Copyright 2013 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
September 13, 2013 Friday
FA CHASE EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 1C
|A&M, SEC prove to be perfect fit;
Program's impact, success 'exceeded all expectations'
George Schroeder, @GeorgeSchroeder, USA TODAY Sports
George H.W. Bush is nearly 2,000 miles from here, spending time with wife Barbara at their home in Maine. But on Saturday, the eyes of the 41st president, like those of so many others, will be upon Kyle Field.
"A win Saturday would be a continuation of, a building on, the process that coach (Kevin) Sumlin initiated last season," Bush told USA TODAY Sports in an e-mail. "It would keep that momentum going strong. At the same time, a loss would not kill that momentum -- not by a long shot."
If the showdown with Alabama is easily the most anticipated of the college football season, it might be the most anticipated ever in Aggieland. "BTHO BAMA" T-shirts were hot sellers ... in early August. During a booster function last summer, Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman joked about the Aggies being like the moon because "both control the Tide." The buzz has been building for months. This week, it was essentially the only topic in town. And if nationally the story line is Nick Saban's attempt to corral Johnny Manziel -- beware, because he has been working on this for 250 days! -- the former president nailed the local narrative.
Saturday is huge. But it's only one of Texas A&M's salad days.
"We've had good programs in the past," Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said. "They've come and gone. We've had good coaches in the past -- they've come and gone. But we haven't had an athletic program as good as we have right now. It's not just football. It's everything else that comes along with it."
Much has come along in the last two years, since A&M's move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference. In announcing the move, Loftin called it a "100-year decision" and predicted it would lead to unprecedented growth. But Loftin admits he didn't expect it to come so soon. No one did.
"There was so many unknowns last season with a new conference, new coach and quarterback," said Bush, adding he and the former first lady "are Aggies to the core." His presidential library abuts the campus. The couple have been fixtures at A&M athletic events since Bush left office 20 years ago.
"The tremendous success the team had caught everyone by surprise, it seems," Bush said. "They exceeded all expectations."
Since then, expectations have exploded. A fan base that approached the move to the SEC with excitement but also, according to Hyman, with "strong reservation or nervousness" is newly confident after a banner sports year: The Aggies ranked fifth nationally in the 2012-13 Learfield Sports Directors' Cup, which measures success in all sports.
"We've got a lot more to go," Hyman said, "but we passed that exam, and we got a better grade than I think a lot of people thought we were going to. Because of that, (the excitement) is just added."
Momentum is a hard thing to measure, but start with a quick peek from the presidential suite on the 10th floor of Rudder Tower at Kyle Field, where a $450million renovation and expansion are underway. When finished in 2015, capacity will increase from 82,589 to 102,500 -- all of those seats, the school said, have been sold -- which would make it the third-largest college football stadium and the largest in the SEC. Although the idea of renovating the stadium had been simmering for a long while, Loftin said in the past some had argued for decreasing capacity.
"But that was all before the conference change, the coaching change, Johnny Manziel," Loftin said. "They have all come along since that time and changed the thinking considerably."
Yeah, Manziel. Loftin called his impact "galvanizing." First, a few more stats: Texas A&M's licensing revenue were up 23% in 2011, when the Aggies announced they were leaving the Big 12, and then up 22% from that in 2012. Football-related donations increased from $15.7million in 2011 to $17.7million in 2012; the school has budgeted for $18.6million this year.
Texas A&M experienced a 10% rise in applications for this school year, which isn't unusual for schools with athletic success. But A&M issued a standard number of offers of admission -- and expected, based on history, that 8,700 students would accept. Instead, more than 10,000 did, leading to the largest freshman class in school history.
Those and other anecdotal statistics can be traced, officials say, to the move to the SEC, to the Aggies' 11-2 record last season -- and also to Manziel's Heisman Trophy. A study commissioned by the school estimated Texas A&M reaped $37million in value in media exposure from Nov.10, 2012, through Jan.6, 2013 (from beating Alabama to routing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl).
When Loftin talks of the increased recognition of the Texas A&M brand, which he hopes translates to promoting the entire university, he notes, "Our job is making sure we utilize that in an effective way to make sure people know more about Texas A&M than just about Johnny Football."
They know plenty about Johnny Football, for sure. Manziel's spectacular 2012 season has been well-chronicled, and so has his offseason. Loftin noted the heightened scrutiny that has attended Manziel -- who was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Rice for his involvement in signing autographs for dealers -- and said he is confident "we've done all we can do as a university" to ensure compliance with NCAA rules. "It has been a challenge for us," he added.
But the rewards have outweighed any risks. It wasn't all that long ago, Loftin said, when he would travel to conferences in other regions of the country, introduce himself as the Texas A&M president -- and hear questions about what it was like to live in Austin, where the rival University of Texas is located.
"That's not a problem anymore," he said.
Hooked on Aggies?
The end of the on-field rivalry (or at least a temporary pause) with the Longhorns is an unfortunate byproduct of the conference switch. But for the Aggies, an emergence from Texas' shadow is among the most delicious developments.
It is lost on no one that their rise has coincided with the Longhorns' struggles -- most notably in football but in other sports as well. Last Saturday, when Texas lost at BYU, Aggies defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. sent a tweet: "Texas A&M is the university of Texas."
Said Hurd: "We have a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence right now. We feel like we've kind of taken over the state in football and as a university as a whole."
If Hurd's tweet was incendiary, it also was a common sentiment, a long-held hope Aggies think might be becoming -- or might have become -- reality. But conquering the state of Texas is only part of it. For the football program, the aim is to become and remain an elite power. For the university, the objective is to promote the story of what former school president Robert Gates called a "truly unique American institution."
For both goals, don't underestimate the impact of the victory against Alabama -- or what another victory against the Tide could mean.
"Anytime you beat the defending (and soon-to-repeat) national champions at home, it elevates your team and your program," Bush said. "As the saying goes, 'You gotta beat somebody to be somebody.'"
They have a similar opportunity Saturday. Top-ranked Alabama is the favorite to win another national title, which would be its third consecutive and fourth in five years. But where last November there was cautious optimism that this SEC move might actually work out, the Aggies now see Alabama as an obstacle to what has become certain ascendancy.
"Where you had trepidation, now there's exuberance," Hyman said. "There's excitement, and people can see that if you reach for your potential what can happen. ... To me, the potential here is unlimited."
Whatever happens Saturday, the Aggies are certain of this much:
"This is a fun time to be an Aggie," said R.C. Slocum, the former coach who is a special adviser to Loftin. "All things right now are the best it's ever been."
September 13, 2013