Floridians will try to convince you that their state is the fulcrum of the high school and college football universe. Californians will do the same. However, there’s a reason that Friday Night Lights was based in the rural reaches of West Texas. That’s because Texas is football, and football is Texas, and undeniably it is our state that is the tone-setting power base for that great sport.
Along those lines, if the sport of football were a living, breathing organism, in Texas its vital signs would be the heartbeats of the programs at the University of Texas and at Texas A&M, two in-state rivals whose football cachet is surpassed only by their ability to generate football-related revenue. In 2012, the two marquee programs of the old Southwest Conference and the newer Big XII split up for good, with A&M, tired of playing “baby brother” to Texas in the Big XII, leaving for the Southeastern Conference.
While college football at large would lament the cancellation of the annual Thanksgiving Day tussle between the two schools, life went on just fine for both after the breakup. In fact, in 2012, A&M, under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, would go 11-2, upset top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and see a redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel win the Heisman Trophy. In Austin, things weren’t quite as festive as they were in College Station, but the Longhorns were still a respectable 9-4 under legendary head coach Mack Brown and, perhaps more important to some at the Forty Acres, were cashing the next of many $15 million annual checks from the Longhorn Network.
Life was undoubtedly good for both schools, and between A&M’s giving the state what appeared to be a strong entrant in the powerful SEC, the rise of Baylor under head coach Art Briles and the admittance of TCU into the Big XII, college football in the state of Texas was on solid ground in virtually every respect, if not thriving, heading into 2013.
Now, fast-forward to the summer of 2016 — if you were looking at just their balance sheets, Texas A&M and the University of Texas are sitting at the head of the college sports table. The Aggies’ athletics department generated the most revenue of any school in the country in 2014-15 ($192.6 million) and the Longhorns finished second ($183.5 million). Nobody is going hungry at either school.
However, here in 2016, the two in-state football linchpins, the two nicest homes on the Texas football cul-de-sac, the Aggies and the Longhorns, have both fallen into a woeful state of disrepair on the field, and the ripple effects of their collapse could be profound for both programs’ head coaches and, in turn, other programs in the state. How exactly did we get here, from the caviar days of 2012 to the storm clouds of 2016?
Well, in Texas, the Longhorns escorted Mack Brown to the door following the 2013 season, and hired Charlie Strong, fresh off his going 23-3 the previous two seasons at Louisville. While Strong has done his best to instill discipline and toughness in a program whose tankful of both had gradually dissipated under Brown, the results on the field have been disappointing, to say the least. In his first two seasons in Austin, Strong has finished 6-7 and 5-7, the first time that the Longhorns have had consecutive sub-.500 seasons since 1988 and 1989.
The issues for Strong have largely stemmed from a severe lack of talent among the upperclassmen he inherited — Harvard sent more players to the NFL Combine than Texas this past February — and underwhelm?-ing quarterback play, in which Strong has used a revolving door of Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard. While Strong has done a nice job recruiting (a top 10 class in 2016), a 2016 schedule that includes five Top 25 teams from last season might not afford him the chance to see 2017 as the Longhorns’ head coach.
In College Station, the regression of the program under Sumlin is far more systemic and troubling. At its basic mathematical core, the team has gone backwards every season on Sumlin’s watch, from 11-2 in 2012 to 9-4 in 2013 to 8-5 and a bowl win in 2014 to, finally, 8-5 and a bowl loss last season. However, it’s the erosion of the depth chart at the position thought to be Sumlin’s area of expertise, quarterback, that has Aggies everywhere concerned.
After the 2015 regular season ended, prior to the bowl game, both of the Aggies’ top two quarterbacks (and former five-star recruits), Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, decided to transfer, becoming the fourth and fifth quarterbacks to do so since Sumlin arrived in College Station, a befuddling trend considering the one quarterback who didn’t transfer won the Heisman Trophy in 2012. (Even a high school quarterback who’d committed to the Aggies for the 2017 season, Tate Martell from Las Vegas, de-committed several weeks ago. Sumlin can’t win.)
However, as we soon learned, it may have been the carte blanche granted that very Heisman-winning quarterback, the hard-partying Johnny Manziel, that contributed to the exodus of the other signal callers. Allen, ?in an interview with CBS Sports, painted a picture of a program long on entitlement and short on guts.
“I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny’s era ?there — the way that they let Johnny and [others] act there,” said Allen, the No. 1-?rated pro-style quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class. “They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny…and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now. A lot of people were riding off that ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday.”
While the unrest in Aggieland is palpable, and concern is understandably high that duplicating the team’s 8-5 record from 2015 will be tremendously difficult in the SEC West, the simple fact is the Aggies may be stuck with Sumlin, unless they’re willing to pay a reported buyout of $20 million for the remaining four years on his contract. Indeed, the one thing Sumlin has done flawlessly is squeeze A&M for more money each year, garnering raises after both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He’s currently the second-highest-paid coach in the SEC, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban. Saban has won four national titles in nine seasons in Tuscaloosa. Sumlin is 17-15 in the SEC in four years in College Station.
Aside from the fact that both Strong and Sumlin, as well as their players, have to answer numerous questions about the coaches’ job security, the quicksand vibe of both the Texas and the A&M programs has turned recruiting in the Lone Star State on its ear. Several in-state recruits who would normally have committed to one of the two schools by now are biding their time to see how the 2016 season unfolds so they can be assured they’re committing to a head coach who will still be employed. This has opened the floodgates for schools like Alabama, LSU and Florida State to raid Texas of its top teenage phenoms.
“It’s coaching stability and seeing how the season goes [with the Texas schools],” Marvin Wilson told SB Nation. “I’ll wait to see what they do this season to see what impact that will have on my recruiting.” Wilson, a rising senior at Houston Episcopal, is the No. 1 high school defensive tackle in the country.
If you’re tallying up college football’s market-scrambling forces in the state of Texas, you can also add the current state of flux in the Baylor program to the list, alongside the aforementioned failures of Strong and Sumlin. The aftermath of the sexual-assault cover-up scandal that resulted in head coach Art Briles’s termination could have drastic short-term effects (recruiting) as well as long-term effects (possible NCAA sanctions), on the Bears’ program. While Texas and Texas A&M are the political powers in our football state, it’s Baylor that has actually been the most successful of all the Texas schools on the field since 2011, averaging ten wins per season. Those days, however, appear over in Waco.?If you’re a University of Houston fan or alumnus, you can view the chaos at the traditional powers a couple of ways. On the one hand, any market forces that drive recruits in Texas away from the Longhorns, the Aggies and, to a lesser extent, the Bears create that many more potential targets for the Cougars. On the other, we are one more mediocre season in Austin or College Station away from Cougars head coach Tom Herman’s having his pick of either of those two schools’ jobs. Only in college football are you forbidden to root unconditionally against the schools that you despise, lest you be indirectly rooting for them to eventually pilfer your head coach.
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Truth in college football can usually be found in the numbers generated by the Las Vegas sportsbooks, and when futures bets for season win totals were announced last week, the oddsmakers forecast both Texas and Texas A&M to win six games each this season. If those pundits are anywhere close to accurate, we could be looking at both of the premier head coaching jobs in Texas coming open after the 2016 season, a development that would be historical on multiple levels.
For starters, it would be the first time since 1950 that both Texas and Texas A&M would be conducting a head coaching search in the same offseason, which could set off a fascinating bidding war if they’re targeting the same candidate, like Herman. Second, and more significant from a societal perspective, both Strong and Sumlin are the first African-American head football coaches in the history of their respective schools. The failure of both shouldn’t hurt future African-American head coaching candidates, but let’s just be honest — it certainly won’t help.
Saturdays this fall in Austin and College Station will still have their pomp, their circumstance, all the sights, sounds and smells of a college football Saturday. Also, rest assured, the coffers at these schools will still overflow. But the product on the field, at both schools, is 12 shaky games from touching off a head coaching and recruiting earthquake, and that collateral damage may be a necessary step in restoring college football in the Lone Star State back to where it’s “Texas forever.”
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.