Craig’s GOP connections could help late Senate run
As a television college football analyst for ESPN, Craig James
is beamed into living rooms and sports bars across the country
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Associated Press reporter Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to