Over in College Station, the Aggies have been looking at this Longhorns-to-the-SEC news all wrong. When reports surfaced last month of UT and OU’s plans to ditch the Big 12, Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork railed against the move. “We want to be the only SEC program in the state of Texas,” he told reporters at the time.
Bjork didn’t get his way, and UT appears headed to the Southeastern Conference by 2025, when the current Big 12 media-rights contract expires. But the Aggies AD’s opposition was wrongheaded to begin with. Texas A&M should be celebrating the Longhorns’ SEC ambitions as proof of everything Texas A&M football has become.
Think of all the years Texas A&M football lived in UT’s shadow. Season after season of feeling disrespected. Well, guess what? Now the Longhorns are chasing—and copying—the Aggies.
If A&M fans are honest with themselves, they’ll admit they never imagined this day would come. The Aggies underachieved for so long that playing second fiddle to Texas seemed like the natural order of things.
University of Texas officials may be insufferable, but they’re not stupid. They’ve seen how SEC membership has boosted A&M’s revenues, its stature in college football, its ability to recruit, and more. The folks in Austin want some of that for themselves.
Don’t sweat it, Aggies. UT football poses no threat to A&M at this point, and who knows when or if it ever will? Remember back in 1998, when a handful of school officials believed UT’s time as a national powerhouse had passed? Then Mack Brown arrived and, along with quarterback Vince Young, led the program to a national championship in 2006. Fourth-year Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher has yet to bring a title to College Station, but his stewardship of the program has been just as masterful as Brown’s was two decades ago.
Brown notched seven top-ten finishes over a nine-season stretch between 2001 and 2009. Prior to his arrival, Texas had finished outside of the top ten for the previous fourteen years. Now, the Longhorns are back to their underwhelming ways. UT exited the national stage around 2010 and hasn’t been heard from since. Joining the SEC, whenever that happens, won’t make Texas’s path back to title contention any easier. New coach Steve Sarkisian may return the Longhorns to the national picture, but for now, UT is a speck in Jimbo Fisher’s rearview mirror.
And once Texas joins the SEC, the Aggies will finally get their chance to slay the UT dragon. As much as A&M backers are looking forward to this season’s October 9 showdown with Alabama, nothing is sweeter than beating Texas. The Aggies can have the better record, the higher ranking, and the superior team on paper, but their dominance remains mythical until they prove it on the field.
For the moment, Texas A&M isn’t just the gold standard for college football in the Lone Star State, although it certainly is that. The Aggies are also among the tiny handful of national programs against which every other FBS school can measure itself in terms of attendance, revenue, facilities, fan support, and winning.
As a coach, Fisher had a breakthrough season in 2020, and the best seems yet to come as he stacks one elite recruiting class on top of another. His three straight top-ten classes, according to Rivals, represent a run of success never seen at A&M since the online rankings service began rating recruiting classes in 2002. “Hopefully the toughest games we play are the days in practice, when you’re going against another great player across the ball from you,” he said in June.
Last season was sweet: 9–1 record, Orange Bowl victory over Brown’s North Carolina team, and ending the year ranked fourth in the nation—A&M’s highest finish in 81 years. Heading into this season, the Aggies clock in at number six in the Associated Press Top 25, the school’s highest preseason ranking since 1995.
“We’re making a lot of good progress with the culture of our organization,” Fisher said at last month’s SEC Media Days. “We’re getting to where we need to be. . . . You’ve got to keep taking those steps to be who you want to be . . . Pressure is a privilege. It means that what you do matters and that you’re playing at the highest levels, and you learn to embrace those things. . . . You don’t worry about the outcomes. You develop a process of how you want to practice, create the culture of your organization within the team.”
Some Aggies believe this is the year they finally overtake Alabama, and they’re looking at A&M’s fall game at Kyle Field as pivotal to the program. Fisher threw some gasoline on that fire during an appearance at Houston’s Touchdown Club in May. Asked about the key to beating Alabama, besides waiting for Saban to retire, the coach popped off:
“We’re going to beat his ass even when he’s there,” Fisher said, according to the Houston Chronicle.
When word of Fisher’s jab got around to Saban, the Alabama coach asked: “In golf?”
That’s why players love Fisher, and why his ten-year, $75 million contract is likely to end up as an all-time great bargain for the Aggies. At A&M, everything changed the moment Fisher walked in the door. He went to work on changing expectations, culture, work habits—pretty much everything. As he recently said at an Aggie Coach’s Night in Dallas: “We’re happy [about 2020]. We had a great year. We finished fourth. That’s just three spots too low. That’s just three spots too low to where we’re going.”
He talks fast, laughs often, and has the leadership ability to convince players they can achieve anything on the field. In June, when in-person recruiting resumed after nearly two years of pandemic-related restrictions on contact between coaches and would-be players, Fisher seemed beside himself as he welcomed recruits back to campus. “It’s like Mardi Gras and Cinco de Mayo all in one day,” he said.
Now, about beating Saban. Despite Fisher’s bravado, A&M might never catch Alabama as long as Saban is there, and there’s no shame in finishing behind the greatest program in history. Alabama is winning because of Saban, and history has shown that there’s no guarantee the program’s dominance will continue once he hangs it up.
Fisher’s quest is to coach a great football team every single year. To focus on just one game risks losing sight of the fact that the Aggies have become a measuring-stick opponent themselves for several other teams. And the SEC is too competitive to point toward just one game. The Aggies also play LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn this season, and losing to any of those teams would likely take A&M out of the playoff mix. As Fisher said, “this conference can humble you in a hurry.”
For years, A&M was considered a sleeping giant in college football. The Aggies had facilities, money, passionate fans, and a rich reservoir of talent within 150 miles of College Station. Kyle Field is one of the best two or three places on earth to watch a game. The stadium offers a home-field advantage in the best sense of the word. Those 105,000 fans don’t simply cheer. They create thunderclaps of passion. There’s nothing like watching the way high-school recruits react when they attend their first Aggies game and feel the noise in the stadium literally shake the concrete beneath their feet.
When it comes to facilities, A&M takes a back seat to no one. From players lounges to weight rooms, everything is first-rate. This was what Aggies saw for decades and wondered why their team couldn’t compete with the best of the best.
Turns out, all the Aggies needed was to hire the right leader—someone who could build the program, create a winning culture, and help his blue-chip recruits develop into wining football players. It’s taken Jimbo Fisher just three seasons to do all that. “That’s why I’m here, and that’s why we’re here,” Fisher said about the goal of winning a national championship. “We have all the resources to do it, the program to do it, and the support to do it. Now it’s just making sure we do it.”
When Fisher was hired, A&M chancellor John Sharp handed him a replica of a national championship plaque with a date to be filled in later. “I hope I fill in a couple,” Fisher responded.
When A&M decamped for the SEC a decade ago, the Longhorns privately looked down on the move: We would never darken the door of the SEC. We’re so academically superior that we wouldn’t be a good fit.
At the time, it appeared that if Texas was going to dismantle the Big 12, it would be to join the Big Ten or Pac-12. Or, perhaps, the Longhorns would become independent. That’s what some Big 12 officials have found the most galling, now that UT is bound for the SEC. Texas was so big and so rich and had such a great brand that it could write its own ticket—the Longhorns supposedly didn’t need the SEC.
Funny how a gazillion dollars in extra TV money can change university administrators’ minds. So much for UT’s precious academic reputation. Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck!
Rather than fret about the Longhorns, the Aggies should enjoy the ride, because this is going to be a Texas A&M autumn. The Aggies return nine defensive starters and they will surround whoever wins the starting quarterback job with loads of offensive talent at the skill positions.
At long last, this is the program A&M fans have dreamed of. Here’s to the year of the Aggies.