Photo by Andrew Kilzer, TexAgs
Texas A&M Football

Lopez: Why should we believe this time success will stick?

November 15, 2010

It hasn’t been ages since the Aggies played a game this big at Kyle Field – it only seems that way.

It was just 2006, in fact, when the Aggies played back-to-back games that easily could be considered as significant to the program then, as Saturday night’s bash with Nebraska will be now.

Ranked No. 21 nationally and standing 8-1 entering a two-game home stretch against Oklahoma and Nebraska in 2006, the Aggies lost those games by a total of two points.

Just two points.

Andrew Kilzer, TexAgs The Aggies ride a four-game winning streak into their home finale against Nebraska Saturday at Kyle Field. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"right","Caption":"The Aggies ride a four-game winning streak into their home finale against Nebraska Saturday at Kyle Field.","MediaItemID":2768}
So what happened? Why, then, instead of carrying the momentum of a turning-point type of season in 2006, did Dennis Franchione instead go 8-7 over the remaining 15 games of his ill-fated career as head coach? Why was there such an off-the-cliff drop in Aggie fates, with a severe lack of talent and apathetic attitude permeating the Bright Complex?

Had Franchione found four more points in those back-to-back home games, would everything have been different today? Would the five-star recruits have lined up, ready to sign? The answer is no.

The bigger question is, why should we believe this time Mike Sherman and the Aggies have gotten it right?

It’s probably as simple as style vs. substance.

We didn’t know it then, but we do now: The core, signature players on that 2006 squad were dazzling talents and captivating personalities – Martellus Bennett, Jorvorskie Lane, Mike Goodson. But they were prone to becoming undisciplined, selfish and flighty. And the head coach did little to rein it all in and command respect and a sense of team.

That was a stylish team that deserves credit for having its moments, getting to 9-4 in 2006 and beating Texas twice. But the bones were not there.

When Sherman entered with anything but a stylish approach, more business-minded and serious, it sounded like so much lip-service, if not out-and-out bluster when he demanded accountability and character. He said it didn’t matter a player’s perceived stature, they were going to do things right.

And then he backed it up, not with words, but deeds. It may be mostly forgotten now, but in 2008 – not coincidentally when the likes of Von Miller, Trent Hunter, Jerrod Johnson, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Jeff Fuller and Cyrus Gray were relative babies on campus – Sherman made an example of a campus icon.

Jorvorskie Lane was not conforming. He was in it for himself. He was overweight and uninspired by a move to fullback. Sherman gave Lane several chances to earn the job. He blew every one of them and finished a dismal 4-8 season with just 93 rushing yards.

You may call it a stretch, but I firmly believe the remnants of that stand Sherman took to reclaim the program three years ago will be on the field Saturday night.

It’s Senior Day. On Monday, Sherman said of this class of senior Aggies, “There’s not a guy in that group I don’t feel strongly about.”

“People have to buy into what you’re doing,” Sherman said. “Every single one of those guys bought into what we’re doing. Their leadership this year has been instrumental.”

Andrew Kilzer, TexAgs Von Miller is playing lights-out football as he prepares for the final home game of his storied career. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"left","Caption":"Von Miller is playing lights-out football as he prepares for the final home game of his storied career.","MediaItemID":2830}
It’s also why the odds are good this time that a change in fortunes will stick. Young players in the secondary see how junior safety Trent Hunter fights and works like a pro. Von Miller never complained about an ankle that probably is much worse than any of us will know. And there is true freshman Damontre Moore, learning how the game is supposed to be played and tied for the team lead in sacks.

Talk about growing up fast: Jerrod Johnson holds virtually every passing record in the Aggie record books, but was benched (finally admitting publicly Monday that his shoulder has not been 100-percent). The real world hit Johnson square between the eyes. And all Jerrod has been is class and character, helping Ryan Tannehill every step of the way, never complaining and talking about how happy this run has made him.

“To see the smiles on (teammates) faces, to finally win and understand I definitely was a part of that … when I came here, I wanted to be a part of something special, to put this program where it should be,” Johnson said. “Of course, it’s not a storybook ending for me. But … I don’t think you can look at this as a sour situation.”

Talk about understanding the value of perseverance: Michael Hodges, the defensive “conscience,” as Miller put it, went from prep school at Air Force, to shoulder surgery, to sitting out a year, to junior college and finally from walk-on to the spotlight, making six of the 12 stops inside the 10-yard-line against Oklahoma.

Forget the talent that freshmen like Moore, Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews and Hutson Prioleau possess. Forget the impact that young sophomores are having on the season.

It’s growing up in a different culture of football – the culture brought in by Sherman and bought by these upper-classmen – that should make this turnaround stick long-term.

Sure, there is a defensive system and coordinator that are ahead of the curve. There is an expanding recruiting base and more recognizable Texas A&M brand, with wins and rankings. There even is a sudden vulnerability of the Aggies’ biggest recruiting opponents. And don’t forget about a still-possible move to the Southeastern Conference and the raising of stakes and prominence that it could bring.

But at the core, is the core leadership. Substance over style.
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