Commentary

Joneses open doors to Texas invaders

Cowboys Classic gives national programs a foothold in fertile local recruiting grounds

Updated: September 4, 2011, 2:06 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- With all the hand-wringing over recruiting advantages in the Lone Star State, why aren't folks within these borders charging with pitchforks and torches after Stephen and Jerry Jones?

These rabble rousers -- with Arkansas Razorbacks roots, mind you -- are guilty of intentional recruiting transgressions against the proud state of Texas.

Think Texas coach Mack Brown and Texas A&M's Mike Sherman enjoyed seeing No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU, with their already 20 combined players who were raised in Texas and reared on its pigskin, including both starting quarterbacks, take over their turf at sold-out Cowboys Stadium in a showcase matchup made for primetime network TV?

Les Miles Certainly, we would think the Texas student-athletes would have a chance to see themselves attending SEC schools. And hopefully this would give us an opportunity to be even more serious about those guys that are participating in football in Texas.

-- LSU coach Les Miles

Saturday's game drew extra hype and excitement because of its status as only the fourth season opener between two top-five teams and the first since 1999.

Still, think they'll applaud as Alabama and Michigan come on down in 2012? Or Notre Dame and Arizona State in 2013? And whichever major conference teams are currently in negotiations to kick off the 2014 and 2015 seasons? Those talks are under way, Stephen Jones said.

"It obviously gives them exposure very much the way the Texas-OU game does for both of us," said Brown, who also attempted to mitigate the recruiting impact of a game such as Saturday's Cowboys Classic. "I've always thought distance from home was a key to recruiting, and I still think the schools in the state of Texas or the ones that are really close on the outskirts of our state would have the best chance to get the kids."

Isn't it enough that Jerry Jones, the loquacious Dallas Cowboys owner, and son Stephen, the club's level-headed CEO, are in charge of the NFL's most cherished brand and built a stadium that's the envy the sporting world? For the sanctity of the local lads, must these two now have their mitts on college football's top billing (outside the BCS bowls), too?

Just look around this place and you see that if invited, fans will follow their schools, rabidly. Attendance Saturday night hit 87,711. Some 60,000 LSU followers purchased tickets, and there was no shortage of yellow-and-green clad fans who traveled from the great Pacific Northwest. All paid a pretty penny to get inside these giant, glass palace doors, anywhere from $50 for standing-room only to $400, face value.

Clearly it's a fun Labor Day weekend trip for football fans and even better business for the schools. And make no mistake why these great institutions of higher learning traveled here. Stephen Jones, at the forefront of negotiations, hammers it home.

"Teams really enjoy the thought of, one, playing in the building, but the other key thing which I think really backs up our fundamentals is North Texas is such a hotbed with high school football for recruiting," he said. "I think a lot of these big programs want to have a face here and want to have a presence here."

When Arizona State agreed in 2008 to play the Fighting Irish in 2013, Sun Devils athletic director Lisa Love said, "We believe this will be a magnificent game for our fans and alumni. Our coaching staff recruits the state of Texas and this will only serve to assist in that area."

That was two years before the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 and neared the tipping point last summer of becoming the Pac-16 to include Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. With the recent news that the Pac-16 option is being discussed again, suddenly Arizona State's foresight to sign up in North Texas seems all the more wise.

[+] EnlargeCowboys Stadium
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe opportunity to play in Cowboys Stadium and gain the attention of North Texas football recruits is making the Cowboys Classic a popular destination.

This was the Cowboys Classic third edition, but really the first in now a line of truly national matchups. Oklahoma and BYU played the inaugural game and TCU beat Oregon State last season. Games of national intrigue will continue to come down the pike as the Cowboys Classic, aided by ESPN's robust involvement, looks to carry on the tradition of the defunct Kickoff Classic held annually at the Meadowlands from 1983-2002.

The Georgia Dome in Atlanta has also played host to a season-opening game since 2008. Saturday's game matching Boise State and Georgia on ESPN rivaled the Cowboys Classic, which aired on all-in-the-family over-the-air network ABC. It is the first time that game has not paired an SEC team against one from the ACC. It gets back to that regional pairing in 2012 and 2013 before Boise is scheduled for a 2014 return appearance.

The Cowboys Classic has already included or inked teams from the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC as well as Notre Dame. It will continue to seek a more national flavor and it has the means to keep them coming.

Teams such as Michigan, Alabama and Notre Dame reap between $4 million and $6 million per home game. They're not about to give up that kind of payday to play a top opponent on a neutral field unless they're cut a hefty check.

"Because of the capacity of our stadium and what we can get for the tickets in this market," Stephen Jones said, also noting ESPN's involvement, "I think we get pretty close to what they would normally make."

Michigan athletic department CFO Jason Winters said the Cowboys Classic provided enough financial gain for the Wolverines to commit to the 2012 game.

"In this case when we made the decision to go to [Arlington] we took a look at what our net revenue was on a single-game basis," Winters said. "Generally speaking, we were looking to receive that amount of compensation when we agreed to the game."

The Wolverines have five Texans on their 2011 roster, but just one from North Texas. Next season's opponent, Alabama, has four Texans and one North Texan (the Crimson Tide won a national title in 2009 with former Southlake Carroll High School quarterback Greg McElroy).

Arizona State has just two Texans and none from North Texas' fertile grounds. All four of Notre Dame's Texans on the roster hail from the area.

LSU, as expected, has the most Texans of any of the six teams on the slate through 2013. Five of its 13 Texans are North Texans. The desire for a bigger footprint in the state, and more precisely this region, is bigger than ever. College football is more competitive than ever, and as conference landscapes continue to shift, geography continues to shrink.

And, everybody's looking for an edge.

Listen to LSU coach Les Miles' take on Texas A&M's all-but-stamped relocation to the SEC and the potential Texas recruiting windfall.

"Certainly, we would think the Texas student-athletes would have a chance to see themselves attending SEC schools," Miles said. "And, hopefully this would give us an opportunity to be even more serious about those guys that are participating in football in Texas."

Poaching season in Texas is getting more crowded. Mack Brown and Mike Sherman can thank Stephen and Jerry Jones. Get used to it, because those Hogs aren't going back to Arkansas any time soon.

"The number of recruits that come year-in and year-out out of the North Texas area, and then you couple that with what we believe is a world-class stadium," Stephen Jones said, "and I think you've got the makings of something that gets traction and stays special and, hopefully, we can nurture that and bring it along."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.

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