ATLANTA -- The maroon shirts with that recognizable logo -- the A and M sandwiched around a larger T -- were everywhere. They intermingled with others who wore black and gold, crested with that strange word -- Mizzou.
This was in the heart of the SEC, the city in which the most powerful football conference in the country holds its championship. One year ago, it had 12 members, and that seemed a good number, a happy and rich group that could go on forever.
But a year later, nearly a thousand fans congregated in a Marriott ballroom in Atlanta. A banner with the SEC logo hung in the front of the room. To the left of it was a Texas A&M banner. To the right was Missouri. All around was hope for a greater future.
Its exactly the kind of sense that weve had since we took them, that theres this kind of energy these two schools bring to our league. SEC commissioner Mike Slive said, taking a break from meeting fans in the front of the room.
Beyond the energy, however, there are further motivations. Yes, there is money. The SEC has much of it, and Missouri and Texas A&M want a slice of it. Yes, the SEC wanted to expand into new markets.
But there is something else at work as this new era begins for the SEC and its two schools: They all hope this will result in an image makeover.
The 12-team SEC is finishing on a roll. It owns the past six BCS football championships by four different schools. A fifth school is the reigning mens basketball champion. A sixth school is the two-time defending baseball champion.
And then theres the money. The conference announced last week that it was doling out $20.1 million to each of its members, most of it thanks to rich broadcast contracts with CBS and ESPN.
So why mess with a good thing? Why expand? Especially by adding two schools that arent perennial national contenders?
There is the market factor, with the SECs TV contracts probably getting richer by adding Texas, Kansas City and St. Louis.
But Slive and the school presidents were also interested in their reputation.
They know that nationally there is still the perception of the SEC as a conference that doesnt take academics seriously. They are aware that some in other conferences, such as the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC, look down on the SECs reputation.
Often times this league is under-appreciated for the quality of our institutions academically, Slive said.
Only two of the 12 schools -- Florida and Vanderbilt -- are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, a research consortium. By adding Texas A&M and Missouri, the SEC doubled its membership in the 61-member AAU.
The hope for SEC presidents is that by adding two good schools, the larger image of the conference improves. It may sound silly to fans, but to school presidents who sit in rooms and make decisions, it is a major factor.
I think at the core of it its the most important thing, Missouri athletics director Mike Alden said. From the surface of that many people see that window of athletics and in particular football. But I think once you get down to the core of it, and what youre trying to do as an institution to really raise the awareness of your brand, academically and research-wise.
Slive was asked if he hopes this helps improve the image of the SEC.
Yes, the answer is yes, he said. But I would put it more in context. We werent really gonna expand. And we were not out looking to expand. But when institutions of these quality come, and they bring the outstanding academic institutions, they have commitment to broad-based athletic programs ...
And they bring a passion and a loyalty that matches ours. So it just made a lot of sense.
Bowen Loftin, the president of Texas A&M, is a short man with a moustache who can usually be found wearing a bow tie. He doesnt speak in a Texas accent, but he is indeed a graduate of the College Station school, rising through the ranks to become president.
Loftin in large part spearheaded the move to the SEC.
For Loftin, this is about taking Texas A&M from a regional to a national presence.
Were one of the largest schools in the country. We have a great record of academics and research. But we havent had a good national stage for the institution, Loftin said. So one of the drivers for me was the SEC provides a lens through which the world could see Texas A&M not simply as an athletic institution, which it is, but also in all its many dimensions. We think this is going to be a great boost for the brand, if you will, of Texas A&M. It puts us on the national stage as we never have before.
In the Big 12, Texas A&M was one of four schools from Texas -- and the flagship school in Austin dwarfed all of them. The fact that revenue was not shared equally and the Texas Longhorns dominated Big 12 decision-making also rankled the Aggies.
The ability to get out of Texas shadow is huge, according to Jason Cook, the director of marketing and communication for Texas A&M.
We really are a national university in scope. But we were seen as being a regional institution, Cook said. A lot of people dont know that we have 50,000 students. Were the sixth largest university in the country. And a lot of it was because of the conference we were in. Its very centered in the country, got the SEC to our east, weve got the Pac-12 thats growing their brand to the west. And we werent getting a lot of exposure.
Billy Kennedy, the Aggies mens basketball head coach, knows the SEC well. Hes a New Orleans native who has relatives in Macon, a brother who graduated from Georgia Tech, and his father lives in Atlanta.
Itll be good for us, (but) its just gonna take time for people to realize that in the state of Texas, Kennedy said. Because Texas is so big, and weve been in a league that had Texas and Baylor and those teams in it in the past. Now to get our fan base to recognize, hey you can say youre in the SEC, but have they ever seen (Mississippi) and us play. Its gonna be a transition, I think.
There has been a perception for some time that Missouri was conference-shopping. When the Big Ten decided to expand in 2010, the school made little effort to hide its interest. But Nebraska was the school to leave the Big 12 for the Big Tens greener pastures.
When Texas A&M joined the SEC in September, that created an open slot. The conference wanted an even number. Missouri didnt have a powerful in-state rival it wanted to escape, but it bordered three SEC states and felt the conference was more stable.
Alden said the move allowed his school a greater exposure for our brand across the country. Which the SEC does. I mean the footprint of the SEC of 89 million homes versus 45 million (in the Big 12), I think gave us a chance to do something like that.
Missouri already enjoys a strong reputation in academics. But its athletics department hasnt quite dented the national conscience, other than some fleeting moments -- the football team nearly making it to the BCS title game a few years ago and the basketball team rising to No. 2 this past season.
Missouri president Brady Deaton said there was little resistance to joining up with the SEC.
There was a whole generation of young people out there that are just very eager to be associated with a conference that is growing, that has shown that it can expand and address the issues of the day, Deaton said. So were looking 50 years down the road, and positioning ourselves to be with a region of the country that is a very powerful, dynamic region.
Deaton referred to looking 50 years down the road for his school. While debating the switch, Loftin was quoted often as saying it was a 100-year decision for his school.
Slive spoke of long-range goals, as well. The commissioner is one of the most powerful men in college sports, and his legacy in running the SEC seems strong. At 71 years old, he probably could have left the membership well enough alone and let the next commissioner figure out whether it was a good idea.
But Slive, a former judge from New York, said he feels like he occupies a corpus of trust, a legal term. He wanted to leave the SEC stronger for whenever he leaves, and part of that is taking the SEC from a football-dominant reputation to something more.
Its a long horizon, Slive said. So how do we make sure that 10 years from now and 20 years from now that this league will be the kind of league it is today. So we felt the additions of these two institutions would help ensure that kind of preeminence two decades from now.