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Senate candidate can't escape sports scandals

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 11:11 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 13, 2010 file photo, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Craig James, center, speaks with his attorney James Drakeley, right, and Scott McLaughlin, before entering the Texas Tech Administration Building to give a sworn statement in regards to the firing of former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach in Lubbock, Texas. Now that he’s running for the Senate, James can’t separate his 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.   (Geoffrey McAllister, File, Associated Press) FILE - In this March 13, 2010 file photo, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Craig James, center, speaks with his attorney James Drakeley, right, and Scott McLaughlin, before entering the Texas Tech Administration Building to give a sworn statement in regards to the firing of former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach in Lubbock, Texas. Now that he’s running for the Senate, James can’t separate his 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. (Geoffrey McAllister, File, Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this Jan 12, 2012 file photo, former ESPN commentator Craig James is seen announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate seat in Austin, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary.  (Eric Gay, File, Associated Press) FILE - In this Jan 12, 2012 file photo, former ESPN commentator Craig James is seen announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate seat in Austin, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. (Eric Gay, File, Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this March 12, 2010 file photo, former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, left, arrives with his attorney Ted Liggett to give a videotaped deposition in Lubbock, Texas. Former ESPN commentator and Republican candidate for Senate Craig James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. James’ ongoing legal entanglements with Leach have also made him on unpopular figure for many Texas Tech fans who blame him for the popular coach’s firing.  (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Zach Long, Associated Press) FILE - In this March 12, 2010 file photo, former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, left, arrives with his attorney Ted Liggett to give a videotaped deposition in Lubbock, Texas. Former ESPN commentator and Republican candidate for Senate Craig James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. James’ ongoing legal entanglements with Leach have also made him on unpopular figure for many Texas Tech fans who blame him for the popular coach’s firing. (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Zach Long, Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this 1982 file photo, Southern Methodist running backs Craig James, left and Eric Dickerson stand on the sideline during a Soutwest Conference Game in Irving, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits, and threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. (AP Photo, File) (The Associated Press) FILE - In this 1982 file photo, Southern Methodist running backs Craig James, left and Eric Dickerson stand on the sideline during a Soutwest Conference Game in Irving, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can’t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits, and threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. (AP Photo, File) (The Associated Press)

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."

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