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Brave New World: Building a stronger SEC by growing new rivalries

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What do A&M and Missouri need?

Georgia v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Bill Byrne, Texas A&M's athletic director at the time, expected the rivalry to continue. He even told the SEC to keep the Thanksgiving weekend open when doing conference scheduling so the Aggies could maintain their rivalry with the Longhorns. More than five years later, Byrne looks back and admits that was a bad assumption.

"Their AD (DeLoss Dodds) at the time came out and said we will never play Texas A&M again, and they worked along with Baylor and the conference to have no one in the (Big 12) schedule us," Byrne says. "There were other forces at work to make sure we didn't play."

Some thoughts began percolating a few days ago about the nature of rivalries in the SEC as I was working on the Best Served Cold piece. Alongside the Big 10 and their never-ending axes, spittoons and pig statues, the SEC is known for long-standing rivalries. Then, yesterday, AL.com’s John Talty dropped a fine piece on the rivalries that we lost when A&M and Mizzou joined the conference.

Talty interviewed past and present administrators at Texas A&M and Missouri to get their thoughts on the rivalries that are on hiatus, what went wrong, and how those schools can move forwards. But, it very much occurs to me that it’s not just that those schools can move forward; it’s that the entire conference can step in to make the transition complete. Dislike doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is the tip of a spear that needs must point outwards. And, for each of the newest programs, growing that institutional disdain has required different approaches with varying degrees of success.

After giving this some thought (and restraining the instinctive get-off-my-lawnism,) I’ve come to the conclusion that the ADs are right: This generation of students doesn’t know what it is like to experience the Border War, for instance; they are growing their own rivals within the SEC. Institutionally, that takes time, but it can happen much faster in a four-year collegiate lifespan.

Jesse sack Manziel

Texas A&M

The Texas A&M Aggies were obviously a perfect fit. There were few programs that had the plug-and-play ability to be an SEC program like the folks in College Station. There’s almost no dimension on a mental SEC checklist which is not ticked off by the Aggies, and not only checked off, but present in sufficient quantities to be an instant contender: strong baseball and softball programs, long-standing football traditions, a rabid fan base that travels, strong basketball programs, leadership in the athletic department and at the University, stability in its coaching staffs.

There was never a true cultural “we have arrived” moment for the Aggies. From Day One, Texas A&M knew its worth to the conference, how they fit in, and it has acted accordingly. The Aggies’ programs have been vocal; they have been very strong top-to-bottom; their fans have traveled and have been fantastic guests learning the new landscape; and, yes, Texas A&M has won.

The Aggies don’t have a championship in the revenue sports, this is true. But, the Aggies do have have SEC titles in Track & Field and baseball. And they have an Equestrian title if you’re the ag school sort. But, the fact that the Ags are, or have been, in the discussion in football, basketball, softball has greatly aided their integration into the SEC — and it has helped grow the number of teams that dislike them. And, if A&M needed an arrival moment, it happened in Tuscaloosa their first season as Johnny Manziel locked down his Heisman trophy.

The obvious rivalry partner is with LSU: A border skirmish with both sides competing for the same talent pool has that effect, and the mutual recriminations of cheating and shady dealings have only made it more fun. Talty lists a few other Western teams that vie for the Aggies’ attention. But, to my mind, the fact that Alabama and A&M share so much history negates the possibility that this will ever be a true bitter rivalry in the sense that we know it. As much as there are respectful rivalries, as Tennessee and Alabama once were, this seems as though it will fall in that category. Arkansas and A&M have gotten off to a rousing start too — the cultural differences are so vast that this has the potential to turn into a nice rivalry one day. Also helping the case is that both represent the far-flung western corners of the SEC, sharing a sense of being outside the rest of a conference where a lot of the schools are within an easy few hours’ drive.

However, an obvious choice for an A&M nascent rival is the beef that is emerging with another Western team: and it’s not only emerging, but has the possibility to be its bitterest foe. After talking to a ton of Aggies, the program the Ags have most naturally gravitated towards (against?) is the Ole Miss Rebels. The two really do dislike one another. And it’s easy to see why: New Money vs. Old Money; perpetual undeserved snobbery in Oxford; white linen and white gloves; fetishism over the campus; fried chicken by chandelier light, etc. Nearly everything A&M disdained about the Longhorns actually is present with Ole Miss. This will be a must-see hate-fest as the two share more history.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Missouri Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Missouri

Missouri’s uneasy entry into the SEC has been a combination of things: some their fault, others not; geography, lack of winning, opposing fan resistance, and poor traveling.

As much as A&M represents all of the good things you’d want in an SEC member institution, you can argue that Missouri, at least initially, has embodied the more dysfunctional ones in the conference’s past and present. Underachieving marquee program? Flopping after outsized expectations? Racial tensions on campus? Faulty leadership and lack of cohesion? Coaching turnover? Check, check, and check again.

The Tigers geographically didn’t seem to quite fit. It is a trek from Columbia to nearly any other campus. But, this can’t be all that there is to it. No one thinks Gainesville is short drive; College Station is in the ass-end of Nowhere, East Texas; there is no pleasant way to get to Fayetteville; getting to Lexington is a visit to Boonieville. Because of that distance, or perhaps of a cultural apathy, the Missouri fanbase is one that doesn’t travel nearly as well as you’d like to see. Despite being in hard-to-access areas, no one accuses the above programs of not traveling — they’ll go for anything and everything, and we haven’t even gotten to LSU. At the same time, can you blame MU fans for not investing resources to see the mediocre-to-bad products Missouri is putting on fields and courts?

Still, while it is true that Missouri does not have many geographic partners, past attempts to engineer a cross-division rivalry with A&M just didn’t take. Fortunately, there is some real hate between Arkansas and Missouri fans. The two states share a long contiguous border, the Ozarks, some heated past gridiron encounters and, at least to a certain extent, some of the same cultural markers. Probably helping this one grow is that, like Mizzou, the Hogs are in the hinterlands of the Conference and were very much considered outsiders until they began winning.

Perhaps the most fun nascent rivalry for Missouri, and my personal favorite one to watch spring forth organically, has been the instant animus that Columbia has developed towards Athens. Maybe it’s a battle of journalism schools? It is amazing how one cavalier remark by one player was taken very personally by the Bulldogs and is blossoming into a nice rivalry.

For what ever reason, despite back-to-back trips to Atlanta, Missouri has been undersold by would-be guardians of SEC purity (and some of the SEC media vanguard.) There always seems to be excuse-making about the strength of the East to discount that achievement: Georgia was inconsistent; Florida was down; Tennessee was rebuilding, and the like. All of those things may have been true, and Missouri was never going to terrify a Western power, but then again, who in the East was?

Still, the Tigers’ best chance for a long-term rival probably lies with Kentucky.

If you’re an #old, you recall that Arkansas and South Carolina had much the same issue of being accepted back in the early 90s. There was a dismissal or almost-insistent apathy that some opposing fans held towards the Razorbacks and Gamecocks. It was only really rattled out of our heads by those programs’ success...and each did it a different way.

The Hogs really arrived when they became West contenders in football. That status was cemented after a win in Tuscaloosa, and then upending Kentucky in hoops as they marched to an NCAA Tournament championship. Like A&M, Arkansas kicked in the door and demanded we pay attention. South Carolina really gained their street cred by developing an immediate competitive rivalry with Georgia. From there, they still had “show me” moments to piece together. And, to their credit, USC has. The excellence in baseball, the nice runs in basketball, and a vastly improved football program have made the Gamecocks a firmly entrenched SEC team.

Missouri has tried the Arkansas approach, and it still does not seem to have stuck. These Tigers will have to do it collectively like South Carolina it appears. And, for that to happen, the school must produce what was sold to the conference upon entry: a basketball powerhouse. That has not been the case the past half-decade. But like so many SEC basketball programs recently, the Tigers have significantly upgraded coaching and talent level. It may be that this program will never full be “in” until they have a full-fledged rivalry based upon beating Kentucky on the hardwood, competing annually for the SEC, and making runs in the Tournament. From there, the rest can grow naturally.

Missouri v Texas A&M Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Conference expansion isn’t going away. Nor, as lucrative as it is, will the SEC contract. The Aggies and Tigers are here to stay. Mentally, there are many who have not accepted that. In our hearts, we believe that the Green Wave or Yellow Jackets still belong. Hell, South Carolina and Arkansas still occasionally face that belief. But, just as we’ve said goodbye to some historic frenemies before, it is probably time to collectively develop new ones.

At the same time, our new partners must meet us halfway and fulfill their end of the bargain by putting quality teams into play, investing in quality coaches and facilities, and above all, putting the rubber to the road and their butts in seats.

Only with success on their end, enthusiasm by their fans, and an acceptance by the old guard, can we all have a stronger, more cohesive SEC.

Your questions: Have you fully accepted A&M and Missouri as SEC teams? What’s holding you back? What was your “buy-in” moment? What do these two need to do? Hell, for that matter, do Arkansas and South Carolina still have some otherness? And, obviously, chat about rivalries.

You’re on the clock.