OKLAHOMA CITY — They tried to kill it.
The suits, the media consultants, the presidents and athletic directors too. They tried to kill the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry.
Both sides can be blamed, actually, but it this much is certain: It was a damn shame when Texas A&M left Texas and the Big 12 for the SEC on July 1, 2012.
Rivalries have become collateral damage in conference re-alignment. We know that now. This rivalry, though, is more personal.
“Obviously, it is hard to not look forward to Texas,” A&M forward Tyler Davis said Thursday from the NCAA first-round site at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Never mind Texas (vs. Northern Iowa) and Texas A&M (Green Bay) still have to play first-round games Friday to set up the teams’ second basketball meeting this season. Any meeting — in any sport in this rivalry — is a significant.
Texas and Texas A&M played in football each year from 1915-2011. The series dates back to 1894. That’s where the heart of the rivalry lives. But when the Aggies left, the animosity didn’t.
The two sides almost brawled in baseball earlier this week.
The anticipation for a second-round Texas-Texas A&M game on Sunday almost is overshadowing the first-round games on Friday.
“I think it would mean a lot,” Texas guard Javan Felix said.
It would be great fun to resuscitate what re-alignment tried to stifle. The hate is so real that each school’s name is mentioned in the other’s fight song. The bitterness has become so intense that the two sides are arguing over who needs the other less.
“I think everybody wants that [football] game,” A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin said last summer. “Time brings about change. It’s going to happen. I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.”
Texas-Texas A&M on Thanksgiving had been one of college football’s most enduring traditions. The teams have met 63 times on Turkey Day.
“We get to decide when we play them,” former Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said after the split was complete. That’s typical of the rancor that exists today.
That’s why we must relish this (possible) moment. The teams met in November at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. The Aggies won by 11. But the season had barely broken a sweat.
There’s much more at stake this time. Beyond the obvious carrot — a possible Sweet 16 berth — this is a (potential) meeting of whose mega-program is bigger.
Judge for yourself the result of The Separation: A&M is making $9 million more in rights fees per year than the average Big 12 school. But Texas is not your average Big 12 school. For the next 17 years, it has a contract with ESPN to receive $15 million per year alone for the Longhorn Network.
Enter the octagon of comparison at your own risk. Both schools have changed athletic directors recently. Sumlin’s top two quarterbacks transferred, creating what can be conservatively called a firestorm in College Station.
Charlie Strong — his seat warm as well — is below .500 in his two seasons.
On any given day, A&M wakes up as the fourth-best program in the SEC West. That despite 36 wins under Sumlin the last four years. That’s a most in a four-year period at A&M in 20 years.
Shaka Smart has the basketball Horns in the tournament in his first season. But it feels more like he’s just begun establishing his “havoc” style of play. Northern Iowa looks like one of Smart’s old VCU teams — opportunistic, tough, and intelligent.
“That’s the matchup we’re putting everything into right now,” Felix said.
The Panthers start three senior guards, including Wes Washpun, who shot UNI into tournament with a Missouri Valley tournament buzzer beater against Wichita State. The Northern Iowa brand is not unknown. It was here in 2010 that Ali Farokhmanesh stuck a dagger in Kansas.
The Aggies are possibly the cuddliest team here. Coach Billy Kennedy has A&M in the tournament finally in his fifth season.
The Aggies broke out starting 17-2, proving itself perhaps the equal of Kentucky. The teams split two meetings and finished in a regular-season SEC tie; Texas A&M’s first conference title in 30 years.
“Not respected. Not respected at all is the right word,” guard Danuel House said.
Kennedy was recently awarded a new five-year contract, all while battling Parkinson’s Disease. The Aggies are a dark horse Final Four pick coming out of the West Region.
“I do believe we are a Final Four team,” Aggie freshman DJ Hogg said. “We play the game just everybody else.”
Texas A&M will tell you they wanted this separation from Texas. They tired long ago of being little brother. The Aggies acted out on that inferiority complex, completing a $500 million renovation of their stadium that made it the fifth-largest sports venue in the Northern Hemisphere.
More impressively — to everyone concerned — Kyle Field became the biggest stadium in Texas.
This is a rivalry that doesn’t need social media to be stoked. Still, the two sides meet there regularly to trade jabs. Gentlemen, start your keyboards. The best game of Friday might be the one Aggies and Longhorns are looking forward to Sunday.