AUSTIN, Texas — As a television college football analyst for ESPN, Craig James is beamed into living rooms and sports bars across the country every week.
Back home in Texas, he’s a polarizing figure who was embroiled in Texas Tech University’s decision to fire football coach Mike Leach in 2009 and was a member of the record-setting Southern Methodist University football team in the early 1980s when the program entered a series of scandals that ultimately forced the NCAA to shut it down.
As James weighs whether to run for Senate as a Republican, his football resume could hurt him as much as help in a state enthralled by the game.
ESPN said Friday James asked to be allowed to not work next Tuesday night’s Beef O’Brady’s bowl, fueling speculation that he will enter the race to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The deadline to enter the race had been Monday, though a federal court on Friday moved the deadline to Feb. 1.
Telephone and email messages to James were not immediately returned Friday. James’ friend, Roy Bailey, a Dallas insurance executive who has been one of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s top fundraisers, said James is still undecided.
“He’s very, very seriously contemplating this,” Bailey said. “He is just sick, as a lot of people are, at what’s going on in Washington D.C. … If he gets in, I’m all in with him.”
James, a former player at Southern Methodist University and in the NFL, is a well-known sports figure both in Texas and around the country. But his name recognition could hurt him, particularly back home.
James played at SMU from 1979-1982 and was a major part of the record-setting “Pony Express” backfield with Eric Dickerson. Though the Mustangs won Southwest Conference championships in 1981 and 1982, the team was also embroiled in several NCAA investigations.
In 1987, the NCAA hit SMU with the so-called “death penalty” for repeated infractions, shutting down the program for a year after finding SMU had continued to pay players after promising in 1985 it would stop. SMU also chose not to play in 1988 because the NCAA would have limited the Mustangs to only seven games, none at home.
The scandal is generally considered among the worst in college sports history. The sanctions leveled by the NCAA decimated the Mustangs program and SMU remains the only school to be given the “death penalty.”
James was never directly implicated in the NCAA transgressions and he has consistently denied any involvement.
Two years ago, James was involved in the firing of Leach, the winningest coach in Texas Tech history, after James complained to school administrators that Leach mistreated his son, Adam James, by twice ordering him to stand for hours confined in a dark place after he got a concussion.
Leach denies mistreating the younger James and has said Craig James had called coaches trying to get his son more playing time. Leach also said he suspects an $800,000 bonus he was due on Dec. 31, 2009, was the reason he was fired.
Leach sued the university and named Craig James as a defendant. The case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court. Many Red Raiders fans remain angry that Leach was fired and some blame James for his ouster.
Austin political consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller said the controversy won’t necessarily be bad for James if it keeps him alive in the political conversation.
“It puts him in the middle of the public debate about a pretty important issue,” Miller said. “That’s good for a candidate.”
As a college football analyst and color commentator, part of James’ job at ESPN is to take strong positions on which teams deserve top bowl bids or which players deserve national awards.
That can win fans or lose them every week depending on what he says about their favorite teams and players.
James also is a political novice who has never held elected office. He would be joining a primary already crowded with wealthy, powerful and experienced candidates.
“Late starts are just killers,” Miller said. “If you want to succeed in this business, you’ve got to give yourself time to campaign and raise money. He’s done neither of those.”
But James has friends among key Texas Republicans and could marshal a team of heavyweight fundraisers to help him catch up.
Bailey has worked with former New York mayor and former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Guliani.
Jim Lee, a Houston investor who was Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign finance chairman in 2010 and is helping raise money for Perry’s presidential campaign, is one of three founding partners on Texans for a Better America, a nonprofit James set up in April to promote conservative policies.
Lee, who did not return telephone messages seeking comment Friday, has already sent potential James supporters an email trying to drum up financial commitments.
James also is a board member at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that is highly influential with Texas Republicans.
He will need those connections and national fundraising muscle to compete. He will likely find it difficult to raise enough money in Texas alone to effectively compete with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his $200 million personal fortune, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert and former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz, all of whom have spent months campaigning, raising money and collecting endorsements.
That means James will have bank on his contacts and fans outside the state to finance his campaign, something that his celebrity and name recognition should make easier.
After college, James was drafted by the Washington Federals in the USFL and signed with the Patriots before the 1985 season. He retired from football in 1989.
As a businessman, James has been involved in ventures providing video content for the Internet as well as real estate holdings and development, according to the Texans for a Better America website.
Associated Press reporter Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to this report.