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IT WAS AN UGLY DAY,

Aug. 16, 2004
Aug. 16, 2004

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Aug. 16, 2004

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IT WAS AN UGLY DAY,

exactly as forecast. A steady mist was falling; the air was cold. The thing about football is, nobody worth a damn ever ran out on the field believing he couldn’t win.

OKLAHOMA 77

This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

TEXAS A&M 0

Terrence Murphy, a junior receiver for Texas A&M, believed with utter certainty that the 4–5 Aggies were destined for the biggest upset in college football since they had defeated an unbeaten and No. 1– ranked Oklahoma team the year before, spoiling the Sooners’ national title hopes. Murphy, who’d caught two touchdown passes in that game, was sure that history was going to repeat itself on this day, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003. All week long, in practice and in meetings, players had vowed to shock the world with another upset of the Sooners. Their coaches, on the other hand, were experienced enough to avoid such grandiose predictions. They said instead that the Aggies would surprise some people, which is the most optimistic assessment of his chances that any coach with half a mind is ever likely to give.

Each day leading up to the game, the Aggies watched tape of the 9–0 Oklahoma team, whose offense averaged 45 points a game, the best in the nation, and whose defense looked as tough as any ever assembled. They saw a squad loaded with All-Americas on both sides of the ball--and with a quarterback, Jason White, who was a virtual lock to win the Heisman Trophy. Yet they came away from these sessions convinced that they could get the better of the Sooners.

Beat Oklahoma and the Aggies would improve their record to 5–5. Win the last two games of the year, against Big 12 opponents Missouri and Texas, and they’d be 7–5 and invited to a bowl game. Saturday’s game would be the biggest of the season. It would be the game people would look back on when they looked back on Dennis Franchione’s first year as coach of the Aggies.

“You coach college football, and you know there’s always a way to win,” says Franchione (pronounced Fran-CHO-nee), who’d left Alabama the previous December to take the A&M job. “It doesn’t matter who you are and who you play--it happens. We’ve all seen it. We had an excellent week of practice. Our coaches devised a good game plan, and our players prepared well. During the pregame meal I looked around and saw their faces and thought we were ready. I believed we would win.”

Some 83,000 fans crowded into Oklahoma Memorial Stadium that day--including the A&M band and a large contingent of students from College Station who, as the collective body known as the 12th Man, were standing when the Sooners kicked off to start the game. From where he waited near the goal line, Murphy watched the ball sail past him for a touchback. A roar came up as the Aggies’ offense and the Sooners’ defense ran out for the first play from scrimmage, and the casual observer saw nothing more than the astute one: The players on the Oklahoma side of the ball looked little different from those on the A&M side.

In the huddle Murphy faced quarterback Reggie McNeal and got the call: 353X-Go. Rather than start modestly with a running play to see who won first licks up front, Franchione had called Murphy’s number. He was going deep.

Murphy listens to gospel music and movie sound tracks before each game, and fragments of an instrumental from The Lord of the Rings trilogy were still kicking around in his head. He trotted out wide to the right and lined up opposite Oklahoma cornerback Brodney Pool. Murphy looked left to watch McNeal call the signals, and on the snap he took a few hard strides up the field before pushing to his right and streaking past Pool. McNeal faked to the tailback crashing into the line, then turned and hardly looked for Murphy before letting the ball go.

Numbed halfway to sleep by too much preparation, players often start in low gear, and this seemed to be the case with Pool. Murphy was wide open. He glanced up and found McNeal’s pass floating toward him. But even in the dense fall weather the ball looked as though it had too much air under it. Murphy had been taught never to leave his feet and dive for a pass, so he resisted the impulse. He took an extra step and attempted to stride to the ball, shooting his hands out at the last instant. “It might’ve barely touched one finger,” Murphy said, “but if it had got in my hands, there’s no question I would’ve caught it.” The ball hit the turf and bounded away, and Murphy slid five or six yards on his back, clutching air.

That incomplete pass to open the game would be the Aggies’ best shot at scoring all day. It would also be the A&M offense’s best chance at crossing the 50-yard line. “If that ball was caught,” Murphy says, “you have a whole different ball game.”

Asked how it would have been different, Murphy reflects for a moment, then says, “Well, for one thing, the score wouldn’t have been 77–0.”

It was an ugly day, especially for the A&M seniors, who would have to deal with the memory of it the rest of their lives. The Aggies had vowed to make history and shock the world, and they had accomplished both by halftime, when the score was 49–0 and the Sooners had scored touchdowns on seven of their first eight possessions, both Big 12 records. High-speed, pass-based offenses have made blowouts in college football commonplace, but the rout of A&M was so stunning that some who read about it the next day in their morning papers wondered if the score was a typo.

It was the worst loss for A&M’s 110-year-old football program, far surpassing a 48–0 defeat by Texas in 1898. It also threatened to have repercussions for a long time to come. Everyone loses, but how does a proud program like A&M’s absorb such humiliation? How does it respond when its manhood has been ground into the turf?

How does the school attract top recruits who have seen such a pummeling? What about the alumni, who expect more from the team even in a rebuilding phase?

Oklahoma put up 639 yards total offense; A&M had 54. The Aggies made only three first downs and were forced to punt 12 times. The defense played no better, obliterating any memory of its halcyon days of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was called the Wrecking Crew and A&M was dubbed Linebacker U. The Aggies made Jason White look like the best quarterback who ever lived. He set an Oklahoma record by completing his first 14 passes, four of them for touchdowns.

“I believe in being decent to people,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told reporters afterward, and no one who saw the game doubted him. The score was 77–0 by the end of the third quarter, and in the fourth the Sooners’ reserves ran dive after dive into the heart of the line to make sure that they didn’t score again and that the clock kept running. In the stadium certain Oklahoma fans made giddy by the spectacle began to chant for the Sooners to score 100 points. Had Stoops been less compassionate, he could have done it.

“No doubt about it,” says Carl Torbush, A&M’s defensive coordinator. “You look at the score, and you think Coach Stoops ran it up. Well, I promise you he didn’t. You look at that score, and you also think our players quit. No, they didn’t, not one of them. It just got out of hand.”

At halftime Murphy put his headphones on and sat listening to more of The Lord of the Rings sound track. The music failed to calm him. Barely 90 minutes earlier he and his teammates had been convinced that they would teach the Sooners a thing or two about humility. Now they weren’t sure they wanted to play the second half. “You didn’t want to go back out and play anymore,” says free safety Jaxson Appel. “You just wanted to go home.”

When Franchione and his staff addressed the players, they were careful not to add to their burden by accusing them of not playing hard. “It was a nightmare,” says Torbush. “The worst thing you could do in that situation is beat up your players.” Instead, the coaches beseeched the young Aggies to not give up. Forget the score, they said. A new game begins in the second half. Go out and win it. Play for pride.

Around the country A&M has always enjoyed a reputation for playing tough, aggressive football even when it lacked great talent. It’s one of those rare schools whose tradition compels teams to overcome challenges that can defeat other programs. In other words, a team of halfway-decent Aggies can usually play with anybody, including a squad as talented as Oklahoma’s.

The Aggies hadn’t had a losing season in 20 years, and in 1998, under coach R.C. Slocum, they had won the Big 12 championship. In ’02, Slocum’s last year, the Aggies went 6–6 and lost by 30 points to rival Texas. While that had prompted the university to fire Slocum after 14 seasons and more career wins (123) than any other coach in school history, in retrospect it looked like a dream year.

Franchione brought his entire staff with him from Alabama, where he had gone 10–3 in his second and final season, the same year that the NCAA stripped the Crimson Tide program of 21 scholarships, banned it for two years from playing in a bowl game and imposed a five-year probation. The punishment was for infractions committed before Franchione was hired at Alabama, and his ability to win in the face of such adversity had made him an instant hero in the state. That changed when he decided to abandon Alabama and head to A&M. His departure infuriated the Crimson Tide faithful. They felt hustled and betrayed: With an impassioned speech about commitment, Franchione had persuaded his players to remain with him at Alabama though the NCAA would have allowed them to transfer without losing a year of eligibility, yet he had bolted as soon as A&M came calling.

Many in Tuscaloosa took Franchione for a fool and a hypocrite. Who, after all, leaves a storied program like theirs for the boondocks of College Station? What’s more, who cons his players into staying when he himself secretly desires to leave?

While Franchione has reserved a full reply to these questions for a book he plans to write, he and his wife, Kim, never felt entirely at home in Tuscaloosa. Though proud to lead one of the nation’s most famous football teams, Franchione felt suffocated by the scrutiny that came with the job, and he didn’t know what to make of fans so obsessed with the Tide that they seemed prepared to eat him alive.

His decision to forsake Alabama so upset one Crimson Tide fan that he wrote Franchione an unsigned email threatening to “gut [him] like a deer” if ever he returned to the state. It was only one of 6,000 pieces of hate mail that Franchione received the week after he left for College Station. In another message a man who dared to identify himself said he hoped to see A&M’s plane crash with Franchione, his staff and their families on it. He added that he hoped there would be no survivors. Some of the correspondence with a threatening tone were turned over to the FBI, says Mike McKenzie, A&M’s liaison for external operations. “The emails still come, even now,” he says. “You read them and think, What kind of human being writes this sort of thing? Dennis Franchione is a football coach.”

Shortly after the Franchiones landed in College Station, Kim told Dennis she was going to build their “pine-box house,” meaning she wouldn’t move again unless it was in a coffin. A&M indeed looked like the last stop for Franchione, who’d coached at nine colleges in 24 years, his longest stint being five years at New Mexico in the ’90s.

Evaluating A&M’s talent, Franchione and his assistants saw that their first priority would be to recruit better. At Alabama, Franchione’s top two defensive squads ran the 40yard dash in an average time of 4.7 seconds. At A&M he inherited a team whose top 22 defenders averaged more than 5.0 seconds in the 40. At Texas Christian, where Franchione coached before going to Alabama, he’d had 40 players who could bench-press 400 pounds or more. At A&M last year only four players could bench that. Worse, the Aggies had players--a few of them starters--whom Franchione had passed on when he was recruiting for TCU.

Still, A&M was now his team, and it was down 49–0 at halftime in the 2003 Oklahoma game. As Franchione took the worst beating of his career, he wasn’t about to begin pointing fingers. “I can never put our players under the bus,” the coach says. “I think players win games and coaches lose them. The responsibility of what happened at Oklahoma lies with me first.

“I’m here for all the times, not just the good ones.”

Among Franchione’s players that day was redshirt freshman John Ray, whom the coach had selected as the team’s 12th Man. As such Ray, who was on the kickoff coverage team, wore jersey number 12 and represented the student body on the field. It was the realization of a dream for the reserve strong safety from Giddings, Texas. Ray comes from a family of A&M alumni, and he had attended “every home game since I was a baby,” he says. “My mom tells the story that when I was little, she was at a game against LSU, and all the Tigers fans around us were pointing at me--this tiny kid!--and saying ‘Tiger bait, Tiger bait.’”

Several small colleges recruited Ray when he was a high school senior, but he turned them down because he wanted to attend A&M. “Being the 12th Man is kind of ... well, it’s humbling,” Ray continues. “It almost didn’t seem real, because all my life I saw things about the 12th Man everywhere I looked. You’d see 12th Man Magazine, for instance, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘I’m the 12th Man,’ and you’re that guy down on the field that everybody’s looking at.”

Ray participated in only one play against Oklahoma: the kickoff that opened the second half. Because the Aggies didn’t score in the game, it was the only time their kickoff team got on the field. Ray lined up on the far right side, second from the end, and avoided a block as he sprinted downfield and trailed the action. The Sooners’ Jejuan Rankins received the kick on his own 10yard line and returned it to the A&M 41. Ray was more than a little relieved that Rankins didn’t score. “It was embarrassing,” he says of the game. “You come back home, and everyone’s like, ‘What are you all doing? You’re not even trying.’”

Ray prefers to remember something else about the Oklahoma game. At one point he turned and glimpsed the other 12th Man, the student cheering section, still standing in the stadium, there to the end no matter the score. “That’s the great thing about A&M,” says Ray. “The 12th Man will never boo. It will never say anything bad against the team. And they stay up on their feet no matter what. If you’re winning or losing, it doesn’t matter. They’re behind us always. It was cold and raining, and we were getting killed. There they were.”

It was an ugly day, even for those who stayed home and watched the game on television. In the town of Burnet, Texas, some 60 miles northwest of Austin, a 6'3", 210-pound high school senior named Stephen McGee watched the massacre for as long as he could stomach it, which happened to be about halfway into the second quarter. He turned off the set and went outside. Back in April, McGee, one of the state’s top recruits, had committed to sign with A&M, choosing the Aggies over Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and USC. It had been a difficult decision for the young quarterback, perhaps the toughest of his life. When the pressure was at its worst, McGee had trouble sleeping at night. As a boy he’d been a devoted fan of the Longhorns, but he could’ve been happy at several universities. He prayed for an answer and received one: Georgia or A&M. He prayed more, and finally it was only the Aggies. “I felt like A&M is where God wanted me to be,” he says, “and so I came.”

McGee had his family’s support, but his choice wasn’t popular with many of his friends and schoolmates, most of whom wanted him to play for Texas. On the Monday after the Oklahoma game McGee got an earful when he showed up at school. “They’d throw out comments like, ‘Hey, that was a good game you played,’ or, ‘That was a close one this weekend,’” he says. “It was tough to hear, but I just smiled and said, ‘Sometimes it’s hard to see the future. You don’t have to believe in us now, but one day we’ll remember what you said.’”

McGee took the loss personally, feeling pain even though he wasn’t yet a member of the A&M football team. The Aggies’ humiliation was big news in the state, but McGee says he never wished he’d chosen a different school. “I was already there, even if I wasn’t there,” he says. “Whether it was 77–0 or 7–0, I knew a hundred percent in my heart that I was going to the right place, and no one was going to talk me out of it.”

Back in College Station, Kim Franchione also watched the game at home on TV. Sometime in the second quarter, when it began to make her feel sick, she went into the kitchen and started cooking, which is what she usually does when she needs a distraction. “I just felt for all the coaches and for the kids,” she says.

She and Dennis had been married nearly 27 years, and she’d lived through her share of disappointing games as he built his career. Dennis took the hard road as a coach, beginning humbly at high schools in Missouri and Kansas before graduating to the college ranks and working at two little-known Kansas schools, Southwestern College and Pittsburg State. Over 11 years, in four major college head coaching jobs--New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and A&M--he established a reputation as a master at turning around troubled programs.

Kim had invited guests over to watch the Oklahoma game with her, and a few wives of Dennis’s assistants had shown up, though none stayed long. Kim had plans for later in the evening, but she canceled them when she realized the magnitude of what was happening in Norman. As a rule she greeted Dennis at the door when he returned home after a game. Win or lose, she made a point of being there. “Sometimes after a loss I don’t know what to say to him,” she says. “I usually just say how proud I am of him. I tell him it makes me feel good to be his wife, knowing the kind of person he is and the way he handles things.”

Dennis was 23 years old and coaching in high school when his mother, a hairdresser, died of cancer. The day after, his father, who worked for the highway department, drove out to a quarry on the edge of town and shot himself. Later, whenever things got hard for Dennis--when his team lost, for instance--all he had to do was remember back to those dark days, and he knew his pain could be far greater. Not long after they were married, Dennis said to Kim, “Your mom and dad are not going to take the place of my mom and dad.”

“Well, they don’t expect to,” she told him. But over the years her father, Kenney Kraus, and Dennis became close, and at times it really seemed as though they were father and son. When Kenny died two years ago, Dennis gave the eulogy at his funeral. And when Dennis finished and sat down next to Kim, he burst into tears.

There is loss and then there is loss. Losing to Oklahoma wasn’t the worst thing Dennis Franchione had been forced to endure. When he got home that night he embraced Kim at the door and walked to the bedroom, removed his tie and sat alone for a while in a chair by the bed. She strained for words to console him. Only the day before, he had left the house with high expectations, and now he was frustrated and dejected.

It was getting late when they were surprised by the doorbell. Kim answered it, and there stood Charley North, A&M’s director of football operations. North, a bald, heavyset man with a powerful presence but an easy manner, had coached for 34 years before getting out in 1998. In his career he’d worked with 18 All-Americas and 22 future NFL players. From 1979 through 1994 he had been the offensive line coach at Oklahoma, and in one of those years, 1985, the Sooners had won the national title.

Neither Dennis nor Kim had been expecting North, but it was just like him to show up when they needed him most. “We’re going to be all right,” Kim remembers North telling her husband. “We’ll get through this. Things are going to get better. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. We know what works. So just keep your head up and move forward. Give it some time, and everything will be fine.”

Three weeks and two losses later Dennis would come home with the same look on his face. The team had fallen to 4–8, Dennis’s worst record in 11 years and A&M’s worst in 31. This time the house was full of guests, and Dennis followed his routine, walking to his room, removing his tie and sitting in a chair by the bed. When he didn’t come out to talk to the guests, his son, Brad--himself a coach, at Bacone Junior College in Muskogee, Okla.--went in to check on him. Kim soon followed. “It’s been a tough year,” Dennis said. Then he broke down and wept as he hadn’t since the day they buried Kim’s father.

“I know it’s because he wants it so bad,” Kim said later. “He wants to win and make the people who love A&M proud of him and proud of their team again. And he feels like he disappointed people, like he let them down. I think the cumulative effect of the season finally just got to him.”

A couple of days after the Oklahoma game, with the final score still fresh in the minds of everyone who follows A&M football, Kim went to see her chiropractor in nearby Bryan. As she was leaving the appointment, a woman approached her in the parking lot. The woman asked if she was Kim Franchione, wife of the coach. “Yes, I am,” said Kim.

“Will you tell Coach Fran something for me?” the woman said.

Kim nodded, not sure she was prepared to handle any criticism, but the woman smiled and said, “Will you please tell him that we’re all so glad he’s here and that we’re behind him and that we know he’ll get things going?” She gave Kim another smile and said, “Coach Fran is a class person, and we all appreciate that.”

It was an ugly day, complete with fat bursts of rain and air humid enough to choke on, but no one seemed to care. Spring practice had started, and Aggies players and coaches were optimistic again. When the Oklahoma game was brought up during this week in March, it was to motivate the team to work harder, rather than to remind the returning players of their disastrous performance only a few months before. “Seventy-seven nothing,” Terrence Murphy told his teammates. “Remember what it felt like.”

Perhaps the most impressive Aggies player in spring ball was Stephen McGee, the Burnet phenom who’d graduated from high school early so he could enroll at A&M and join in the off-season program. Franchione and his staff had seen enough of him the year before to know that he was a special talent, but they were stunned each day by how impressive he was in practice. The starting quarterback, McNeal, was recovering from shoulder surgery and couldn’t throw, so McGee stepped up and led the top offensive unit with a poise and maturity that belied his youth. The coaches didn’t want to put too much pressure on the 18-year-old, but he looked better than good. He looked like the future. Maybe he’ll even play when the Aggies host Oklahoma on Nov. 6.

Franchione opens spring practices to the public, and each day fans came out and lined the hurricane fence that surrounds the practice fields. A few clapped and cheered when the Aggies finished for the afternoon and filed, tired and muddy, through the gate. The players realized yet again the blessings of wearing the maroon-and-white jerseys and having the support of the 12th Man.

That loss to Oklahoma had been the biggest embarrassment of Murphy’s career as a football player, and not a day went by that he didn’t wonder if things might’ve turned out differently had he caught the pass to start the game. He recalled the long flight home to College Station and the miserable quiet of the plane’s cabin, the confused and troubled looks on his teammates’ faces, the way he couldn’t wait to return to his apartment and retire to his room and find solace in the pages of his Bible. When they got off the plane that day, he and the rest of the team walked past a handful of people who were applauding and whistling and shouting encouragement. “We still believe in you,” they were calling out. “You can do it.”

For a moment Murphy wondered if they were making fun of him and his teammates. Could anyone really be that cruel? Didn’t everybody lose big at some time or other? But then he realized that they hadn’t come to condemn the Aggies. No, these people were being sincere. They meant it.

No longer was it so hard for Murphy to hold his head up.

A&M had vowed to make history and shock the world, and IT HAD ACCOMPLISHED BOTH BY HALFTIME.
Franchione wasn’t about to point fingers. He says, “THE RESPONSIBILITY LIES WITH ME FIRST.”
“Seventy-seven nothing,” Murphy told his teammates. “REMEMBER WHAT IT FELT LIKE.”
COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGESDAZED AND CONFUSED Brian Patrick (59) and fellow defensive linemen Marcus Jasmin (91) and Linnis Smith were stunned last November by the worst beating in Aggies history.COLOR PHOTOBRYAN COLLEGE STATION EAGLECOLOR PHOTOHOUSTON CHRONICLECOLOR PHOTOTHE DALLAS MORNING NEWSCOLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOENOUGH ALREADY After Derrick Strait ran a third-quarter fumble into the end zone, Oklahoma quit scoring and A&M was at the mercy of the Texas papers.COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANSDARK HOUR Ray’s pride in being the Aggies’ 12th Man turned to embarrassment for himself and his battered teammates.COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANSBACK TO WORK At spring practice the 2004 Aggies were determined to use the humiliation of last November as motivation.TWO COLOR PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (2)FOCUS Murphy is busy with school and football, Kim Franchione with her dream house.COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANSNO DOUBT McGee (in black) enrolled early to begin playing for Franchione in the spring.