. "You can feel it."

Many of the conference's accomplishments this season have been obscured by the realignment two-step. No. 1 Oklahoma is joined by Oklahoma State and A&M this week in the top 10. There are five Big 12 teams in top 20. The league is 23-2 overall in non-conference games.

And all of it almost went away this week. That's why College Station is the place to be on Saturday. Pickens will be walking the campus remembering how he ended up at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) more than six decades ago. Turns out, his Texas A&M basketball scholarship was ripped after his freshman season in 1947.

"They say if I would have hung around I'd have really amounted to something," Pickens said slyly.

Elsewhere, they'll be drinking long necks at The Dixie Chicken, kissing their dates and wondering if someday soon they will have lost a bit of what makes football great in Texas.

Its soul.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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