A paraphrase of part of an article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in the wake of the Aggies’ great 41-13 win over Oklahoma in the 2013 Cotton Bowl goes something like: A&M finally settled its divorce from the Big 12 — the Aggies got the house, the kids, the car, the summer home, the money, and the Heisman!
That is a good way of putting it. The Aggies turned a major corner in their marvelous 2012 season, accomplishing nothing short of revolutionary; no description of present-day Aggie football will ever be the same. Whether you love the Aggies, like them, are indifferent to them, dislike them, or hate them, the world that is Texas A&M Football has changed, like the aftermath of a knock-down, drag-out divorce.
My son Chad called the Aggies’ joining the SEC (It is not a “move;” they are still in College Station.) a gamble, a rolling of the dice. Every time they have rolled recently, it seems, they have rolled a winner. Who can question their decision now to join the toughest conference and toughest conference division in the country? Who can have any doubts whether they can play “big boy” football with the likes of the SEC? Who can doubt that they were correct in guessing they would be better off on the level playing field of the SEC than on the tilted Big 12 playing field manipulated and dominated by the University of Texas? What Aggie now can be against the change of conferences? Who can doubt that A&M, one the two largest schools in the SEC now (The other huge school is Florida.) by far, is size-wise and facility-wise at least the academic and athletic peer of the likes of the Longhorns? Who could possibly now think A&M is the “little brother” to anyone?
No one saw this past season coming, not even the most loyal followers of Johnny Manziel who saw him play high school football for the Kerrville-Tivy Antlers. “Miraculous” is too strong describing the season, but probably all other similar descriptions are not: sensational, surprising, mesmerizing, exciting, and, my favorite, marvelous. My wife, Sylvia, and I have season tickets at Kyle Field, and she said it best at the end of the season as we were leaving the Cotton Bowl on an unprecedented “high:” “I found myself watching the game differently this year; they played so fast and so unpredictably, you did not have time to look around the stadium between plays; you had to keep your eyes glued on Johnny, because you had no idea what he would do on the next play.” I bet that is exactly how the head coaches, defenses, and defensive coordinators playing against A&M must have felt the entire season! Talking with some former students of mine recently who could not be described as Aggie fans by any stretch, they said their favorite moments from the 2013 Cotton Bowl were the TV close-ups on the OU sideline of the Stoope brothers gesturing in frustration or just staring with arms folded and head shaking in helplessness. They had no idea what to do.
Thanks to our good friend Dr. Clark Odom, schoolmate back in Cisco, Texas, and fellow graduate from Cisco High School, Sylvia and I had great Cotton Bowl seats to see A&M cap off its marvelous season, shutting up those detractors who thought Manziel would “fall from grace” and stink up the Cotton Bowl game, being “hung over” from the Heisman Trophy national “banquet tour.”
If there is anything better than praise from your side of the line of scrimmage, it is praise and compliments from the other side of the line, especially when you have lost to that team. LSU’s All-American defensive end Sam Montgomery, who is opting to join the NFL’s upcoming draft, sounded like an Aggie fan in the wake of LSU’s win over the Aggies 19-24 (only one of two losses, the other to Florida 17-20) and the Ags’ upset win over then #1 Alabama. He said A&M had earned the respect of the SEC, going into “people’s houses” and taking over, playing their own style of physical football. He described the Manziel-led Aggie team as “dominating the SEC.”
It is hard to argue with Montgomery. The Aggies won all their non-conference games (SMU, South Carolina State, Louisiana Tech, and Sam Houston State), all their SEC road trips (Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Alabama), and two home SEC games (Arkansas and Missouri) — in addition to their Cotton Bowl win against the Sooners. From mid Sept. to mid Oct. they had a five-game winning streak; after the LSU loss, they had a six-game streak of wins, including the bowl win. Thanks to bowl losses by both Florida and LSU, they wound up #5 in the polls (had not finished 5th in the nation since 1956), tied with Georgia, the closest SEC team to #1 (regained) ranked ‘Bama. Over their thirteen games they outscored on average their opponents by 44.46 to 21.76. The Aggies’ offense over the season racked up a school and SEC record total of 7,261 yards, an average of 558.5 yds/game; their all purpose yardage per game was 662.6 yds; they made 357 first downs in all, an average of 27.46/game. They only had to punt an average of 3.15 times/game; they forced their opponents to punt an average of 6.46 times/game, 2.05 times the number the Ags punted. Their season third down efficiency was 55% and their hurry-up, no-huddle offense ran an average of close to 79 plays/game.
But the higher Montgomery praise was for Johnny Manziel, Johnny “Football,” Johnny “Heisman.” Of the 7,261 yards gained by the 2012 Aggies, 5,116 or 70.46% of them were accounted for by the Aggie QB running with the ball or passing to his bevy of receivers. Either running or passing, he produced 47 TD’s. The Tiger DE had such respect for Manziel’s accomplishments, he considered the Heisman race already won by the redshirt freshman from Kerrville. “Heck, if I get an award, I’ll give it to him….he and his squad are dominating the SEC…..he’s running on them. He’s passing on them,” said Sam. His admiration is understandable. Johnny’s total season yardage tops all recent Heisman QBs’ best season totals, more than Tim Tebow, more than Cam Newton, and even more than RGIII’s gaudy total inflated by his unbelievable numbers in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Manziel’s 516 yards of running and passing against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl vaulted him past the great Baylor QB. All this Johnny did as a redshirt freshman! All the other Heisman winners achieved their best as upperclassmen.
I was struck by how “things fell into place” for Johnny, just as they did for Robert Griffin III in 2011. Johnny just seemed to get better with every game, as the offense began adjusting to his particular set of skills, and his “Heisman moments,” most seem to think, came in the nationally televised upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in the tenth game of the season. Robert had his Heisman moments near the end of his senior year, with upset wins over both Oklahoma and Texas under the gaze of national TV. Both had to benefit from special outcomes of other games over which they, of course, had no control. Johnny Football’s special benefit came, ironically enough, from Baylor’s upset of Kansas State and Heisman candidate Collin Klein (“Optimus-Klein”) in Waco late in the 2012 season.
[Not that Johnny’s the best off the field. Stories of fake ID’s around the Northgate wateringholes on the edge of campus, champagne photos at casinos with pretty party girls (allegedly supervised by his parents), and a speeding ticket at Ennis, Texas (complete with an out-of-court light-hearted lecture by the Baylor-grad judge in the case, for which he got into legal trouble) all show Manziel is no RGIII; but, then again, who is? The debate that sports heroes have to be off-the-field examples goes on and on, but, for my money, you give the awards for on the field, not off. I would not give Ty Cobb the time of day if I could meet him, he was such an awful human being, but I would never question that he was one of the greatest baseball players on the field that ever lived. Manziel is no angel; we should not hold him to be one. We have to take the responsibility to teach young athletes the difference between the example lived by athletic heroes on the field and the example lived off. Emulate how Johnny plays football, not how he behaves away from the gridiron; emulate how Ty Cobb played on the diamond, not how he lived away from the stadiums. (For all you older boys and girls, remember Paul Hornung and Joe Namath?)]
If there were any doubts the Heisman did not belong to Johnny, the bowl games of the three top Heisman candidates dispelled them. Texas A&M won their bowl; Notre Dame and Kansas State lost theirs. Look at the three performances of the three candidates in those games; nothing senior “Imaginary girlfriend” Ta’o or senior Optimus-Klein did came close to what RS-freshman Johnny Football did to the Sooners; hardly had the third quarter of the Cotton Bowl been played when it was obvious Johnny Heisman was the offensive star of the game.
How did the Aggies do it in 2012? Like the lyrics of our school song, it might “ne’er be told,” like the Spirit of Aggieland. But for those of us grounded a little more in facts than trying to explain the spiritual, I’d like to point out some things not mentioned very often, but, in my opinion, very significant in understanding this unforgettable, marvelous season. If you listen to the interviews of Coach Sumlin and Johnny, you will catch the remarkable fact that the coaching staff not only had the good sense to tweak the offense around the unusual talents Manziel was bringing to the field, the whole team, especially the senior leadership of the squad, bought into the idea they had something special brewing and were willing to be lead on the field by a freshman QB — all you “good Ags” out there know that to be led by a “fish” is something to write home to “Ol’ Army” about! OC Coach Kliff Kingsbury, who understandably left the Aggie staff to be the head coach at Texas Tech — where his heart had been all along — exemplifed this tweaking when he told the story of how Johnny would complain about the early whistles blown during practice to protect the QB, saying repeatedly to the coaches, “They wouldn’t have caught me.” Kliff then went on to say they saw during actual games that Johnny had been right all along, and began having the whole offense — linemen, backs, and receivers — block like their hair was on fire until they heard the whistle end the play, instead of standing around and marveling at how elusive Johnny was. Luke Joeckel, in interviews following his reception of the Outland Trophy, talked about how they learned to block by looking at where the defensive guy they were blocking was looking — “follow his eyes” — in order to get an idea of where Johnny was and, therefore, how to block the guy accordingly.
The wonder of Manziel scrambles and runs is summed up in two broadcasting moments: 1) On TV during the Alabama game, Verne Lundquist, thinking Johnny would surely be sacked, called, “Got ‘im!!….” (Johnny snatches the bobbled ball out of thin air, spins to his left in one of his patented super-quick pirouettes.) “Oh, no they didn’t!!” (Johnny squares his shoulders while moving to this left and throws back across his body to a wide open Ryan Swope in the end zone for the Aggies’ second touchdown.). Lundquist’s color guy, Gary Danielson, added, after the awe allowed commentary, “You can’t teach that! You can’t defend that!” 2) Long time Cowboy announcer Brad Sham, doing radio for the Cotton Bowl, called one of Johnny’s 40+ yard weaving, jukeing runs (3rd qtr) with something like “There he goes! Now he’s there! How did he get there? Where did he come from? Who IS that guy?” Answer: He’s Johnny Heisman Football!
Coach Kingsbury, during an interview in the wake of his decision to go to Lubbock, very well might be right when he described Johnny as a once-in-a-coaching-career player. Steve Foster, my son Chad’s colleague at Austin’s ESPN radio studio, told me before the Cotton Bowl, without apparent hyperbole, that “Johnny might put up ’60’ on Oklahoma!” I had seen enough to know that was not exaggeration, though I thought the number might be sort of high. When I saw the Aggie offense deliberately slowing down and milking the clock in the 4th quarter, with ’41’ already up, I got the feeling Steve was just as accurate as Kliff.
The role the defense played in this 2012 season cannot be over emphasized. They improved game-to-game probably more than Johnny did. I am very reluctant to christen this defense as the return of The Wrecking Crew, but I will say moments grew in frequency as the season wore on that reminded me momentarily of those delicious defensive plays served up by R. C. Slocum’s great defenses. Again, mentioned, but not talked about much, is another very important Manziel effect: Opposing coaches testified that no one on their squad could simulate the speed and quickness of Johnny during practice; A&M’s opponents simply had not practiced or played against anyone that could do what Johnny could do. For the same reason, A&M’s 2012 defense DID practice against the likes of Manziel — “the man” himself — and, therefore, grew to handle the speed and quickness of even the SEC offenses they faced.
Among the facts of the “bottom line” of Texas A&M’s 2012 football season, in addition to the numbers above: #5 in the final polls, 2nd Heisman trophy (John David Crow, the 1st recipient, 1957), Johnny Manziel, in addition to the Heisman — the Davey O’Brien Award, SEC Freshman Player of the Year, AP College Player of the Year — Luke Joeckel — the Outland Trophy for outstanding linemen, 4 All-Americans (Johnny, Joeckel, DeMontre Moore, and Jake Matthews), and 2 opting to enter the NFL draft early (Joeckel and Moore).
Those who do not particularly care for the Aggies, cynics, and other nay-sayers predictably are saying “Yes, they had a good season…BUT…” They did not win this or they did not win that. Or, they still don’t have an overall better record against so-and-so, they did not beat such-and-such, etc. etc. I am coming from past experience that includes the Aggies winning only one, count it, ONE game during one season; I appreciate any win, regardless of who the opponent is; winning over a perceived rival is nice, I suppose, but to me not any nicer than winning over anyone; I downplay rivalries, just like I downplay weekly rankings during the season — all rankings except the last one; that is the only one that counts. In other words, this marvelous season put up by the Texas Aggies stands on its own, independent of and without reference to what has happened to the A&M football program in the past or what might happen to it in the future.
The only thing for sure about Aggie football is that we are entering a brand new era and style, and, Army, its face is Johnny Manziel’s.
I like what I see in the effects of the marvelous season upon our recruiting for the 2013 team, but none of that means anything until the first snap of the first game next season. I’m not crazy about a poll I saw predicting A&M will be #1 in the polls in August. Anyone, in my opinion, who tries to predict who is going to win what or who will be ranked over whom when, is as idiotic as those who bet on football games, or any sporting event, for that matter. Instead of predicting or betting, I like to “go to the bank” with a sure thing — the marvelous 2012 Fightin’ Texas Aggie 2012 Football Season!! ’12’ for the 12th Man! Truly Unforgettable, our new “t.u.”
Finally, I find myself agreeing with the premise that neither the final ranking of the Aggies nor the winning of the Heisman and possibly their other awards would have happened had they not left the Big 12 and joined the SEC; or, put another way, this season unpredictably was made possible by A&M’s gamble — its “divorce” from the Big 12. The reasons can be complicated and convoluted, I’m sure, but I think nonetheless it can be succinctly summarized: Every SEC win and even the two close SEC losses were bigger and more significant because they were SEC wins and losses, not Big 12 ones; even the wins over the “weak” non-conference foes were rendered relatively insignificant by the overshadowing Aggie 6-2 SEC record. And their bowl win over a Big 12 powerhouse did not hurt. It was a perfect storm of “rolling 7’s,” innovative coaching, and a confident, not cocky, kid from Kerrville. As Chad has said, they rolled the dice, hoping for the best, and they came out in the 2012 season winners beyond everyone’s wildest dreams — a definite t. u. season. “Lucky?” — maybe; “Great Football?” — for sure; “‘Wow’ factor?” — lock cinch! Gig ‘em!!
P.S. The Johnny Football phenomenon has had its own musical accompaniment. Some of you may have heard on the ESPN Heisman spot the Aggie Band playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” in honor of Manziel. That is an old band standard we have heard for years and years at Kyle Field. But my favorite is what you are beginning to hear more and more, like at the Cotton Bowl — Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good,” whose chorus goes
Go! — Go, Johnny, Go!
[repeat above 3 more times]
Go, Go! — Johnny Be Good!
But my favorite cover of “Johnny Be Good” is Judas Priest’s. The guitar riffs and chords ripped out by Glen Tipton and K. K. Downing, coupled with the screaming lyrics of Rob Halford, rock just like Chuck’s version, only harder, and more “in your face.” They should play Judas Priest’s “Johnny Be Good” every time in Kyle Field Johnny Football runs in a TD or throws for one.