The Texas A&M University football team’s win over top-ranked Alabama in 2012 will never be forgotten by the Aggie faithful, but the game is not the only memory that a Texas A&M University System regent carries from that day.
Piloting his private jet to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the game, the regent, Jim Schwertner, secured a prime landing slot at an airport and later persuaded security to let his limo park next to the stadium despite not having a permit — after telling officials he was traveling with the “first lady of Texas A&M.”
“I’m sure the air traffic controller had no idea who the first lady of Texas A&M really was,” Schwertner said, sitting in his Georgetown hangar, before launching into laughter. A&M’s “first lady” is a collie named Reveille.
Schwertner recounted the story several times to Richard Box, a former Texas A&M System board chairman, who smiled with each telling. The repetition was not solely for their enjoyment. The men were filming a scene for a planned documentary about Texas A&M’s move to the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
A&M’s decision to join the SEC, which has been widely heralded as a transformational move for the university, will be the subject of print and film accounts, set to come out this fall, that detail the behind-the-scenes moves that brought about the change.
By leaving the Big 12 Conference for the SEC, the university cut ties with other Texas institutions, including its longtime rival, the University of Texas at Austin. The proposed shift drew a backlash from A&M alumni, threats of lawsuits from other institutions and lobbying from legislators.
“Village idiots, they don’t understand we’re going to get creamed,” Schwertner recalled critics saying. “We got a lot of hate mail. Then when it happened and we were successful, everyone took credit then, which is fine with me.”
“Victory has a thousand fathers,” Box agreed, “and defeat is an orphan.”
In September, Texas A&M University Press plans to release “The 100-Year Decision: Texas A&M and the SEC,” by R. Bowen Loftin, who was president of Texas A&M from 2009-13 and now serves as the chancellor of the University of Missouri. He wrote the book with Rusty Burson, a vice president of Texas A&M’s 12th Man Foundation, a fundraising organization that supports Aggie athletics, and the associate editor of 12th Man Magazine.
Burson said Loftin’s leadership role in A&M’s move gave him the insight he needed to write the book. Loftin declined to be interviewed for this article.
But Burson stressed that the book sought to provide one of many perspectives, and that Loftin was not the only key decision maker.
“He certainly relied heavily on his inner circle, on the board of regents and a number of folks to get input,” Burson said. “But as the president, he was making decisions or was put in position to make some decisions that were very, very difficult. The book gives people a real insight to the thought processes that went into it.”
Breaking Tradition, the working title for the documentary, aims to be a more definitive account. Individuals close to the project indicated that, because of the personalities involved, wrangling the necessary participants among the key players could prove challenging. John Robison, a 1985 A&M graduate who has led multiple technology and movie production companies, is spearheading the production.
Returning to Texas last year after spending several years in Los Angeles, Robison began toying with the idea of producing a reality show on the Aggie football team’s summer training. But as he delved more into A&M’s decision to switch conferences, he said, “what I found was that the real story was better than a season of‘ Dallas.”
Loftin was largely the public face of the decision, but Robison, after conducting his own research, came to refer to Box; Schwertner; Cliff Thomas, an A&M regent; and Jim Wilson, a former A&M regent, as the “four horsemen” who helped secure the move.
“There were people around the decision that had one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat, so to speak,” Robison said. “I noticed that a lot of people were taking credit for it, but my question was: Who actually had the resolve to get it done?”
During a break in filming last week, Schwertner singled out Box. Though some university officials had pushed for staying put or moving to a different conference, Box never wavered in his belief that the SEC was the right conference for the university.
Box returned the compliments by noting that when administrators at Baylor University dangled the possibility of suing over the move, Schwertner sought the aid of 12th Man Foundation leaders. They came up with enough money to indemnify the conference.
Regardless of where most of the credit should go, supporters of A&M’s move to the SEC argue that the change was as much about reputation as it was about revenue. Not only did the university become a part of a conference with a higher national profile, but it managed to step out of the shadow of Texas, which had angered A&M officials in 2011 by announcing a new Longhorn Network as part of a 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN.
Ultimately, an absence of Longhorns on the schedule did not translate to a lack of interest in Aggie football or Texas A&M University. In its first year as part of the SEC, the university announced that it had raised more than $740 million, which was more than $300 million over its previous single-year high.
“I don’t think football is the end all and be all of what a university is about, but what it does is it focuses attention on the university,” the Texas A&M System chancellor, John Sharp, who joined the system in 2011, said.
Robison, who is aiming to screen Breaking Tradition for investors in August and center the film’s release on the Aggies’ October showdown with Alabama, said the conference switch and his film on the topic were about more than football.
“A&M was suffering from battered-Aggie syndrome,” he said. “You can’t be great if your goal is only to be as good as the other guys. It took a major breakthrough to get out of that mind-set, and to me, this is also that story. It’s a maturing of our rivalries.”
It also may have been a story of stars aligning. In 2012, the school’s football team had a new coach, Kevin Sumlin, and a new quarterback, Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was selected in the first round of the NFL draft this year.
If the last two seasons had not been so successful, Burson said, “I don’t think Aggies would be as likely to want to relive the whole transition.”
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.