Third and Long
With a so-so record in the Big Twelve and alums breathing down his neck, Aggie football coach R. C. Slocum is battling to keep his job. Don't count him out yet.
When 80,000 loyal Aggies descend on Kyle Field on September 1, the main topic of conversation won’t be whether Texas A&M will win its season opener against McNeese State. Only an act of God can prevent that. Instead, as the boys in maroon pour onto the field, the talk will largely focus on the tall, trim man with snow-white hair jogging beside them. R. C. Slocum may be the winningest football coach in Aggie history, but his job is on the line. He won’t find his most dangerous opponent on the opposite sidelines, though. It will be some of the school’s most powerful boosters who are watching from above, sprinkled in among the fans who are on their feet yelling “Farmers fight!” and dreaming of nothing less than the national championship that has eluded them for more than sixty years. It was more than just a 7-5 record last season that has made the natives in Aggieland restless. It was the return of a dreaded feeling: Can A&M ever win the big one? With three games left, the Aggies were a solid 7-2. But then the team did something it had never done during Slocum’s twelve-year tenure—it lost three games in a row in a single season. A lead against eventual national champion Oklahoma evaporated in the fourth quarter. Then the enemy of enemies, the University of Texas, pounded A&M by 26 points. A chance at redemption came when the Aggies faced Mississippi State in a snow-blown Independence Bowl. The contest marked the first time that Slocum squared off against his old boss, Jackie Sherrill, whom Slocum replaced when Sherrill resigned under a cloud of scandal. But Sherrill gained the upper hand after falling behind early and beat his former school 43-41 in overtime.
As one might expect, up went cries of indignation. Fan sites and talk radio caught fire with pointed criticisms of Slocum’s ability and of A&M’s failure to land big-name recruits. Sniping even made its way to the Ask Coach Slocum section of the A&M Web site. On play calling: “Why didn’t we take a safety against Miss. State and make them march down the field to win?” On recruiting: “Can you address what has caused this dramatic interest in Texas over A&M and what can be done to reverse this very disturbing trend?” And on the touchiest of all subjects: “Do you have a stated goal of winning the national championship?” Then A&M president Ray Bowen, a staunch supporter of Slocum’s, announced that he would step down in June 2002. While some observers speculated that Bowen’s departure resulted from the fallout over the Bonfire tragedy, other forces may have been at work. “Alumni high up in the food chain wanted R.C. fired,” says a prominent former Aggie. “Bowen said no, so they decided that to get to R.C., they had to get rid of Bowen.” (Bowen denies that he had been approached by an organized group.)
Inside the calm of Slocum’s office, such criticism seems harmless, a distraction that keeps people busy during the off-season. “I have no concerns for my job,” the 56-year-old says as he settles in behind his enormous desk. “No one in the world was as disappointed as I was to win just seven games last year, but I think the program is about as positive now as it has been in a long time.” Slocum doesn’t say this with the glib confidence of a typical coach. He’s far too thoughtful for that, and his sincerity is unmistakable. But that doesn’t mean he won’t answer his critics. “A whole lot of the letters I get are from the class of ninety-eight, class of ninety-nine, and they’re telling me, ‘You oughta do this, and you oughta do that,’” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute. I was coaching major college football before you were born.’ It gets to be comical, but that’s part of the game.”
Still, it’s one thing for average fans to complain. It’s another matter entirely when the boosters do. “We’re pretty dadgum depressed with him,” says one Aggie who has been supporting the program for more than fifty years. “A friend of mine thinks that Slocum has gone as far as he can go, and I think that’s being charitable.” The stat that most critics know by heart is this: In twelve seasons, Slocum has been to ten bowl games and lost eight. He has currently dropped four in a row. “You don’t expect to win the national championship every year,” says the alum, “but you’d like to have a shot every now and then.”
In addition to the bowl record, there’s also no arguing that the Big Twelve Conference has been hard on the Aggies. When A&M left the Southwest Conference, in 1996, it lost the chance to beat up on weak teams like Rice and Southern Methodist University every year. In Slocum’s seven seasons in the SWC, the Aggies built a record of 68-15-2. In his five seasons in the Big Twelve, his record has dropped to 41-22-0. Almost 60 percent of Slocum’s career losses have come while playing in the Big Twelve.
But those same boosters would do well to remember the history of Aggie football—and Slocum’s place in it. In the sixties the university won only 33 percent of its games. That figure climbed each decade, and in the nineties A&M won 76 percent of its games. In fact, Slocum and the Aggies had 94 wins, the most by any Division I school in Texas in any decade. Of course, one of the Aggies’ consuming passions is keeping up with the Burnt Orange. Under Slocum, A&M has never had a losing season; during that same time, UT has had three. And his record over the Horns is 7-5. While UT continues to receive more national exposure, the teams actually have identical regular season Big Twelve conference records, of 27-13. UT head coach Mack Brown has also struggled in bowl games. His Longhorns are 1-2 and have lost two straight.
More important, however, is that in the five-year history of the Big Twelve, four teams have won the conference championship: Nebraska in 1997 and 1999, Oklahoma in 2000, Texas in 1996, and A&M in 1998. Two of those teams, Nebraska (in 1997) and Oklahoma, went on to win the national title. A&M continues to find itself among the nation’s top programs, a consistency that Aggie football never had before.
Slocum is a major reason for that. Even his strongest critics acknowledge what a positive impact he has had on the school. “I’m a Slocum fan because I measure him by more than his win-loss record,” says John Schneider, Jr., a board member of the 12th Man Foundation, which raises money for A&M athletics. “I think a lot of the people who are being critical don’t look at the whole picture.” A large part of that comes from running a clean program. When Slocum became the head coach, in December 1988, the school was reeling from allegations of improper payments to some of its players. And A&M wasn’t the only member of the Southwest Conference in trouble. Since 1985 the NCAA had imposed sanctions on three other SWC schools, and just two years earlier, SMU had received the death penalty.
Aside from the 1994 season, when a few players violated NCAA rules (the infractions had nothing to do with the coaching staff ) and A&M lost the chance to play on television or compete for the conference title, Slocum’s record has been spotless. “This summer I’m going with the NCAA and some university presidents to meet with congressional members,” Slocum says. “That’s a little thing publicly, but privately it’s a validation of the way we do things. At one time, when the NCAA called here, we didn’t want to take the call. To move our program to the point where we’re seen as honest people around the country shows that we’ve come a long way.”
For Slocum, there is no such thing as “win at all costs.” His desire to lead a respected team above all else comes from his view of football. “These are pictures of me as a youngster in the projects before they were called projects,” he says as he opens a desk drawer and pulls out a few worn black and white snapshots from his days growing up in Orange. “We lived there because my dad had no education. He was a hardworking man, but we were limited in where we could live because we didn’t have any money.” Slocum then walks over to a framed picture of himself and former president George Bush. He pauses for a second. “I tell the kids who come here that from this picture”—he points at one of the snapshots—”to this picture is a long way, but I got there through education.” Slocum was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and his ticket was a football scholarship to McNeese, the school he’ll coach against in the season opener. “I can identify with the kid who grew up poor and doesn’t see the whole picture about what he can be. Football is a fleeting thing, and if I let him miss the educational opportunities, then I’ve let him down, and he’s let himself down.”
In addition to that leadership—one that many schools would be lucky to have—there are other signs that bode well for Slocum’s future. For the past three years, season-ticket sales have set a new record. By June 10, fans had purchased 34,179 tickets—almost 4,000 more than last season. Even more important, one key piece in solving the recruiting problem is fitting into place: The school is continuing a capital campaign to improve facilities for its athletes, a project for which H. R. “Bum” Bright, a prominent Slocum supporter, gave $5 million. The impact of this project cannot be overstated. The university hasn’t updated facilities such as player lounges, dressing rooms, and meeting rooms since the late seventies, and one need only look at the state-of-the-art facilities on the UT campus to realize how far behind A&M is. Those improvements could go a long way in selling future recruits on College Station. Another boost to A&M’s visibility will come from ESPN. This fall the network will document the Aggies’ 2001 season in a reality-based show called Sidelines. It’s another chance for Slocum to get the message out and introduce talented young players to the program.
Despite all this, what will he do if he’s asked to step down at the end of the season? “I’ve always approached it that I can coach football as long as I want to coach,” Slocum says. “I’ve had several opportunities to leave A&M, but I stay here because I feel that we’re making progress. If there was a time that A&M didn’t want me to coach here, then I’d go somewhere else. But if we do the right things for the right reasons, then we’ll win enough games to keep our jobs.”
Slocum’s best chance at doing that is to have a strong campaign this year, a daunting task considering a schedule that includes Notre Dame at home and Oklahoma on the road. But even as the drumbeats get louder—critics becoming more vocal, a new president in the wings—Slocum remains confident, if not more than a little pragmatic. “Every football fan should have to play golf,” he says. “I’ve played with people when you’ve got a par three, but there’s water in front of the green. They do everything they can to get the ball to the hole, but sometimes they drive it in the water. And I like to say to them, ‘Did you do that on purpose? Didn’t you see the water?’” Slocum smiles as he says this. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that, unlike golfers and other mortals, big-time college football coaches aren’t supposed to make mistakes.