IT HASN’T BEEN THIS GOOD AT A&M IN A LONG TIME
Former players thankful for first-year efforts of Kevin Sumlin
By Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
In September 1916, Texas A&M hired D.X. Bible as its freshman coach. He immediately did so well that Bible’s freshman team regularly beat the Aggies’ varsity in preseason practices, and midway through the ’16 season, LSU contacted A&M officials about hiring Bible as its head coach.
Technically, the Aggies agreed to "loan" Bible to LSU, but by the conclusion of the 1916 season, both the Tigers and Aggies were strong Bible believers. Three things lured Bible back to A&M: An impressive salary that topped LSU’s offer, the memory of the stellar freshman team he coached at A&M and a sense of loyalty.
"I felt a moral obligation to A&M," Bible recounted to Kern Tips in the 1964 book, Football Texas Style. "They had consented to let me go help LSU. Now, they wanted me back. I was delighted and honored to return."
In his first season as head coach, Bible went 8-0 and the Aggies outscored opponents, 270-0. After serving as a pilot during World War I in 1918, Bible returned to A&M and led the Aggies to a 10-0 record in 1919. Including the first seven games of the 1920 season, Bible’s first A&M teams went 25 consecutive games without surrendering a single point. During that span, the Aggies outscored opponents,771-0.
Why is that relevant today? From an historical standpoint, it’s necessary to go that far back in time to find a coach at A&M who enjoyed more success in his first year than Kevin Sumlin this season.
Legendary A&M head coaches Homer Norton, Paul "Bear" Bryant, Gene Stallings, Emory Bellard and Jackie Sherrill endured losing seasons in their first year at A&M. So did Harry Stiteler, Jim Myers, Hank Foldberg, Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman.
R.C. Slocum is previously the only coach in school history to take A&M to a bowl game in his first full season. The 1989 team was solid, going 8-4, earning a Sun Bowl bid and finishing No. 20 in the final AP poll. But that team couldn’t compare to what the current 9-2 A&M squad has accomplished under Sumlin in his first year at A&M and in the school’s first year in the SEC.
None of the former players randomly contacted by 12th Man Magazine recently were shocked by Sumlin succeeding at A&M. But most have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly the Aggies’ former offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach under Slocum has the team contending at the top of the SEC West.
"I expected us to be respectable this year and maybe surprise a team we probably shouldn’t beat, but never in my wildest dreams did I think we would beat Alabama in their stadium," said former A&M offensive lineman Hunter Goodwin, a letterman under Slocum in 1994-95. "I am sitting here on the day after returning from Alabama still wondering if it really happened. This is a high I haven’t felt in years, and it is all because Kevin Sumlin’s success at my school. I never imagined that in his first year he could build a winning culture overnight and turn these kids into true believers. He has far exceeded my expectations in his first year, and the future is amazingly bright."
Goodwin isn’t alone in that sentiment, as all of the former players contacted for this story heaped praise toward Sumlin.
"Honestly, I’m really surprised," said Chris Valletta, an offensive lineman for the Aggies from 1997-2000, who is now working and living in New York. "That’s not to say I thought we wouldn’t compete, but I felt like we would need a year to get acclimated. These guys are not only acclimated…they’ve accelerated (the process). It’s crystal clear that Coach Sumlin has brought some incredible enthusiasm to the entire program. The guys look like they’re having fun, and that usually means the players are comfortable, confident and ready to play day in and day out."
"I am pleasantly surprised," added Edd Hargett, the last A&M quarterback to lead the Aggies past Alabama in the 1968 Cotton Bowl. "The offense deserves the accolades they are getting, but the defense has found a way to make plays when they have to. Even in the two defeats, they gave us an opportunity to win. Coach Sumlin got the older guys who he did not recruit to buy into his philosophy. That is not easy to do. All of the players are giving maximum effort instead of just running out the string."
Only one former player who responded for this story said he is not the least bit surprised by how quickly Sumlin has transformed a team that went 6-6 in the regular season last year—and 26-25 in four seasons under Sherman—into a Top 10 nationally ranked program. That player, Terrence Murphy, left A&M in 2004 with practically every receiving school record. Murphy played under Slocum and Franchione, and he worked closely with Sumlin in 2001-02.
"I knew this day would come, as Coach Sumlin and I would talk on the phone after he left A&M and I would always tell him one day that he would be the head coach at A&M," said Murphy, a second-round draft pick of Green Bay in 2005. "In 2002, the players wanted to keep him on, and we knew back then he was a great candidate. My perception is that the dude is a winner. That’s the bottom line. I would take him into a bar fight, a basketball game, whatever because I know he will find a way to succeed. Young men feed off of that. Still to this day, I honestly believe that our wide receiver core (Bethel Johnson, Jamaar Taylor, Terrence Thomas, Greg Porter and me) from 2002 was the hardest-playing, fearless group of athletes I have ever played with, and it was because Sumlin instilled that in us. Now he is doing that with the whole football program, which has confidence and fearlessness.
"I knew we would compete (immediately). Hell, we are Texas A&M. That’s not me drinking maroon Kool-Aid, either."
Murphy actually responded prior to the upset win over Alabama, while everyone else provided comments following the victory over the previously unbeaten defending national champions. What A&M had accomplished this year prior to the victory over Alabama was impressive, the former players said. But winning at Alabama caused many of those former players to begin pondering where the win ranks in the history of A&M football.
Valletta said it was the biggest win for A&M in at least 15 years. Seth McKinney, who played in such milestone victories as the 1998 wins over Nebraska and Kansas State and the ’99 win over Texas following the collapse of Bonfire, took it a step further.
"It was the biggest victory in A&M history," said McKinney, a letterman from 1998-2001 and a third-round pick of Miami in 2002. "I say that having played in three of what many say are their top five victories (in A&M history). "It was against a powerhouse program that was an actual powerhouse when you beat them. It was the first year of the move to a conference in which everyone thought you would be mediocre, at best. It was the first year of a new head coach that many had their doubts about. This proves we are big time, and we will be a force to be reckoned with in the immediate future, not only statewide, but also nationally."
The long-time possibilities as a result of the Alabama victory and the first-year success in the SEC are what have so many former players glowing with pride and dreaming about the future.
"It would not shock me if A&M were to win three SEC titles by the end of this decade," said Koby Hackradt, a letterman from 1994-97. "We should be in the top three perennially. If kids from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio want to play for a big-time program, be in BCS bowl games, be on TV every weekend, have a chance at an NFL career...look no further. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was a disappointing season if we did not win nine or more games a year. That should be our expectation now. As the kids of today say, Coach Sumlin brings ‘swag’ to our program. It is also worth mentioning that our strength and conditioning coach (Larry Jackson) is one of the best around. With the right attitude and right system, we are unstoppable.
"Without question, Texas A&M is the school kids should want to play for in Texas now. Coach Sumlin has brought a renewed spirit back to Aggieland. The enthusiasm is unparalleled, and it is nice for a change to hear co-workers and neighbors discussing the Ags instead of the t-sips."
Added Fred Caldwell, a former defensive lineman and letterman from 1980-82 under Tom Wilson and Jackie Sherrill: "It is interesting how an organization can be so impacted by highly effective and passionate leadership. Coach Sumlin was obviously the right choice for Texas A&M to move significantly forward in football. We are on the right track, as evidenced by the win over Alabama. Having a Johnny Football doesn’t hurt, either. I absolutely believe Texas A&M has moved into the forefront in Texas football and athletics with the move to the SEC. The national exposure afforded by being in the No. 1 conference in the United States, coupled with the clear shift in momentum to Texas A&M, means we will have our choice of top recruits moving forward. The future could not look any brighter for our program."
The move to the SEC and the hiring of Sumlin clearly placed A&M in the national spotlight, but so many media members, website bloggers and fans around the state of Texas and across the country continually expressed doubt regarding whether A&M could ever compete on the football field with the upper tier programs in the SEC.
The way A&M competed against Florida and LSU and dismantled Auburn—three teams that have won four national championships in the last six years—raised eyebrows around the nation. But beating Alabama, which has won two of the last three national titles, has probably placed A&M’s brand in a nationally coveted spotlight unlike any other previous victory in school history.
"People who know me and know I played at A&M never before talked A&M with me previously, but I am talking daily with my New York co-workers and friends now," said Valletta, who attended the Alabama game in Tuscaloosa. "Moving to the SEC has placed A&M on TV every week, even here. But the win over Alabama has made A&M part of the pulse in New York City, which is really crazy."
Naturally, that pulse extends into the Southwest and Deep South, say a couple of former players living outside Texas’ borders.
"I’ve lived in Georgia for the last seven years, and all I’ve heard about is how ‘big boy’ football is played in the SEC," said Atlanta police officer Jay Brooks, a defensive back and special teams star at A&M from 1998-2001. "People tend to forget that in the ’90s to early 2000s, the Big 12 had some of the most elite programs, including Oklahoma and Nebraska. The Aggies always played ‘big boy’ football, but we just needed a change in scenery. Now that we are a new addition to the SEC West, we have the opportunity to compete with the top teams in this country, and Coach Sumlin has taken full advantage of that.
"Under the leadership of Coach Sumlin, we will see the Aggies coming into Georgia and playing in the Georgia Dome (the annual site of the SEC Championship Game) to win the conference. Also, by shaking up the SEC West, we will begin to see more of the elite Texas players wanting to stay at home and play for Texas A&M. Overall, this is a program destined to win the national championship. As a former player, I am as excited now as I was when I first stepped into Aggieland."
"The win over Alabama is confirmation we can win and compete in the SEC," said former All-American linebacker Ed Simonini, a letterman under Bellard from 1972-75. "SEC championships and, therefore, national championships will come for A&M. Moving to the SEC was a great decision. We served notice that we will not play second fiddle to t.u. or anyone else. I don’t know Coach Sumlin, but anyone couldn’t help but be very impressed with the results to date. The team comes out strong, plays hard throughout the game and does not fade in the second half. I’ve always been extremely proud of the A&M team. Living in Oklahoma (Tulsa) is not easy for an Aggie, but life just got a whole lot better here."
Maroon pride is flowing through the veins of practically all former players these days, which hasn’t always been the case in recent years. In Franchione’s first year, for example, the Aggies went 4-8 and lost six games by at least 23 points or more, including the ultra-humiliating 77-0 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 8, 2003—almost nine years to the day prior to A&M’s upset road win at No. 1 Alabama.
In five season under Franchione, the Aggies went 32-29 overall and lost 14 games by 20 points or more.
Sherman’s first year at A&M, which also produced a 4-8 record overall, was also filled with embarrassing moments, as the Aggies lost at home to Arkansas State to open the year and dropped four games by 20 points or more. Sherman’s second season also included a handful of blowout losses to Arkansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Georgia. In the road loss to K-State, A&M trailed 59-0 early in the third quarter.
Both Franchione and Sherman produced one nine-win season each, but since 2002—Slocum’s last year as head coach—the Aggies had endured six regular seasons (out of 10) where A&M did not have a winning record.
"The last decade has been difficult," Hackradt said. "Pick any statistic you want and none of them are flattering concerning the win-loss records. We have an organization in the 12th Man Foundation that is committed to winning, and we have done some great things around our facilities in recent years. However, it was tough to convince kids to come play when you were winning four to six games a year. I think now that we have some wind at our back in terms of our team performance, I can’t wait to see how we build upon this. I am especially excited to see what the new Kyle Field is going to look like. I am extremely proud of this program."
"My first year not playing football (in the NFL) and truly becoming a college football fan was 2005," Goodwin said. "I must admit the last seven seasons have been tough, but I could not be more proud to say I am a fighting Texas Aggie than I am at this very moment. This program, in my opinion, has always had all the ingredients necessary to be at a championship level, but for some reason we have never been able to create the perfect recipe. However, Kevin Sumlin, his staff and Johnny Football have me and the entire Aggie nation on top of the world, and he has definitely put all the ingredients together to create the perfect winning dish."
Part of Sumlin’s recipe for success has to continue what Sherman started by making former players feel welcome to return to A&M. Sumlin hired former players on his staff like defensive line coach Terry Price, strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson and former A&M baseball star Justin Moore, the associate athletic director for football.
Additionally, Sumlin has made it a priority to welcome back all former players, who are often lining the sidelines at Kyle Field during home games. Sumlin’s approach, as well as the success the team is having in his first season as head coach at A&M, has most former players serving as ambassadors of the Aggie football program around the state and across the nation.
"I do feel welcomed back," Murphy said. "It’s like a high school reunion (on game days). With Fran, it felt like we were almost banned from being around the program, which was crazy. So the atmosphere has changed a bit from that madness. I am so proud to be associated with this program."
"I am very impressed with Coach Sumlin and his staff," Caldwell said. "I feel welcomed back. The coaches and others have been very welcoming. I went to the football camp this (summer) for the first time and spent some time in the meetings and around the coaches. All were receptive to comments and questions."
"Coach Franchione did not create an environment that was inviting for former players," Hackradt said. "Coach Sherman extended a hand and welcomed former players back in. Coach Sumlin has continued that tradition. Cathy Capps and the Lettermen’s Association do a great job organizing with the current staff and creating events for former athletes, as well. It seems like everything is going in the right direction for the first time in a long while."
Indeed, it hasn’t been this good in any A&M coach’s first year since 1917.