AUSTIN, Texas — In the sports world, Craig James was a star football player for Southern Methodist University and the New England Patriots. He later became a household name in Texas as a television analyst for ESPN.
Now that he’s running for the Senate, James can’t separate his Republican politics from football, which accounts for nearly all of his name recognition. But drawing attention to his athletic exploits also means revisiting a pair of well-known scandals going back to the 1980s.
So instead of fielding public-policy questions, he must constantly fend off comments about how he took improper payments at SMU and played a role in firing a popular Texas Tech coach.
“I’m ready to move on,” James, now 51, said last week in an interview at an Austin restaurant. It won’t be easy in a state where football inspires almost religious devotion, and fans cling to long memories.
James, who has never run for office, says his years as a small-town rancher, businessman and dad make him an ideal candidate to bring common sense to Washington. His rookie campaign sticks to broad conservative talking points: attacking President Barack Obama on the federal health care law, protecting the Constitution, cutting off illegal immigration and easing regulations on business.
Recent polls have shown him far behind his rivals, and his negative ratings among Texans are twice as high as his positives.
“The negatives are coming at him from multiple sources,” said Austin political consultant Bill Miller. “This is the deal with scandal: If it comes out early and you can get it behind you, you can survive. If it always stays in front of you, it’s a killer. He’s got to get it in a rearview mirror. We’ll see if he’s got the wherewithal to make it happen.”
James played at SMU from 1979 to 1982 and was a major part of the record-setting “Pony Express” backfield with Eric Dickerson. The Mustangs won Southwest Conference championships in 1981 and 1982, but 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 concluding that the school continued to pay players, even after a 1985 promise to stop. SMU also chose not to play in 1988.
James had already been gone from SMU for several years when the penalty was imposed, but he acknowledges taking “insignificant amounts” while playing there. He says he can’t remember how much or who gave it to him. He dismisses it as the mistake of an 18-year-old kid who wasn’t mature enough to say no.
He and his teammates were “the highest-profile people they’ve ever seen play at SMU,” James said. But “I don’t have anything to run from or hide from. It is what it is.”
He’s also partly responsible for why an NCAA investigation from the 1980s is still dogging him today.
James helped publicize the 2010 ESPN documentary “Pony Excess,” which dusted off the scandal for fans who didn’t know about it or had forgotten the details behind college football’s most famous corruption case.
James’ past also raises doubts among many Texas Tech fans who blame him for the 2009 firing of coach Mike Leach. James complained to school administrators that Leach mistreated his son Adam, a former Red Raiders player, 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 was a meddling dad who badgered coaches to get his son more playing time. Leach also contends an $800,000 bonus he was due on Dec. 31, 2009, was the reason he was fired. Leach has sued the university, ESPN and Craig James.
James knows the Leach saga is a liability in some parts of West Texas where Texas Tech is the region’s major university. He hasn’t campaigned yet in Lubbock but says he will and won’t be afraid to defend his actions in the Leach firing.
He also had this for any voters holding a grudge: “I’m going to support my son against bullying acts. If someone doesn’t get that, I don’t want their vote. Keep it.”
James picked a tough race for his political debut.
He didn’t join the Republican primary until Dec. 19, a late start in a field already crowded with three-term Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, plus several others. Those candidates all had a long head start raising money and collecting endorsements.
To catch up, James said he’s wearing out his pickup truck driving between Dallas, Houston and Austin meeting with “anyone who has money.” He acknowledges he may have to raise money outside Texas and plans to ask former college and pro teammates, coaches and celebrity friends for support.
James has connections among prominent Texas Republicans. Before launching his campaign, he was a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank influential with the state GOP. His inner circle includes at least two heavyweight fundraisers for Gov. Rick Perry and former President George W. Bush.
And despite his low polling numbers, James has been invited to participate in two high-profile candidate forums.
The Republican primary is scheduled for April 3, but it could be delayed depending on the outcome of legal challenges to congressional voting districts. A later primary would give James more time to raise money and promote his campaign.
James dismisses a suggestion he’s considered a long shot and believes he was called by God to run for office.
“That doesn’t mean God says, ‘You’re going to win, Craig,'” he said. “But I would far rather have done this than let God down and not do what he had called me to do.”