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Celebrating triumphs and questioning turmoil in Texas A&M's football program

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What is happening to Texas A&M’s football program? Is the university on a train bound for SEC stardom and a potential national championship in the near future? Or are the inmates running the asylum? What’s going on inside “the house that Sumlin built"? First the good news: ESPN reported on April 16, 2014, that Texas A&M is second nationally in the 2015 football class rankings, with nine commits, just one behind Alabama. That’s a tribute to Coach Sumlin’s program, where the best recruits in Texas want to be. Yet, the Wrecking Crew is a distant memory; instead, sadly, it’s the wrecked crew.

It appears that several formerly highly recruited players have collectively and individually conducted themselves in a less-than-Aggie-proud manner. Surely every football team full of talented players has one or two whose youthful exuberance or profligate conduct has all who love the school muttering “such a shame, that one was a bad apple.”

But, given ESPN’s (other) headline on April 16, 2014, surrounding the (latest) arrests of three (more) Aggie football players, it’s getting a little hot in the public eye. So far, no comments have been issued by high ranking Aggie officials, other than SID Alan Cannon, who’s had to keep score with the media about which players are “on” or “off” team suspension. That’s too much pressure for Cannon to have to keep fielding. He needs some help.

Here at home, it’s just that many of our Aggie football players cannot seem to stay out of the headlines in local and national newspapers and sports blogs—due to being arrested. Not questioned, not detained, but arrested. Even failure to appear after a warrant has been issued. How many people do you know who would simply ignore a warrant for their arrest and be a “no show”?

Let’s review. In a Google search on April 18, 2014, when you type in “Texas A&M football player arrest,” you’ll find 1,420,000 results. If you search for “Texas A&M football player arrested,” there are 9,950,000 results. Scary? Some sample articles follow:

April 17, 2014: Dallas Morning News: Three Texas A&M football players arrested for outstanding warrants,” which concerns defensive end Gavin Stansbury (active warrant in Harris county for assault), safety Howard Matthews (failure to appear, warrants for speeding and failure to exhibit a driver’s license), and receiver Edwin Pope (active warrant, failure to appear). The related story “Trio of Aggies arrested after stop” appeared on ESPN.com on April 16, 2014.

April 6, 2014: Bleacher Report: “Ricky Seals-Jones Arrested: Latest Details, Mugshot, and More on Texas A&M WR” was a story regarding Seals-Jones’ arrest “on a charge of disorderly conduct after shouting obscenities while being carried away from a College Station bar.”

March 28, 2014: The Eagle (Bryan-College Station) - “Texas A&M sophomore football player Kenny Hill arrested on public intoxication charge outside College Station bar,” which has a mug shot of a young man once touted to be the “future of Texas A&M football,” post-Johnny Manziel play. The story about how he came to be found asleep in a planter box will fascinate you. Maybe the thought that you'd have to wait your turn (again) to play behind "planter box talent" might be sufficient impetus to transfer to TCU, where you'd be assured of starting. That's the versatility and freedom you have when you already graduated from Texas A&M and actually want to contribute your talent to the team. What a contrast.

February 24, 2014: Bleacher Report – story by Matt Fitzgerald is that linebacker Darian Claiborne was arrested for “a noise violation, a Class C misdemeanor, and released on $300 bond; and lineman Isaiah Golden was charged with possession of two ounces or less of marijuana and released on $2,000 bond. In this same arrest event, wide receiver Devante “Speedy” Noil was “detained but was let go by police and avoided custody.”

November 7, 2013: The Eagle – “Police: Texas A&M football player arrested on possession of marijuana and prescription pills” is the story regarding Kenneth Marshall, a freshman defensive back, who later turned himself in to College Station Police Department, in response to an arrest warrant.

There’s nothing more certain to generate backlash and controversy among the Aggie family in reading these names, the offenses and news of suspensions, probation, reinstatement, dismissal or—in general—anything negative about the fighting Texas Aggie family. No one wants to believe it. No one wants you to think poorly of the school whose crest and legacy rests on top of every senior ring that rests on the fingers of current and former students alike.

Aggies learn to love their school with a fierce desire to protect it against all who would dare to speak, nay even whisper, a word of negativity. If you do, you’re immediately branded a hater. The message boards will surely go wild with how much you hate your school and how unappreciative you are about the school and what it means to be an Aggie. The Dallas Morning News, bearers of bad news about two decades ago, is still bearing up under that mantle. So how do you fix the problems that exist, after you figure out what the root cause is, and who can come in and fix what’s broken?

Commentary

All this “negative publicity” surrounding Texas A&M is not helping the Aggie morale one bit. Aggies want to be proud of their program, and frankly, Coach Sumlin needs some help. It’s time to call in the big guns. It’s time for John Sharp to step in and lend a hand in talking to every single player about what it means to be an Aggie. Better to call on Sharp than Gov. Rick Perry, a former Aggie yell leader and currently still the most powerful Aggie in Texas. If Gov. Perry has to step in, he may well do what Gov. Ann Richards once had to do, invoke the Texas Rangers to start looking at things on campus, in response to the "anonymous letter" that old Aggies have all but forgotten, and newer Aggies have never heard of.

Unfortunately, the Aggie governor has been such a lightning rod with every appointment he makes on campus, of a trusted colleague or leader he respects so highly, to run the show, that it would be counterproductive and a little embarrassing to expect that he could come in and override the Texas A&M Board of Regents, whose singular silence on his prior recommendation of Aggie Interim President really sort of relegated him to "lame duck" status.

Begs the question, though, where is the Texas A&M Board of Regents right now on the topic of turmoil inside the Aggie football program? As quiet as the flies on the wall. Their silence speaks volumes. Apparently no one wants to dare say a word, lest they curry disfavor with either the governor or the chancellor. Yet, Chancellor Sharp serves at the pleasure of the Aggie Board of Regents, who are appointed by the Texas Governor. Each regent is a Perry appointee because he's been in place since 2000.

Perry may not be the right Aggie to come and look into things on campus just now. Seems he has a few problems of his own. On April 4, 2014, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal online posted a morsel from the Texas Tribune, that "a special prosecutor is looking into Perry's attempts to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign by way of a veto for state funding for the Travis County DA's Public Integrity Unit." All that controversy will ultimately wash out one way or the other, business as usual in the land of Austin, but right now it's an unpleasant irritant for the governor.

Politics is a messy business and only those who really understand it should comment. Suffice it to say that Gov. Perry thought enough of John Sharp in Sept., 2011, to support and reinforce his leadership of Texas A&M and that's that. The two were never friends or political allies before, and they likely have a contentious relationship now, particularly since Chancellor Sharp and his distinguished professors supported Dr. Hussey (good move, smart move) over Governor Perry's candidate, Guy Diedrich, a successful Aggie but non-academic who founded Austin Technology Ventures.

Diedrich was not given a single vote by the Board of Regents, who voted unanimously for Dr. Hussey's leadership, an anomaly that still puzzles some onlookers because the regents serve at the pleasure of the governor. It sometimes gets confusing in Aggieland without a scorecard.

Clearly, John Sharp is the right person to step in and review what's going on at Texas A&M. Sharp’s a former Student Body President, a former State Representative, a former member of the Texas Railroad Commission, a former State Senator, a former State Comptroller and almost the Lieutenant Governor of Texas. And now he’s Texas A&M’s highest ranking official, and he’s needed over at Kyle Field to find out what’s going on in the football program, before the New York Times does.

The time is actually overdue for Sharp's oversight, given the April 10, 2014 publication of Steven Godfrey's SB Nation story, "Meet the Bag Man: How to Buy College Football Players, in the Words of a Man Who Delivers the Money." The story focuses on SEC programs, and Texas A&M is in the SEC now. Old Aggies should be a little worried right now because those with a longer provenance remember well the days of Gov. Ann Richards having to send in the Texas Rangers to look at the files of university operations and conduct extensive interviews.

Almost 20 years ago, the Texas State Auditor conducted a comprehensive review of business at A&M and published quite an important audit document, which now sits gathering dust in a file cabinet somewhere. At the time of that audit, Cathy Smock was an audit manager for the State Auditor's office (for 18 years), and her team did an exemplary job of looking into so many areas of concern at A&M. Many positive changes occurred on campus as a result of her team's audit. Someone in A&M's leadership, in 1999, was wise enough to recruit her away from the State Auditor's office to Aggieland.

For the past almost 15 years, Smock has been the Chief Auditor of the Texas A&M University System, where things have been focused on cost-savings and outsourcing contracts for maximum savings of state and public funds. Although it's not without controversy, any problems within the football program will forever and for always outrank the concerns over lifetime Texas A&M state employees having to work for Chartwell's or Compass.

The famous legends of Texas "Friday Night Lights" are not focused on french fries and franchises. Football is, and forever will be, king in Texas. And, the state of Texas is ranked right around dead last in the high school graduation rate. So, if the Aggies are lucky enough to have high school graduates in Texas A&M, they need to have someone looking out for their best interests once they're here.

So many successful Aggies in the state of Texas love their school passionately and consistently. They attended here, many on scholarship, they graduated, and they made good in life, as well as on the gridiron, gave back to Texas A&M, funded new scholarships for new players. All those people want to know: Who can inspire, or scare the heck out of, the players in the Aggie football program to behave like decent young men?

The smart money’s on Sharp to get that job done. Don’t bother the athletic director with this problem, because he didn’t create it and frankly, he doesn’t have time for it. He’s very busy right now trying to deal with two plates’ full of daily issues with the Kyle Field expansion, contracts for the concessions and such, and in general, finding money for all of the sports that are “not football” to grow and flourish.

Meanwhile, all these negative football headlines have undoubtedly been giving Jason Cook nightmares. It’s hard as heck to spin your way out of a nightmare publicity vortex like this one. And, Cook is giving it his best SEC- and Aggie try, but he can’t keep dodging a never-ending series of bad news headlines popping up every month. On April 17, Barrett Sallee, SEC Football lead writer of Bleacher Report penned, “Texas A&M football: Off-season arrests shouldn’t be an indictment of the program.” Really? How can you not judge the program? Sallee’s message: “Don’t judge A&M on off-season arrests” is sad.

While you’re at it, more importantly, don’t judge Kevin Sumlin by just part of this football team either. He and his staff recruited these players. They likely didn’t do a lot of due diligence on character searches because they were all busy studying film and on-field performance. And unlike the old days, once these players are not on the practice field, it’s hard to keep an eye on them.

The old days are gone when all the football players lived (and ate) in Cain Hall. Remember Cain Hall? No, most people don’t. It was across from Kyle Field and the MSC, the dorm where they had steaks for supper while the Corps dining hall had burgers of mystery meat. It was mostly just the football players and a few athletes from other programs in the newest, best dorm that no one ever set foot in, if you weren’t on the football team. Even in the 1970s, ultimately that was considered elitist and so, decades later, the university ran out of room on campus for all of the athletes. Other arrangements were made and that’s where much of the present day trouble stems.

Today, Aggie football players don’t live as a team. They’re scattered to the four winds, some to a local apartment complex with a major party reputation, some to rental properties or parent-purchased homes, or who knows where. Some party hard, some quietly, others not so quietly. They are, in general, highly unsupervised, left to their own devices. One place we know they are, often, thanks to the newspapers and television cameras is Northgate, in bars, whether or not they are 21. Wherever else they are is a collective group of places where no one sees them overtly, but just ask any student on campus where they are, and they know. It’s a different day and time we live in.

Therefore, the time is right for Chancellor John Sharp to begin a university investigation, to see how and why it is that (some) football players believe themselves impervious to the rules and code of honor expected of all other students who faithfully call themselves Aggies. Chancellor Sharp, given his love of and devotion to his alma mater, would be the single most powerful person in the state of Texas to lend a hand in support of Coach Kevin Sumlin.

Coach Sumlin has done his part—he has recruited the talent, he has hired the staff, he applies the rules fairly and judiciously as best he can, to try and get these kids to grow up and stop acting like idiots and irresponsible spoiled brats. But Sumlin cannot do this by himself. Rather than having to develop spin-cycle boilerplate stories on “please, please don’t judge A&M by recent arrests,” let’s develop some new public guidelines for behavior that are enforced fairly and judiciously among every single athlete.

Develop the rules by which all future recruits are aware that if they’re going to play at Texas A&M, they can’t fail to appear when they’re arrested, they can’t use alcohol and other drugs and be held unaccountable. Kick them off the team and separate them from their scholarships and see how fast they stop acting this way.

Behavior will change when players know they can’t continue to drag down the reputation of Texas A&M into the jail cells and bail bonds offices and attorneys’ offices and onto the front pages of papers and internet blogs. It’s a waste of precious dollars when you have to spend time trying to obfuscate the trouble, currently being swept under the rug, hoping it will go away, and making excuses for actions unbecoming a person who wears a Texas A&M uniform.

When the University of Texas hired Charlie Strong to be their new football coach, it was against what some of the most powerful university donors and regents wanted. But UT President Bill Powers and his new AD, Steve Patterson, hired Strong. As Wade Goodwyn of NPR so eloquently wrote earlier this year,

“It was a message showing that at Texas, the focus is still research and academics — that the university is still running the football program and not vice-versa.”

Texas is on a serious quest for a national championship. So, too, is Texas A&M. But, you don’t see any announcements of support or encouragement for Coach Kevin Sumlin from the venerable “powers that be” at Texas A&M—yet. Football should not be running Texas A&M the way it once did. Texas A&M should be running football.

But no one permanent is running Texas A&M University at the President’s level either. Interim President, the distinguished researcher and academic Dr. Mark Hussey, can be eloquent and erudite in plant breeding and all matters “AgriLife.” But football operations are not part of his permanent responsibility, so you don’t expect it to be his temporary assignment either.

Chancellor Sharp can, however, get in there to fix football’s image, the way he stepped in to defend the university’s Heisman trophy winner during the NCAA investigation last summer. Sharp can help Coach Sumlin attain the power he needs, and presently does not have, to carry out his own program of discipline.

Whether it’s a Corps of Cadets uniform or an athletic uniform, Aggies are only as strong as their weakest link. No more excuses. All Aggies, current and former, should not have to continue to be embarrassed and hear the “boys will be boys” and “they’re not 21 yet” excuses. Those have been wearing thin, for a few years now.

It took the New York Times to travel to Florida to begin to get the public eyes opened to what lengths a university will go to for the sake of their football program. The story surrounding the Florida State investigation of their football program is revealing and pathetic at the actions of desperate people who are shown to sacrifice one female victim, in the place of a more-important national title, and a piece of bronze that grows less shiny by the day it’s held by, well, that’s another kettle of stinky fish.

At Texas A&M, if you’re going to give an expenses-paid, full-ride education to a player in exchange for their athletic talent on the field, there’s an obligation due. It’s a responsibility, when you’re wearing that uniform, to uphold a code of behavior befitting everything good that Texas A&M stands for. And hopefully, one day soon, the official word will come down from somewhere by someone. It’s a privilege to be an Aggie and if you don’t like following the same rules that everyone else has to, Highway 6 runs both ways.

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