COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Texas A&M football players broke the team huddle after practices early last season, they yelled "Big 12 champs" in unison.
But they didn't really believe they could be. Not yet, anyway.
A program can change its schemes and upgrade its talent to forge a new identity. Changing a culture is another matter.
Texas A&M has changed schemes. Coach Mike Sherman brought to College Station what he learned as a successful NFL head coach, and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter -- hired before last season from Air Force -- installed a 3-4 that took advantage of the Aggies' personnel. Texas A&M certainly has talent. Most of the coaches in the country would trade their backs for the tandem of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael or their offensive tackles for the tandem of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
But the Aggies didn't know how to win. More specifically, they didn't know how to expect to win. That began to change late last season. If they can complete the culture change this offseason, that "Big 12 champs" huddle break might actually mean something come September.
"It's one of those things that you kind of speak into existence," linebacker Garrick Williams said. "When you say it all the time, you start to believe it. Once it starts happening, you think, 'We can really do this.'"
Thanks to the youth of the participants and the fact that no one plays longer than four years, culture changes happen all the time in college football. When Oklahoma players step on the field, they expect to win. It doesn't matter if their opponent has more talent. They have been indoctrinated with a belief that they are supposed to win every game because they are the ones wearing crimson-and-cream uniforms. The same goes for the players at Alabama, who can't remember a time when losing was acceptable. But Oklahoma wasn't OKLAHOMA in the mid-90s. It was an also-ran for a few years until Bob Stoops made the program great again. Meanwhile, Alabama wasn't a power for the first few years of this century. It became a power again because Nick Saban and his staff altered the program's attitude while at the same time upgrading scheme and talent.
The attitude shift at Texas A&M began before last season, but it didn't manifest itself until after the Aggies got creamed, 30-9, by Missouri at home to fall to 3-3. They had lost a thriller to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and they had played respectably in a loss to a good Arkansas team, but they had suffered a complete breakdown against the Tigers. Something had to change.
The following week at Kansas, Sherman pulled quarterback Jerrod Johnson in the second quarter and inserted quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback Ryan Tannehill in his place. This was by design. Sherman had decided the previous Sunday that he wanted Tannehill at quarterback, but he didn't want anyone to think he was pinning the Missouri loss on Johnson. Everyone deserved blame for the loss, but the quarterback change still needed to be made. So Sherman eased in Tannehill during the win at Kansas and then named him the starter for the Texas Tech game the following week. With Tannehill starting, Texas A&M won five in a row. That streak included wins against eventual Big 12 title-game participants Oklahoma and Nebraska and a Thanksgiving-night win at Texas. The move to Tannehill didn't remake the team, but it might have provided the spark the Aggies needed to change their mentality.
Williams, now a fifth-year senior, saw the shift in mindset. "In previous years, you could always sense that little feeling when we played Oklahoma or someone like that," Williams said. "That, 'I don't really know about this game.' Last year, we came out ready to play. We actually believed we could win."
Sherman saw the change, too. "When we first got here, when things went poorly, guys' expectations went south real quick," Sherman said. "The year before last, they kind of hoped things would work out. Last year, they just believed in themselves."
Just believing isn't enough, though. The Aggies realize now they need other intangibles before they can complete their culture change. For example, great programs have multiple leaders. Last year, the defense relied too heavily on linebacker Michael Hodges. Though quarterback-cruncher Von Miller is the one on every NFL team's draft board, former walk-on Hodges led the Aggies in tackles in 2010. Hodges could tell all 10 of his teammates where to go on any given play. He was the soul of a unit that had gone from last in the Big 12 in scoring defense and total defense in 2009 to fourth and fifth in those categories in 2010. So when Hodges left the Cotton Bowl in the first quarter with a knee injury, the Aggies' defense fell apart without him in a 41-24 loss to LSU.
Safety Trent Hunter learned from that experience. When Hodges went down, no one -- Hunter included -- rose to the occasion. He regrets that fact to this day. "You can't rely on one guy," Hunter said, "to carry your football team." Recently, Hunter clicked on a video of the Cotton Bowl so he could feel the pain again. "I didn't go to sleep for a few hours," Hunter said. "It kind of makes you sick to your stomach. ... We just kind of sat back and watched LSU punch us in the mouth."
Hunter gets an equally sick feeling when he thinks about the Oklahoma State and Arkansas losses. "I'll start sweating," he said. "It makes me mad." That feeling is proof of the ongoing culture change. Before, such losses wouldn't have bothered an Aggie so much. Now, they burn. Because if that Oklahoma State game had turned out differently -- the teams were tied at 35 when Johnson threw an interception that set up the Cowboys' game-winning field goal -- then Texas A&M would have faced Nebraska for the Big 12 title.
This offseason, Williams, Hunter and nose guard Eddie Brown will try to instill in their teammates that one player's fortunes should not dictate the fortunes of the entire defense. On offense, Tannehill, receiver Jeff Fuller and the two-headed Gray/Michael monster will ensure the Aggies show up every Saturday and don't need the kind of defensive bailout they got in a 9-6 win over Nebraska. "There's still so much here to accomplish," said Fuller, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder who could have easily left for the NFL but who came back for a chance to be part of something special. "I'm not done with school yet. We're still in the middle of building. Last year was good, but it wasn't great. I just want to continue building."
Can the Aggies make the leap from good to great? Oklahoma -- the likely preseason No. 1 -- stands in the way. So does Texas, which probably won't go 5-7 a second consecutive season. The Aggies have the scheme and the talent to beat anyone, but do they have the correct attitude? That remains to be seen, but a year into their mental transformation, they now understand that they will determine their own ceiling.
"What can't we do? Kyle Field doesn't have a roof on it," Hunter said. "The sky is the limit for this team right now."