At least Texas Gov. Rick Perry had his priorities straight.
After 30,000-ish people gathered on Aug. 10 for his prayer rally at Houston's Reliant Stadium, the GOP presidential candidate fueled rumors of Texas A&M bolting for the Southeastern Conference. Maybe God added that as a P.S. when He told Perry to consider a White House bid.
Fans salivated when Perry said, "As far as I know, conversations are being had."
The question, of course, is whether there's anything to it, or whether Perry was crassly making a play for attention before he made his candidacy official the following Saturday. Perry's evangelical swagger and small-government talking points are winners among the Republican base across the South. But do enough people in South Carolina — an SEC state and early primary location — know who Perry is? They do now. And if adding A&M means one of the monsters of the Western Division shows up on the Gamecocks' schedule a little less frequently, there won't be many complaints from the Palmetto State.
Most important is whether A&M even belongs in the SEC. When the once-ginormous Southern Conference broke up 90 years ago, what became the SEC was confined to schools between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. LSU, in Baton Rouge, barely qualified. In 1992, the conference broke both rules when it added Carolina and Arkansas.
The folks down here were largely OK with that: Both states are still "Southern," even if they don't meet the geographical restraints of the Ancien Régime. Like obscenity, Southernness is largely one of those "know it when I see it" deals. It's hard to explain to outsiders, but there's a reason why, say, the University of Florida in the largely rural upstate is in the SEC while urban, coastal Miami is not.
Texas is a strange case, stretching as it does from its eastern bayous to damn near the Rockies. Sure, Texans wore gray during the Late Unpleasantness, and Tennesseans were among the state's founders. But no one is arguing El Paso is a Southern city. Texas is part Western, part Midwestern and part Southern. It's also college-sports mad from Nacogdoches to Amarillo. And those fan-frenzied dollars — and massive TV markets — are the object of the SEC's lust.
The University of Texas seems the obvious choice to poach, even though the existence of two orange UTs would confuse our delicate sensibilities. Here's the problem with that: The University of Texas isn't Southern. Texas A&M is.
A&M is bonfires and yell-leaders and The 12th Man and kissing your date after a touchdown. It's a sprawling agricultural school with a cadet corps that's in the middle of nowhere in an intentional town called College Station, where there's not much to do but memorize the two-deep and debate your buddies on the virtues of the nickel defense. Southerners get that because that's what Southerners do.
On the other hand, the University of Texas is in Austin, home to self-serious troubadours and slick-talking oilmen. The school and its fanbase take the worst parts of being a football powerhouse and pump them up with Lone Star arrogance. SEC fans don't need that. If they did, they would've moved there when Sam Houston did. That other UT trots out a longhorn, and that's as Southern as an Abe Lincoln impersonator.
The South gets Texas A&M. Bear Bryant coached there before Mama called him to his real home: Alabama. If there's anybody in the South who can compete with God, it's Mama (and, in certain corners, Bear Bryant).
Expansion remains fluid. The presidents of SEC schools recently voted not to extend a formal invitation to A&M. Meanwhile, conference and school sit by the phone like love-struck teenagers, desperately wanting the other to call first.
There's the wrinkle of TV contracts. ESPN has its gazillion-dollar deal with the SEC, but fellow Disney property ABC has a similar, if slightly less lucrative, tie-in with the Big 12, the Aggies' current conference home. Meanwhile, ESPN is in a partnership with the University of Texas to create The Longhorn Network, a move that could mean more money for the rest of the Big 12. But it has Texas' rivals — A&M chief among them — bristling, not wanting the conference to become Texas and the Seven Dwarfs.
Whether conference expansion generally — and SEC expansion in particular — is a good idea can and will be debated to death. But the question won't go away. If it's got to happen, the SEC needs to get on the phone. And A&M needs to listen to its Mama and come on home.