Is Texas A&M's athletic program headed for big trouble?

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Fom the outside, Texas A&M's athletic program looks strong and vibrant.

The Aggies have slumped recently at football, but still averaged 82,193 per game to rank 14th nationally in attendance. They played to 99.03 percent capacity at Kyle Field.

The men's and women's basketball teams have never been stronger, and the baseball team had a solid season. A&M is in 20th place in the most recent Learfield Sports Directors' Cup with a large infusion of points to be added from the school's men's national golf championship.

But under the seemingly tranquil surface, there are several ominous factors.

Robert Cessna of the Bryan Eagle had an interesting blog post this morning about a $16 million line of credit that former Texas A&M president Robert Gates gave to the athletic department before leaving his job to become the Secretary of Defense in 2006.

Like Cessna, I'm wondering where the money has been going. I would have thought the A&M athletic program was close to being self-sufficient considering all of the positive signs that seemingly abound around the school.

And the most intriguing fact is this: The credit was extended while Gates was the president of the school. That was obviously before the recent malaise in the economy really kicked in.

It's an item that was detailed by current A&M president Elsa Murano in her annual evaluation from A&M chancellor Mike McKinney.

That relationship between Murano and McKinney appears to have gotten rockier over the last few months, according to Brent Zwerneman of the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle.

McKinney has a huge vested interest in the A&M football program, considering both of his sons played there. He was also actively involved in luring Mike Sherman back to the school from the NFL. Sherman was the offensive line coach during some of the time his sons were playing for the Aggies.

It could be argued that McKinney might be Sherman's best friend in the Aggies' upper administration. And if McKinney's role expands in A&M's hierarchy, it can't hurt Sherman.

All of this is playing out, however, as the Aggies struggle on the field more than at any time in recent history.

The Big 12 South has never been more competitive in football. Oklahoma and Texas are at the highest levels in history considering their national success. Texas Tech assuredly is at its peak.

Oklahoma State could be there with the breakthrough season many are predicting for the Cowboysn. And the resurgent Baylor program under Art Briles appears to be nipping at the heels of A&M and poised to overtake them if they can make their first bowl appearance since 1994 and the Aggies are shut out again.

Various national blogs are chiming in about the demise in Aggieland.

CollegeFootballNews.com ranks the A&M program as one of the five in the nation that do the least with the most in terms of football achievement.

CFN commentator Pete Fiutak has this to say on why A&M is struggling in football:

The short answer to why not Texas A&M is simple: Texas and Oklahoma. But if Texas Tech can become a power, even though it needs a gimmick to do it, then there's no reason the Aggies shouldn't be getting their share of top Texas talent, especially from the Houston area, and be a player in the Big 12 South race once in while.

But those comments were tame compared to those of his CFN colleague, Richard Cirminiello:

Can someone kindly explain to me why Texas A&M hasn't been able to get its act together this century?

The Aggies have all kinds of built-in advantages, but haven't been able to capitalize in a long time. They reside in one of the most talent-rich areas of the country, boast a loyal fan base, and sport a rich set of traditions. Yet, the program is no longer in Texas' league, has fallen way behind Texas Tech, and is in danger of being caught by Baylor.

It just doesn't make a lot of sense. You want tangible proof? Take a look at some interesting numbers. Since 1999, Texas A&M has sent 37 players to the NFL, a very healthy number unless you're Ohio State, USC, or Florida. However, it's averaged a paltry six wins a year over that span, and has a Gallery Furniture Bowl victory as its lone postseason triumph. That's a pathetic example of how little the Aggies have milked from their talent pool.

Sherman desperately needs a bowl appearance this season after last season's 4-8 record. It will be one of the biggest challenges in college football considering the relative strength of the South Division.

Can he turn things around?

His job security may depend on it.