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.