I attended the AT&T Cotton Bowl game on Friday, which is no longer played at the Cotton Bowl but rather in Jerry Jones’ mammoth Cowboys Stadium, often referred to in extraterrestial terms like “The Death Star” or “the mother ship.” The place to be during the game was the Chancellor John Sharp’s suite. Most of the A&M regents hung out there, as did several former students who will be sworn in as state legislators on Tuesday: Trent Ashby, Drew Springer, Chris Paddie.
The game was over, for all practical purposes, on its second play. Johnny Manziel, A&M’s Heisman trophy-winning quarterback, took the snap from center, spun away from Oklahoma’s pursuing linemen, retreated at least 20 yards, and then shifted into high gear, weaving through tacklers who flailed at the air as he eluded them. A fusillade of sound exploded from the six tiers filled with Aggie faithful in the giant arena as Manziel raced down the sidelines untouched, the only issue being whether he would lose his balance and step out of bounds. He didn’t. With two giant strides of his size 14 shoes, he leaped into the end zone. The Aggies would not lose the lead for the rest of the game.
The only players who I think are comparable to Manziel are Vince Young and Roger Staubach (the latter only as a college quarterback at Navy, not as a Dallas Cowboy; Tom Landry wanted him to stay in the pocket to avoid injury.) Manziel is unique in that he will backpedal 20 or 30 yards if it helps to open up the running lanes. It looks as if he is in trouble, but the pursuit from behind can’t catch up to him, and when he resumes his forward momentum, he is unstoppable. He has all of the features that make a great quarterback: great leadership, great speed, a good arm, a flair for the dramatic. I would not be surprised to see A&M on top of the pre-season rankings this summer. They looked every bit like a national championship team. They beat Oklahoma–Oklahoma!–by four touchdowns. This was a night Aggie fans have waited for all their lives.
A successful football program can make a huge difference for a university. I spoke with several regents during the game and was told that A&M is preparing for a significant increase in applications next year, most of it attributable to the success of “Johnny Football.” School officials anticipate that the university will add 6,5oo students over the next several years. With its sprawling campus, A&M plans to have the highest enrollment of any university in the country.
The move to the SEC has been a huge win for A&M, both athletically and financially. SEC schools stand to be enriched considerably when the conference starts its own network in the near future. The culture at A&M is a good fit with most of the other SEC schools, which share a Southern heritage. (Imagine if A&M had joined the PAC-12, with all those sprouts-eating Californians.)
A bowl game is a handy excuse for several days of nonstop partying. It began two days before the game with a luncheon attended by boosters from the two protagonists, the University of Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Brad Sham, the Cowboys’ longtime announcer, was the master of ceremonies. Footage of long-forgotten games flashed across a massive video screen as scenes from previous Cotton Bowl match-ups showed Doak Walker and Sammy Baugh and many others in their primes. At the end of the lunch, the rival quarterbacks, Manziel and Landry Jones, picked a business card from a large glass bowl. The persons whose names were picked were asked to stand beside their chairs. First Jones, and then Manziel, were instructed to throw a pass to the “receiver.” If the pass was caught, the person whose name was drawn would win a prize. We never learned what the prize was, however, because Jones showed off his arm with a pass that sailed among the chandeliers in the huge ballroom, only to fall uncaught. Manziel bounched his pass off a table that was still occupied with dishes. It was his only bad play of the weekend.
There were more parties that evening. The Aggies spread across three rooms. One was for the big donors. Another was for former athletes. Former coach R.C. Slocum was there, and he looked like he could play corner back if called upon. A third was for folks like me, who were along for the ride. The next day was game day, and there was a big pre-game party at the Four Seasons in an outdoor tent. Governor Perry and the First Lady were there, as were several lobbyists and A&M regents.
Another indication that A&M has reached the big time is that the school’s leaders have decided to build a new stadium. The plan is to start in the spring by demolishing the west side of Kyle Field. A new west grandstand will be constructed, and the same process will take place on the east side. The south side, which is currently open, will be closed to make a bowl. The seating capacity will likely be in the neighborhood of 112,000. The contracts have been signed and the new stadium should be ready in two years.