You might say that all of this goes back to The Bear, because this is college football, and everything funnels through Bear Bryant if you tunnel far enough into the past. So it's the fall of 1957, and the Bear is the coach at Texas A&M, a few years removed from those 10 days of unprecedented torture in Junction. His Aggies are ranked No. 1 in the nation, and then word gets out to the newspapermen that the Bear is being called back home to mama, that he would soon become the coach at his alma mater, the University of Alabama. And the Aggies drop three straight to finish the season, and they lose the Gator Bowl 3-0 to Tennessee, and over the following 16 years, while the Bear is ruling over the sport, only once do the Aggies win more than they lose.
It was during this era that Sports Illustrated's Myron Cope came calling. It was 1968, amid the head coaching tenure of Gene Stallings, a Bear acolyte himself, who took the Aggies to the Cotton Bowl the year before in his only successful season. And Cope, in a story headlined "The Proudest Squares," positioned the Aggies as boy scouts in a sea of hippies, clinging to tradition and old-time values even as the school integrated and went co-ed and moved beyond its Agricultural and Mechanical and military roots. There were still Aggie jokes running rampant in Texas, Cope noted, but A&M was moving past them. Stallings speculated that arrival of co-eds would broaden A&M's recruiting base, but maybe it would short-circuit the tradition. (One alum wrote to the school president, after visiting the modernized campus, on which cadet service was no longer compulsory: I want you to know that I shall never visit Texas A&M again.)
And yet the traditions stood steadfast, through the '60s and beyond, in the form of bonfires and male cheer captains known as "yell leaders" and a war hymn allegedly written by an ex-Aggie while lying in a trench during World War I, and massive student section known as The 12th Man. In fact, it could probably be said that no school in America has the sheer volume of traditions that A&M does. "I think it does go back to those days when it was an all-male school, and everyone marched together, and they weren't distracted by beautiful women," says Rusty Burson, who has written several books about A&M's football history and also works as a fundraiser for the university's athletic programs. "There wasn't much to do. So if you did something twice, it became a tradition."
The football team has had some good runs since then, under Emory Bellard in the '70s and Jackie Sherrill in the '80s and R.C. Slocum in the '90s. In '75, they beat Texas in a matchup of top-five teams before blowing their last two games; in the '80s, they won three straight Southwest Conference championships but were never really national contenders because they kept losing to SEC opponents early on; in the '90s, they went undefeated before getting throttled by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. They were always on the verge, but they'd never broken through, never really could stake an unprecedented claim as the most important college team in their own state, let alone beyond.
At least, not until right now. Not until Saturday, when Texas A&M plays the most hyped home game in its history and perhaps the most hyped September college football game in the history of the sport. Not until Saturday, when the Aggies take the field against Alabama with a coach and a quarterback who may be called many things, but sure as hell could not be called squares.
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By all accounts, A&M is a different place these days. It has a massive student body of 50,000 undergraduates, and it is a respected member of the American Association of Universities, one of those snooty criteria the Big Ten utilizes in order to cherry-pick new members. The student body still leans conservative, and they still revel in the struggles of those weird organic microbrewing hippies up in Austin, even if the two schools no longer play ("We're not losing sleep over what happened to them last week," Burson tells me.) But now they have an identity beyond the tradition, and they're ensconced in a conference that often stood superior to them in the past. And I guess there's some inherent irony that A&M, of all places, is succeeding by working the progressive edge of modern football, but no one can argue that it isn't working: They're minting money amid all this Johnny Manziel controversy (both real and manufactured).
And the reason all this is happening, at least as Rusty Burson sees it, is that they finally got lucky. This time, as odd as it sounds, they actually wound up losing a key game at the right time; this time, they may have hired a once-in-a-lifetime coach instead of losing him.
His theory goes like this: In 2011, the Aggies lost their final game against Texas, 27-25. It was the last game of the series between the schools before A&M jumped to the Southeastern Conference, and it hurt enough at the time that the school saw fit to fire Mike Sherman as head coach. If A&M wins, Burson figures, they might have kept Sherman, and they never would have had an opportunity to hire Kevin Sumlin; if they never hire Kevin Sumlin, then there's a strong possibility that Johnny Manziel doesn't fit into A&M's system and either goes elsewhere or never gets off the bench.
"At that time, in 2011, on Nov. 24, I can't tell you how sick to my stomach and disgusted I was," Burson says. "But that is, to me, the best loss I've ever seen for Texas A&M. These are the really good times, and hopefully this is just the beginning. I would say the stars are aligned right now."
In a way, Burson admitted, it almost doesn't matter if A&M wins or loses this weekend. Just the fact that the Aggies are here, standing toe-to-toe with the school that once robbed them of the best coach they've ever had, is enough.
Still, they've beaten Bama once. Maybe if they do it twice, it'll become a tradition all its own.