After winning six of their final seven games last year, the Aggies are a threat to win the Big 12.
Mike Sherman’s first season in College Station began with an 18–14 home loss to Arkansas State.
Then things got really bad.
The Aggies finished Sherman’s debut 2008 season at 4–8, their worst mark since 2003. They lost five home games that year, the most in a season in Texas A&M’s storied football history that dates back to 1894.
Sherman arrived at Texas A&M from the NFL, but Not For Long seemed to sum up his future in College Station. In November 2008, Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne tried to cool off Sherman’s smoldering hot seat by issuing a statement in support of his first-year coach.
“Every hire is different, but the one consistent thing is we have had the patience to give our coaches and athletes the time to get better,” Byrne said. “Mike didn’t inherit lottery picks, or even a large number of all-conference players, and yet no one has ever heard him make an excuse other than to say he should have coached better and worked harder. He points fingers only at himself.
“While not fair to him, I applaud that because it shows just what type of man he is. I believe in Mike Sherman.”
Less than 48 hours after Byrne’s show of support for Sherman, the Aggies were pounded by Texas 49–9.
Sherman’s second season was somewhat better — it couldn’t have been much worse, right? The Aggies started 5–3. However, A&M staggered down the stretch, losing four of its last five games. The Aggies barely got bowl-eligible only to lose to Georgia 44–20 in the Independence Bowl.
Last season, the Aggies began the year by feasting on three cupcakes (Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Florida International), but then promptly lost their next three games to Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri.
Following the Oklahoma State loss — in which the Aggies blew a 21–7 lead, then rallied from a fourth quarter 14-point deficit only to lose on a last-second field goal — Thayer Evans of FoxSports.com wrote of Sherman: “He’s just not the right coach for Texas A&M.”
Evans wasn’t the only one thinking that two weeks later after the Aggies were routed at home by Missouri 30–9. A 3–0 start had quickly turned into 3–3 as Sherman’s three-year record dipped to 13–18.
Sherman, who sends a weekly letter to the state’s high school coaches, addressed his concerns during the three-game losing streak.
“I am by nature a very analytical and critical person,” Sherman wrote. “I am very hard on myself and the mistakes we make. I have to be positive and not beat our team down. I have to stay positive with them — not easy to do when things are not going your way. I do believe a coach can bury his team if he is not careful in these situations. That is my challenge.”
Sherman met the challenge. The Aggies stopped their three-game skid with a 45–10 win at Kansas on Oct. 23. In the contest, senior quarterback Jerrod Johnson, the Big 12’s preseason Player of the Year, was benched in the second quarter. Ryan Tannehill, who had played mostly wide receiver his first three seasons and attempted only 13 career passes, took over.
And the Aggies took off.
The following week against Texas Tech, Tannehill made his first career start and threw for a school-record 449 yards and four touchdowns in a 45–27 victory.
With Tannehill at quarterback, the Aggies didn’t fold in the second half of the season like the previous two years. They finished strong.
Texas A&M closed the regular season with six consecutive victories, including upsets of nationally ranked Oklahoma and Nebraska along with a huge Thanksgiving Day win at rival Texas. The Aggies ended up with a share of the Big 12 South title and a trip to the Cotton Bowl.
Although the Aggies lost to LSU in the Cotton Bowl, Sherman had finally turned the corner. No more second guessing. The hot seat has cooled. But now there’s a different feeling in College Station — huge expectations.
The Aggies return nine offensive starters, including three of the nation’s top skill players, and nine defensive starters.
“In spite of the positive steps we took last year as a team, I believe each year is a new year,” Sherman says. “For me, it’s starting over with a new team … different chemistry, talent and expectations. We gained some valuable experience and confidence in winning some big games in 2010. I do believe that mindset will be something to build upon. I do not believe, however, you can take anything for granted.”
When Sherman returned to Texas A&M after spending the previous 11 years in the NFL with Green Bay, Seattle and Houston, it took a while for him to get readjusted to the college game. He had coached as an assistant in the college ranks from 1981-96 at five schools, including as offensive line coach with Texas A&M from 1989-93 and 1995-96. Sherman thought his college coaching experience as an assistant would make for a smooth transition from the NFL sidelines to head coach at Texas A&M.
He was wrong.
He admitted he initially wore down his players. But he made adjustments, shortening his practice and meeting schedules, and tweaked other things. He even tried some different motivational tactics, such as showing his team excerpts from the movie Miracle on Ice before last year’s upset of Oklahoma.
Texas A&M’s red-hot finish in 2010 now has the Aggies with a whole different perspective entering the 2011 season.
“The goal is to win every game,” says Tannehill, who threw for 1,638 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. “We have a great team coming back, and we’re just trying to get better every day. We have our goal set on a Big 12 championship, and when we break it out every day we say: ‘Big 12 champs’ and we really mean it.”
Part of Tannehill’s optimism is based on the return of wide receiver Jeff Fuller, who considered leaving early for the NFL. Fuller had 72 receptions for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
“They (my teammates) were all definitely excited,” Fuller says. “I definitely couldn’t wait to tell them (my decision). It’s welcoming to be a part of a great team, a family atmosphere. I feel like I made the right decision.”
Tannehill says every day he would try to say something to Fuller or send him a text message about returning.
With Tannehill, Fuller and running back Cyrus Gray, the Aggies’ first 1,000-yard rusher in eight seasons with 1,133 yards last year, the Aggies will have three of the more formidable offensive players in the country.
But it all starts with Tannehill.
“He’s definitely stepping up as a leader, getting the younger guys in check,” Fuller says. “Tannehill came in and led us in a great way and we came out with a few Ws with him. We just want to continue to get better and build on what we did last year.”
But will the Aggies be able to keep the momentum going? They will find out soon enough, with early season games against Oklahoma State and Arkansas. If successful, the schedule sets up nicely — they could be 8–0 when they visit Oklahoma in a game that would have not only Big 12, but also national title implications.
Sherman says he is reminding his team that last year’s accomplishments do not guarantee success this fall.
“We started from scratch in January in building our foundation for the 2011 team,” Sherman says. “This team will be identified by what it does this year, not last season. There are no shortcuts.”
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