Thursday, December 21, 2006

TEXAS A&M FROM THE WISHBONE TO THE WRECKING CREW

In our last look at A&M history, we discussed the brief but meteoric career of Bear Bryant and the Aggies' long decline after his departure to Alabama. Even future national champion Gene Stallings couldn't revive the fortunes of his alma mater in the late 60's. By 1972, A&M looked to be a dead-end football program (kind of like Cal in 2002, actually).

Enter Emory Bellard (left) the godfather of the wishbone formation. Bellard was an assistant at Texas (er, t.u.) when he brought HC Darrell Royal the idea of lining three backs behind the quarterback in a V formation. The Longhorns went on to win 30 games in a row with the new triple option formation, and the wishbone was soon the spread offense of its day.

There are lots of eerie parallels between Bellard's arrival in College Station and Jeff Tedford's in Berkeley thirty years later. Just like Tedford, Bellard revived an A&M program that was essentially on life support. After two tough years the Ags broke through with an 8-3 mark in 1974. In 1975, they started the season 10-0 and whipped Texas at Kyle Field, earning their first and only SI cover.

They of course lived up to the jinx, dropping their next game to Arkansas 31-6 and then losing the Liberty Bowl to a mediocre SC team 20-0. The Ags would repeat a 10-2 mark the following year, and achieve a winning record throughout the rest of the decade. The Aggies were good, but they never grabbed the brass ring of an SWC championship.

In 1978, Bellard's team lost back-to-back games, to eventual conference champ Houston and lowly Baylor, who whipped the Aggies 24-6 at Kyle Field. Following that game, Bellard asked A&M President Jarvis Miller for a vote of confidence to quiet the boo-birds surrounding the program. When Miller refused to respond on the spot, Bellard quit. The wishbone was gone, and after a few years so was Bellard's replacement, Tom Wilson.

Jackie Sherrill came to College Station in 1982 from Pitt, where he had struggled to operate in Johnny Majors' shadow. Sherrill created the 12th Man kickoff squad (which debuted against Cal in 1983) and recruited tons of defensive talent to execute the schemes of long-time assistant R.C. Slocum. The combination of huge tackles, head-hunting linebackers and Slocum's 3-4 defensive scheme begat the "Wrecking Crew." A&M won three consecutive SWC championships behind the Crew in the mid-1980s, winning Cotton Bowls over Bo Jackson's Auburn Tigers (left) and Tim Brown's Notre Dame squad.

Sherrill won, but he also sent money in FedEx packages to recruits and got the Aggies on probation. He eventually left for Mississippi State (oddly enough, Bellard's destination after A&M) and the Aggies promoted R.C. Slocum to the top job. It's fair to say, we think, that no coach has ever had a quieter 14-year reign at a winning program than old R.C.. Under Slocum and coordinator Bob Davie the Ags played even better defense than before, behind All-Americans like Sam Adams, Dat Nguyen and Ray Mickens. But the offense was neither good nor exciting, and the Aggies struggled to dominate the expanded Big 12 as they had the SWC, winning only one title in 1998.

Despite a 123-47-2 record, making him the winningest head coach in Aggie history, Slocum was dismissed in 2003. Enter Coach Fran, who we'll dissect in a subsequent post.

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