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Tramel: OU reaches the SEC, 31 years after a gleam in Roy Kramer's eye

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman

On Aug. 1, 1990, I found myself in Springdale, Arkansas. Just a little Ozarks vacation before football season.

But football found me anyway. Down in Fayetteville, not 10 miles from Springdale, Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer was on the University of Arkansas campus. 

That’s the day the SEC announced the Razorbacks as the first addition to the conference since its 1932 founding. 

I drove to Fayetteville and crashed the press conference/pep rally. After Kramer donned a Razorback hat and the Hogs were called, I even got a one-on-one interview with the SEC commish. Those were simpler times. 

I asked Kramer a few things, then asked him the only one question that mattered west of Siloam Springs. “How about Oklahoma to the SEC?” 

Kramer is a Southern gentleman with a ready smile. He was 60 years old in August 1990. Same age I am now. 

“You never know,” Kramer said with a twinkle in his eye. 

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We didn’t know for 31 years. But now we do. On the OU campus Friday morning in Norman, the Sooners’ board of regents is expected to vote in favor of accepting the SEC’s invitation.  

Although SEC expansion talks heated up in the late 1980s, no deals reached the finish line until after Roy Kramer became commissioner.

The Sooners, who for almost two decades have been chasing the SEC’s best — playoff losses to Louisiana State 2003 and 2019, Florida 2008, Georgia 2017, Alabama 2018 — now are joining the Deep South bullies

It’s all been a dizzying nine days since OU’s and Texas’ desires came to light, courtesy of the Houston Chronicle. I didn’t see it coming, unless you count that day in Fayetteville 31 years ago Sunday. 

But there were signs. We didn’t read the tea leaves. The massive ESPN contract with the SEC in December. Fox and ESPN declining in May to enter into early negotiations for a Big 12 contract extension. The NCAA’s abdication of administration.

And this, a quotation buried deep in a great espn.com story from last December about the breakup of the Southwest Conference a quarter century earlier. 

Retired Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who with then-OU AD Donnie Duncan put the Big 12 together, detected coming discontent. 

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“Times continue to change, and I think the Big 12 is probably concerned about the number of institutions in the Big 12, the future TV contracts and those kinds of things,” Dodds said. “I think there's going to be some movement again in the next two, three, four years. I think things will change again. How that happens or when that happens, I'm not sure. But I think maybe the Big 12 probably needs more members.” 

Did Dodds know something? I have no idea. He missed the timeline by about 18 months. Maybe the Houston Chronicle leak sped up the process.

But clearly Dodds sensed the uneasiness that was developing in Norman and perhaps knew the same was developing in Austin. 

The SEC's presidents voted unanimously to invite OU and Texas to join the league in 2025.

Truth is, conference realignment long has been with us. It spread like wildfire back in 2010-11, when the Big 12 lost Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri to a variety of leagues.  

But someone always is restless. Georgia Tech from the SEC to independence to the Atlantic Coast. South Carolina on the same track only opposite. Arizona State and Arizona from the old Western Athletic Conference to the Pac-10. A battalion of schools from the Big East to the ACC. Penn State and Florida State from premium independence to the Big Ten and ACC, respectively. Some of those moves go back more than half a century.

But the motivation usually is the same. Money. Status. Opportunity. 

Here’s what the late Frank Broyles, then Arkansas’ iconic athletic director, said that day in Fayetteville 31 years ago. 

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“It will make others around the country think they need to move faster than before, but regardless of what Arkansas had done, I see a major upheaval around the country,” Broyles said in what seemed like more innocent days. “Times of the ’90s are going to be so different, that schools have got to get ready, position themselves if they want to keep up with the Joneses and be competitive.” 

Keeping up with the Joneses. Keeping up with the SEC. Not all that much has changed in 31 years. 

Arkansas coach Ken Hatfield (left) and OU coach Barry Switzer (right) answer questions from former Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese ahead of the 1987 Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla.

Barry Switzer, who played for Broyles at Arkansas 65 years ago, said Thursday he remembers the phone call from his college coach, informing Switzer of the Razorbacks’ move to the SEC. 

“I remember exactly the conversation when he called,” Switzer said. “He said his reason was, the moment he signed the contract, the SEC improved him by $6 or $7 million. Lot of money then.” 

On Aug. 1, 1990, Arkansas was coming off back-to-back Southwest Conference titles. Of all the jumps over the years from conference to conference, nobody was playing at a higher level than were those Razorbacks. But Arkansas struggled its final two years in the SWC and has mostly struggled in the SEC. 

“Did it help them? No. It didn’t, in winning,” Switzer said. “I don’t think they’re satisfied with their SEC performance.”

Switzer figures the OU/Texas move to the SEC will help Arkansas. Expands the recruiting territory. The move figures to help OU’s and Texas’ recruiting, too. But the schedule will stiffen. 

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“They’ll do all right,” Switzer said of the Sooners. “Be like playing Texas every week. It’ll be tougher.” 

The SEC never was a carrot for the Sooners in Switzer’s years. National championships came regularly, and the old Big Eight was a conference of roustabouts. Nebraska always a contender. Colorado and OSU and Missouri had their moments. 

That twinkle in Kramer’s eye was just a twinkle. 

Now 31 years later, the same revelry comes to Norman that came to Fayetteville, because keeping up with the Joneses never goes out of style. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.