AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — ESPN college football analyst Craig James, who starred as a tailback at Southern Methodist University and with the New England Patriots in the 1980s, announced Monday he was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Texas, a GOP fundraiser said.
James, who appears on the cable network’s weekly game broadcasts, has been flirting with entering politics for more than year. Republican fundraiser and close friend Roy Bailey told The Associated Press on Monday that James was running for the Senate seat and was in the process of dropping off his official candidate papers in Austin.
“I think it’s great for Texas. Anytime you have someone with Craig’s street smarts and business sense and willingness to serve the public, it’s a great thing,” said Bailey, who added that he would help raise money for James.
Though James’ name recognition could be an advantage in the race, it also could hurt him.
James is a polarizing figure who was embroiled in Texas Tech University’s 2009 decision to fire popular football coach Mike Leach over allegations the coach mistreated James’ son, a Red Raiders player, after he sustained a concussion. He also was a member of the record-setting SMU football team in the early 1980s when the program entered a series of scandals that ultimately forced the NCAA to shut it down.
James’ late entry into the Senate race puts him a in a primary field already crowded with well-known and wealthy candidates who are vying for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert and former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz have spent months raising money and collecting endorsements from prominent Republicans. The deadline to enter the race is Feb. 1.
James, 50, who lives in Celina north of Dallas, has been a board member of the influential conservative think tank the Texas Policy Foundation in Austin and recently founded Texans for a Better America to promote conservative policies. He is likely banking on name recognition from his work for ESPN and his ties to big-time college football to overcome his late start.
But that name recognition could prove to be a double-edged sword.
Texas Tech fired Leach, who had the most wins in school 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. Leach also has sued ESPN Inc. and a Dallas public relations firm, accusing them of libel and slander after he was fired.
From 1979-1982, James was a star player at SMU and was 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.
But James also has had a close relationship with Dallas real estate developer Sherwood Blount, one of the key boosters involved in the pay-for-play scandal. Blount, who reportedly insisted SMU had a “payroll to meet” even after the school promised the payments would stop, was James’ agent when he played in the NFL.
In his book “Gameday,” James wrote: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I never received a nickel during my playing days. But I can say with certainty that no benefits were ever extended to me from anyone associated with the SMU administration.”
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 Writer Chris Tomlinson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.