For over a decade, whispers about the glass ceiling of A&M football success have gathered momentum in bars and message boards across the state of Texas. Since 1998 – the dawn of the BCS and the year Mack Brown arrived on the scene in Austin - LSU, Texas and Oklahoma have combined to win over 76% of their games (a smooth 444-138 record, if you’re counting), make 17 BCS game appearances and take home 4 National Championships. If Les Miles was capable of drawing straight lines, the triangle between Norman, Austin, and Baton Rouge would more or less signify the primary recruiting roadblock to the town of College Station - located directly in the center of the storm.
Which is not to say that A&M hasn’t tried.
In 2003, the Aggies actually hired away one of the hottest coaches in the country, Alabama’s Dennis Franchione. He quickly revealed himself to be somewhere between ‘complete fraud’ and ‘uses own excrement as shampoo’ on his employee performance review. As an added bonus, his arrogance pissed off just about everyone he came in contact with, including many Texas high school coaches. ‘Coach Fran’ landed a few notable recruits in his time at A&M, but mainly his classes will be remembered for horrific evaluations, multiple character reaches, and a hilarious disdain for assembling any sort of defensive front seven talent.
While the mid-aughts found Aggieland stumbling in the abyss, the rest of the region was capitalizing on the incredibly deep talent pool seemingly always found in Texas and Louisiana. Bob Stoops was enjoying the spoils that come post-national championship with a virtual parade of All-Americans, most of whom Jerry Schmidt had yet to run off. Leslie Miles arrived in Baton Rouge in 2005, took a good look at the defensive talent in-state, ate a crayon, and proceeded to ride that defense to a national championship in 2007.
Even Mack Brown couldn’t screw up the utopia he found himself in: a beautiful Austin campus, some of the best facilities in the country, and an outstanding recruiting staff. That, combined with Bill Byrne’s megalomania-fueled fiefdom of failure in College Station, and the Longhorns found themselves with remarkably little recruiting competition in Texas - culminating in Vince Young achieving his lifelong dreams of a National Championship, NFL inadequacy, and opening up a very mediocre steakhouse. Good wine pairings though.
Meanwhile, the A&M leadership swung from the pendulum of a successful college coach, to an NFL retread in Mike Sherman. The former Packers head man would prove to be a poor fit as a collegiate head coach, but a funny thing happened on the way to his mediocre record: a relatively strong stockpiling of talent for a team that never accomplished much on the field.
Collectively, Sherman might as well have been playing chess with lincoln logs, but individually he saw the inherent talent in guys like Ryan Tannehill, Cyrus Gray, Ryan Swope and Von Miller, not to mention having one of the best eyes for offensive line talent in all of football.
Meanwhile . . .
Finding good leaders in football, as in life, is difficult. Maintaining good leadership over the course of many years is the stuff of managerial legend. As Mike Sherman’s roster slowly climbed in talent, if not wins, assistant coaches began departing the Bermuda Triangle for greener pastures the college football world over.
Bob Stoops lost Mike Leach, then Mark Mangino, then the rest of Mark Mangino, then Chuck Long, then Kevin Wilson – and that’s just at offensive coordinator. Josh Huepel isn’t exactly Don Coryell calling plays these days in Norman, and many would say former assistants Bo Pelini, Brent Venables and Kevin Sumlin (spoiler alert: remember that last name) have never been replaced in quality.
LSU was slightly more stable, as Miles really only takes roll once a month or so. His staff lost recruiting ace Larry Porter to Memphis, Jimbo Fisher to Florida St., and – after arriving from OU - Bo Pelini to Nebraska. On offense Miles seems to enjoy the challenge of fighting with both hands and a leg behind his back as he has hired such luminaries as Greg Studrawa, Gary Crowton (lol), Steve Ensminger (double lol) and, most recently, Cam Cameron (infinity lol) to run his offense.
In Austin, Mack Brown saw ace assistant Tim "I-recruited-Vince-Young" Brewster leave, followed slowly out the door by others, including the barely reanimated remains of Greg Davis. The Longhorns reached the national title game in 2009 under a magical combination of spit, Will Muschamp’s anger, and the brilliance of Colt McCoy - but as both those heroes departed in 2010 the party very abruptly stopped for the burnt orange, who have managed only a 22-16 record since that night in Pasadena.
The suddenly-looking-rather-haggard-Mack Brown has responded to this development as only he knows how: fighting a losing PR battle on one front, while chasing the newest trends on the other. Whether it’s an ‘SEC-style’ power-run game, the duplicity of the Boise State attack, or the up-tempo-spread-running-confusion that, um, Major brings to the table – well, they clearly are having a crisis of confidence in Austin at the moment.
So with the winds of change blowing through the region, Kevin Sumlin was quietly announced as the newest head coach at Texas A&M in December of 2011. While reaction was generally positive, the national reception was somewhat muted, seeing as the Aggies had failed to be relevant for the previous decade.
Fast forward 13 months, and things look a little different around the region: Bob Stoops just finished firing three more assistants and hasn’t signed a decent defensive line prospect in 3 years, while Mack – always following trends - saw what was going on in Norman and this past February decided to sign zero defensive lineman, as well as losing his two best recruits to Alabama and A&M.
Things are seemingly slightly more stable in Baton Rouge, but another late-game Les meltdown in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, followed by 10(!) underclassman NFL departures, followed by hiring a guy who hasn’t coached collegiately in over a decade doesn’t exactly scream program sustainability.
So it’s against this backdrop that Texas A&M – yes, that A&M – finds itself. The greatest conference in college football. The greatest player in college football. And with apologies to Charlie Weis, maybe the hottest coach in college football. Add a relentlessly competitive recruiting staff, a 2013 schedule that is tailor-made for a national championship run, and suddenly that sucking sound emanating from central Texas may be more than just Manny Diaz.
It could be the sound of the Bermuda Triangle collapsing upon itself.