Monday, December 12, 2011

An Unnecessary Crossroads

Special contributor Andrew Wiley joins the Aggie Rundown for an honest look at the last two weeks of activity in the Texas A&M football program. The opinions in this post are his and his alone (but we sure do appreciate them). For a chance to contribute your opinions, contact us.

Imagine yourself at one of life’s major crossroads, with two main choices in front of you: continue on a once promising, and possibly still rewarding path or go along another path with slightly more upside, but potentially much larger of a pitfall. You are quite certain the terrain of the first path, with the latter being largely unknown, and potentially disastrous. Could you in good faith go forth on the second path?

If you say yes, I would like to introduce you to Texas A&M University, a place where the second path gets taken much more often than it should. When Bill Byrne had his legs undercut two weeks ago by our current Board of Regents (or as I like to refer to them, “Rick Perry’s Puppets”), our football team was sent into a state of purgatory. We didn’t have a viable replacement lined up, ala Washington State (with Mike Leach), and we didn’t have a legitimate hiring process to fall back on.  Donors wanted current hotshot Kevin Sumlin from the University of Houston, whether the Athletic Director deemed Sumlin the best candidate or not. While I do think Byrne was ultimately given carte blanche to interview whoever he saw fit, it was a position I don’t think he wanted to be in. He liked Mike Sherman; he respected his character, and appreciated what he was attempting to build here.  As I was told this week by someone who has been involved with football professionally for over three decades, “he is a good coach, he is a good man, and he was doing it the right way.” That is a remarkable epitaph to leave behind.

Bill Byrne has a hiring record at Texas A&M, outside of football, that cannot be questioned. With hires including Gary Blair, Billy Gillespie and Pat Henry, Byrne has put our athletic department as a whole in a remarkable place. While everyone agrees Fran was a disaster, I think the jury was still out on Sherman. Not to belabor whether he should have been fired, because that is a column in and of itself, but he understood A&M, cared about its success, and was truly vested in “Building Champions” on and off the field. When I watched him tear up as he recounted his final words to the team of “Win the bowl game, but be men of character,” I could not decide which emotion inside of me was greater. I was truly saddened that this great man had been fired, but I think I was more irate in the way it had been handled and the reasons behind it.

We are all in agreement that this past football season was an utter disappointment of the highest order. To lose 5 games by a combined 14 points (all of which you led at some point in the 4th quarter) was incredibly hard to take. But did Sherman deserve to be fired because of it? That is the $5-8.5 million dollar question. I don’t think anyone who follows this program closely can honestly tell you that the program had taken a downward tilt in the last few years. While the record showed losses, we are in an infinitely better position today than we were four years ago. We are recruiting better, we are maximizing and coaching talent better, our facilities are better and still improving, and our fan base support is back to the levels it should have been all along. So if the program is moving in the right direction, the coach loves and understands A&M, and he truly cares about developing kids into players and ultimately men, why fire him? If you have Chip Kelly or Chris Peterson or Gary Patterson in your back pocket, maybe you could convince me. But if you are firing him with the intention of filling the position with a coach who went 5-7 in Conference USA last year, then go try to ruin someone else’s university. I don’t want you around my beloved Texas A&M.

This brings me back to the part of this story that irks me the most. We have people (namely Regents and alumni with too much money and way too much free time) who think that because they can find oil or develop real estate, they are qualified to hire a football coach. I am cognizant of the fact that with a serious donation, some semblance of status at Texas A&M is deserved. But in my mind that should be a better parking spot and quick access to information, not a seat at the interview table. If you have to pass the hat in order to pay the coach’s salary, maybe the donors should get a vote to sign off on the deal, but it should be nothing more than a formality. What worries me even more is that since Dr. Robert Gates left, all visionaries he put in place at A&M have been replaced with “yes men”. The days of grandiose vision to turn Texas A&M into a true world institution have gone the way of the 12th Man Kickoff Team.  If you don’t think Bill Byrne is qualified to find a coach, fire him and find someone you deem worthy. Don’t insult his reputation by trying to do it for him.

So where do we stand as a football program? Some have referred to us as a “top-15 job,” others as a “sleeping giant”. If you are asleep for too long, do you just become a “dead giant”? We will always be relevant because we can fill Kyle Field and have the money to keep facilities up to national standards, but we should be consistently competing for conference and in turn national titles. Instead we have competed for the last decade with Texas Tech, TCU and now Baylor for the title of “Texas’ Best Team, Outside of Austin”, and we haven’t even won that in awhile. UT and Tech are down, TCU will have to adjust to the Big 12, and Baylor now owns a Heisman Trophy. If we are ever going to reassert ourselves in the state of Texas, now is the time. If we can’t compete in Texas, good luck in the SEC.

My hope is that the Aggie family rallies around Kevin Sumlin. It is paramount that we make him feel welcome. We also need to embrace his style and history while helping him learn ours. He may very well be to A&M what Urban Meyer was to Florida. He might also be what Dan Hawkins was to Colorado. US President Calvin Coolidge once said, “the slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve [problems],” and in the quagmire we are currently stuck in, that is all we can do. Press on. I realize that we are in the state of Texas and entering the greatest football conference the world has ever known, and a clean slate might be desired. It wasn’t, however, needed. And until the people employed to make decisions are allowed to properly make those decisions, I fear for the future of football, and all else, at this great university.

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