Things have changed in Texas' Brazos Valley. The Brazos Trail is now known as Highway 6 and about the only livestock to be seen are chrome emblems on Mustangs. That old railroad depot-turned-into-a-town, College Station, has advanced culturally to the point where it has its very own strip of franchise restaurants and chain motels. And the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, home of the Aggies, once an all-male, all-military institution sometimes called "Sing Sing on the Brazos," is full of coeds and civilians, and the name is now Texas A&M University. The A&M part no longer stands for anything, perhaps left in there just to remind folks that in the not too distant past the campus was a curious blend of West Point, the Future Farmers of America and a seminary.
What apparently has not changed at Texas A&M is the spirit. Aggies still build a huge bonfire before the big game with Texas, and at midnight before home games they meet in Kyle Field, 10,000 or so strong, and have yell practice. Later, they form a "spirit" gauntlet from the jock dorm to the stadium for the players to walk through. They stand throughout every home game, calling themselves collectively "the 12th man." By tradition, they kiss their dates after every Aggie score. In short, as other Texans have known for years, Aggies are incurably square and just a little crazy.
To underline the latter, there was the sad summer when Reveille II, the A&M collie mascot, had to be put to sleep. His corpse was kept on ice until the entire student body returned that fall. Then he was given an open-casket funeral and buried next to his predecessor, Reveille I, outside the north end of the stadium. Presumably with full military honors.
What is different this season is that the Aggies have a football team that seems worthy of their tireless lungs and feet. Before last weekend the Aggies had beaten Clemson by 24 points, beaten LSU at Baton Rouge for only the second time in 15 years and knocked off Washington, Texas Tech (on regional TV), TCU and Baylor, losing only to Kansas. Last Saturday afternoon, as the Aggie War Hymn and the Spirit of Aggieland rang out over Kyle Field, A&M whipped the Arkansas Razorbacks 20-10 (six kisses worth), ran its record to 7-1 and improved its chances for the Southwest Conference championship, which Texas has won the last six years.
Normally, Texas A&M and Texas play on Thanksgiving, but this year, at the request of network television, the game will be live on the tube the day after—Friday, Nov. 29. Unless one of the teams is upset in the interim, a fair possibility in this nutty season, the game will decide the conference's representative in the Cotton Bowl. Unfortunately for the Aggies, it will be played in Austin. A&M has not won in Memorial Stadium since 1956 and has only two victories for all its 29 games in Austin.
That there is hope in Aggieland is largely to the credit of A&M's coach, quiet, pipe-puffing, Texas-born Emory Bellard. He was an outstanding high school coach in the state (139-34-3 at three schools, three state championships) before joining Darrell Royal's staff at Texas. He was there for five seasons and invented the Wishbone formation, although he did not personally dream up that name.
In 1972 Bellard took over as head man at A&M, where he continued to tinker with the X's and O's. In his original alignment, the halfbacks lined up a yard or so deeper than the fullback, thus creating the curved Wishbone look. Bellard now has moved his halfbacks up even with the fullback, as in the old straight-T formation, but spread them further out from the fullback than usual. He calls the formation the T-bone. Without delving into the coaching-clinic intricacies of it, he claims his halfbacks now block more effectively, get to the holes sooner and move out as receivers more quickly.
A&M football has made steady progress since Bellard's arrival. The Aggies suffered through a 3-8 record in 1972 but improved to 5-6 last year. This season they were ready to howl, inspiring, naturally, a bumper sticker: NO BRAG. JUST FACT. THE AGGIES ARE BACK.
They bashed Clemson in their home opener 24-0. It would have been more one-sided, and the rooting section would have turned into a passion pit, except for A&M mistakes. They traveled to Baton Rouge and beat LSU 21-14, after which LSU Coach Charlie McClendon said, "Their physical size moved us off the line. They had the size, the players and the experience. You might say they stuffed it at us, and they beat us at the line of scrimmage. In fact, they beat us on the line, on the corners, anywhere you want to look."
Next came a trip to Washington, whose head coach, Jim Owens, had once been an assistant at A&M. He did some reminiscing: "Can you imagine being surrounded by Texas in Austin, SMU in Dallas, TCU in Fort Worth, Rice in Houston—and being in College Station, a little bitty town at that time. The students all lived in barracks, everybody had to wear uniforms, there were no girls. Believe me when I tell you that was one tough sale!"
Well, there are girls in Aggieland today (they are called Maggies), only 2,500 of the 21,500 students are in the ROTC and the dorms do not resemble barracks. And A&M had athletes good enough to beat Washington 28-15. They were sloppy again, losing five fumbles, but spectacular plays by Linebacker Ed Simonini saved the day.
There followed an 18-point loss at Kansas, but the Aggies came back to beat Texas Tech 28-7 ("For Tech it was like somebody poured gas in the dressing room and started a fire," said Center Ricky Seeker. "We were not flat for them.") and trounced TCU 17-0 and Baylor 20-0.
The names of some Aggie players deserve special note. Garth Ten Napel, linebacker, sounds like a street address in Rotterdam. Ricky Seeker should be a wide-ranging ground-to-air missile. Bubba Bean, halfback, sounds like something developed by the campus Agronomy Society. And who could forget a middle linebacker named John McCrumbly?
As the Aggies moved to seventh in the UPI poll, eighth in the AP poll, there were niggling suspicions that maybe A&M was not really all that tough. For instance, the matter of fumbleitis. "I'm not going to sit here and talk about mistakes," Bellard snapped to an interviewer. "You mention the word mistake and people start thinking they go hand in hand with A&M football. I'm tired of that."
If Bellard seemed oversensitive about the A&M image, it was understandable. He is not alone, for wherever Former Students muster (they do not call themselves alumni), Aggie jokes are an irritating subject of conversation. In other parts of the United States there are Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Bohemian jokes, etc., but in Texas there always have been Aggie jokes. The Former Students are striking back.
There is a story out of Dallas that no doubt has been exaggerated in the retelling. The master of ceremonies at a dinner told an Aggie joke and got his anticipated laugh. Then a Former Student sitting in the back of the room stood up and called to the dais: "You recently sold a $100,000 insurance policy to my company. As of today it's canceled."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Granberry, speaking in Waco and perhaps feeling he was safely within Baylor territory, told an Aggie joke that went something like this:
A woman discovered to her horror that her basement was infested by a coterie of large rats. She consulted the Yellow Pages and called the Aggie Exterminating Co., which sent a vanload of Aggies decked out in full military regalia and carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. They charged into the basement. The result: Two of the Aggies were killed in action, eight were wounded, six defected to the other side and two came out with war brides.
Well, the Waco Tribune-Herald reprinted the joke, "credited" Granberry and the Former Students blew their collective stack. At every motel in College Station last weekend copies of the joke were posted, along with appeals to get out the vote against Granberry. There are more than 50,000 Former Students in the state and Granberry obviously was not going to find enough votes among them to be elected garbageman, despite the telegram of apology he sent to the school's president.
Nobody, of course, has been laughing about the Texas A&M football team, least of all Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles. The Razorbacks started their season gloriously by beating highly touted USC, but injuries and other problems had left them with a 4-3 record (1-2 in the SWC). Against Baylor, Arkansas fell behind 14-0, came back to lead 17-14 and then fumbled, giving Baylor a golden chance to march a short distance for the winning touchdown. It was one of the most disappointing losses of Broyles' estimable career.
"We fight back like a good football team, we fight our guts out and then lay it on the ground," he said afterward. "One play, one in a lifetime that comes at the wrong time."
Out of contention for the conference championship but at least somewhat healthier ("Now we're just limping on one leg instead of two," said Broyles), Arkansas went to College Station hoping to knock off a Top Ten team and salvage something from the season. Broyles talked of A&M's "awesome-looking squad," its quick, confident defense and "phenomenal running game."
But the game was phenomenal mostly for mistakes and penalties. It was also what coaches like to call a "physical game," meaning the collisions out on the AstroTurf made even them wince. In the first three series of downs there were calls for offensive pass interference, offside, holding and a personal foul. And A&M's 18-year-old sophomore quarterback, David Walker, blew a touchdown by hanging a pass too high, forcing his receiver to stop and wait under it, as if it were a punt. Walker, who just the day before had been described by Bellard as having "an exceptional arm," was way off on his passing all day.
Typically, a mistake opened the way for the first score. A&M Punter Mark Stanley got off a beautiful kick into the wind and Arkansas Safety Floyd Hogan tried to catch it over his shoulder while running toward his own goal. Hogan dropped it, A&M recovered and Jerry Honore, playing fullback in place of the injured first stringer, plunged in from the one three plays later.
Arkansas took the kickoff and promptly marched 73 yards for the tying touchdown. Marched is perhaps not the correct word because two penalties helped. The TD came on a 12-yard Mark Miller-to-Ike Forte pass.
The Razorbacks might have guessed they were going to fall behind in the second quarter if they had taken a look at the statistics. A&M had outscored its opponents 72-0 in second quarters. Sure enough, Randy Haddox, with the wind at his back, kicked a school-record 57-yard field goal and the Aggies went into the locker room with a 10-7 lead. The 12th man, except for the huge military marching band, could sit down for a while. There might well have been a 17-7 lead to savor except that Walker overthrew a wide-open Bubba Bean.
After a scoreless third quarter, Arkansas capitalized on the recovery of an errant A&M pitchout and got close enough for Steve Little to kick a 32-yard field goal that made it 10-10. But three plays later Honore, who had carried the ball only three times all season before this game, plunged up the middle on what started as a routine play, broke a tackle or two or three and sprinted 60 yards to a touchdown. He ended up with 131 yards on 19 carries for a 6.9 rushing average, not bad for a three-year bench warmer.
Haddox's subsequent 40-yard field goal was icing, and the superb Aggie defense, led by a Louisiana Cajun at tackle, Warren Trahan, and the three quick linebackers, Siminini, McCrumbly and Ten Napel, kept Arkansas in check. "A&M's defense was extremely quick and well-coached," said Broyles. "We couldn't keep them blocked."
The Top Ten, a 7-1 record, All-America candidates all over the place—why, it was almost more excitement than the Former Students could bear. In Aggie-land, which is any place in the world two or more Aggies gather, school rings were flashed more conspicuously than usual and the talk probably got around to setting up a fund to feed Reveille III ground filet every day. Naturally, there is a new Aggie joke circulating to fit the situation, about the students who wanted to chant, "We're No. 1!" but didn't know how many fingers to put up.
The Aggies themselves are laughing at that one—maybe all the way to the Cotton Bowl.