Texas A&M loses to Florida, but Aggies optimistic about SEC move
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There's a new addition to the wardrobe of Molly Marks, the wife of Texas A&M 12th Man Foundation President Miles Marks. For years, she wouldn't dare buy anything orange, the color of Texas A&M's archrival and big brother, Texas. But Marks reports that his wife's closet now includes orange, because the Longhorns are "no longer a rival."
Former Texas A&M All-America Jacob Green is rejoicing in the Aggies' decision to join the SEC and discover its own identity. "Texas has always thought they were the grandpa," Green said, "and we were the son."
The son -- or sun -- rose today in Texas A&M's first SEC game. The program's new era in the SEC under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin played out like games in years past, as the Aggies squandered a 10-point lead and fell to Florida, 20-17. Four of Texas A&M's six losses last year saw the team blow leads of nine points or more, and Sumlin called the penchant for collapse "the elephant in the room."
But this game will resonate much longer as an event, a day that both celebrated new life and finalized a divorce from an abusive relationship. A decade from now, we'll be able to tell if the move stemmed from institutional smarts or inferiority spite.
"If you want to be the best, you have to compete with the best, and the SEC has a long history of greatness that will push the university to new heights," said Rick Perry, the state's first Aggie governor, in an e-mail.
Perry served as a yell leader while a student at A&M, so his giddiness is understandable. And considering the 40,000 people who showed up at Midnight Yell Practice late Friday, Perry is not the only one who feels that way. The Aggies were so fired up, in fact, that they had a false start on the game's first possession.
But for all the screaming optimism, which Kliff Kingsbury's play-calling and redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel's debut helped fuel in the first half, plenty of pessimism remains.
Texas A&M hasn't been to a top-echelon bowl game since it lost the 1998 Sugar Bowl. It's won just two bowl games since 1995. Can A&M use the SEC cache to propel itself out of the rut of mediocrity and national irrelevancy it endured under Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman? Or will it find itself paddling upstream trying to catch LSU, Arkansas and Alabama in its own division?
"I think they made a mistake," said T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oil magnate who is Oklahoma State's booster-in-chief. "I think it's going to be a tough place for them to compete."
Pickens holds a unique perspective, as he played one year of basketball at Texas A&M before transferring to Oklahoma A&M, which is now Oklahoma State. A 5-foot-9 guard who weighed just 135 pounds, Pickens had his $25 per-month scholarship revoked because he wasn't good enough. (Somewhere, Texas A&M's fundraisers must shake their heads in daily disgust at that decision.)
Pickens stresses that he wishes no ill will toward the Aggies, as he considers himself "part Aggie" and remains grateful for the posterior hazing whacks he received during his year there. He just disagrees with what he considers the rationale behind the move.
"I wouldn't have done it because I felt like Texas A&M was moving because it didn't like UT," Pickens said in a phone interview this week. "I didn't think it was a good reason."
R.C. Slocum, A&M's coach until 2002, said in a phone interview earlier this week that the Aggies' consideration of the SEC dates all the way back to the early 1990s, when he called then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer about the SEC's interest. Despite mutual intrigue, Texas A&M went to the Big 12. Nearly 20 years later, Slocum approves of the move.
"I'm excited about it," he said. "I think it's a great, great move. Its one that I've been in favor of for a long time."
The fact that A&M fired Slocum, who won 72 percent of his games, provides some insight into the school's football soul. The only Texas A&M coach to leave under positive circumstances since World War I was Bear Bryant. The rest were fired, run off or walked away under duress.
If that sounds like the mindset of a school scrambling to catch up to its in-state rival, consider this: Texas A&M will enter the SEC tied for the league lead in NCAA major infractions cases. It shares that distinction with Auburn, another school in the shadow of its in-state rival that's tired of being viewed through a Big Brother prism.
"I'm dancing around what you're saying," Slocum said when asked about leaving Texas' shadow. "But the SEC gives us an identity here in this state. We're in arguably a disappointing time and in a league that's recognized as the best in the country."
In Texas A&M's case, the move also came with a chance to escape the Longhorn Network, the unequal revenue sharing in the Big 12 and the league's general and predictable administrative dysfunction. "Part of what will be refreshing to us is to be in a partnership with other schools," said Slocum, "where everyone views themselves being an equal partner."
The Big 12 has found a sense of stability with a new TV deal, which includes a grant of rights. But the Aggies aren't looking back; they're building for the future.
Texas A&M's fundraising for the 12th Man Foundation improved 10 percent to $23 million last year, Marks said. That didn't include a $9 million football-only sports performance facility that was funded and built within the past year, or the stadium expansion project set for after next year, which is expected to cost between $250 million and $450 million.
"I think our fan base is as unified right now and as excited as I've seen them in a long, long time," Marks said. "Perhaps ever."
Perhaps most importantly, there have been dividends on the recruiting trail, as Texas A&M ranks No. 3 in the Scout.com rankings and No. 10 in the Rivals.com rankings. Green, the former A&M defensive lineman, said those results can be tied to the charismatic Sumlin, the school's first African-American head coach. Green believes Sumlin's presence has countered the argument from negative recruiters that Texas A&M is a farm school in a farm town.
"That perception haunted us for a long time," said Green, who quizzed opposing recruiters and coordinators who admitted to spreading that tact. "It gives a kid that comes from the inner city a relaxed feeling when he sees Kevin Sumlin as the head coach. There's no question that it's helped recruiting."
For now, Texas A&M only leads the league in newly infused enthusiasm. The Aggies have distanced themselves from Texas, but they'll need more than a new conference and wardrobe to show they're ready for national relevancy.