Aggies begin SEC transformation
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M promises that Yell Practice will still be held at midnight. Reveille, the Aggies' mascot since 1931, will always be a collie. The students will continue to stand throughout the game, symbolic of the 12th Man ready to enter the game.
After that, however, all bets are off.
There's a new coaching staff with new schemes for the players. There's a new building under construction. There are new windscreens on the fences that line the practice field. They share a trait with the new shirts on sale at the bookstores. Who knew that a blue circle with yellow letters that spell "SEC" went so well with maroon?
Everywhere you turn in Aggieland, there's a football program in transition.
All head coach Kevin Sumlin has to do is look out the windows of his third-floor office in the Bright Football Complex. At eye level last week, Sumlin could watch workers building the roof of the $9 million player performance center, the new football-only weight room that will be sweat-ready Aug. 1.
When that is done, the program will take a beautiful unused patio behind the south end zone and use the space to build a "nutrition center" for all sports. And this week, Texas A&M announced that it had hired a firm to begin planning the renovation and expansion of Kyle Field. These are the types of facilities that only the top echelon of schools can afford. That's the neighborhood into which the Aggies have moved.
"I've heard some of our fans say, 'We were always an SEC school. We just didn't know it," athletic director Bill Byrne said.
Even the fans are in transition. After the earliest sellout of season tickets in Aggie history, Byrne said: "One of the issues we're dealing with is a lot of fans who were always used to being able to walk up and buy a seat in the stadium. They can't do that now. They're having to go to the secondary market."
Those changes all have to do with the future. To senior linebacker Sean Porter, who has started 28 games in his career, the SEC is a long way away. He and his teammates are negotiating their way through a new spring practice.
"Getting used to people, learning to trust people," Porter said. "What people want out of you, like our defensive coordinator [Mark Snyder]: how he wants us to run to the ball, how he want us to execute his defense, I think that's a lot harder than explaining new opponents. It's my last year and we got all this crazy stuff going on. We'll be all right. We'll get used to it."
The staff, Sumlin said, won't begin to focus on the Aggies' SEC opponents until May. But that doesn't mean that the players don't ask questions about playing in the league that's won the past six national championships. Defensive line coach Terry Price -- a former A&M player who has spent the past 14 seasons coaching in the SEC West, home of four of the last five BCS winners -- talked about the difference.
"The biggest thing I tell the players," Price said, "is that the superstars in the Big 12 are the quarterbacks, receivers, DBs. It's more of a space game. The stars, the guys who win games in the SEC, are the O-linemen and the D-linemen. They're the ones who win it. It's a line-of-scrimmage game."
For players accustomed to running sideline to sideline, Price said, the transition "can be really tough. People can line up in two backs with a big ol' 280-pound fullback and 235-pound, 240-pound tailback, and they'll run right at you. There ain't no dodging. You got to get used to playing low, striking, getting off blocks and making plays."
There's also the transition that caused Texas A&M to hire the 47-year-old Sumlin in December. Back in the old weight room, strength coach Larry Jackson is trying to remake a 7-6 team that lost five second-half leads of nine to 18 points.
"I tell players I'm not training to get them ready for football games," said Jackson, a former Aggie linebacker who came to College Station with Sumlin. "I'm training the players to get ready to practice. I let our players know that you won't be able to start on our football team because you won't be able to make it through practice."
There's also a transition under way in recruiting. To know how much Sumlin and his staff enjoy recruiting at Texas A&M is to know the difference between an AQ school and a non-AQ school. The recruiting budget has more than doubled from the $160,000 that Sumlin had to spend with the Cougars.
That means if the Aggies want to buy the clear envelopes that grab the attention of today's recruits -- if they can see what's inside, they might open the mail instead of throwing it away -- the office orders clear envelopes. Update the stationery? No problem.
"Say you don't like the way a note card looks," special teams coordinator Brian Polian said. "I've been in places where they say, 'OK, but we gotta go through these 6,000 first.'"
There's the time offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury saves because there are administrative assistants and students available to address an envelope or chase down a video. In a business in which time is measured by five-minute practice periods, saving 15 to 30 minutes a day is significant.
Most important, Sumlin is delighted to have the marquee recruits listen to him.
"We would have recruits come to Houston," Sumlin said, "and Justin [Moore] would just look at their body type and say to me, 'Coach, he's not coming here.'"
Moore is Sumlin's director of football operations. Laughing now, Sumlin said, "That would piss me off." They recalled the coach walking around the Houston campus with Michael Brockers. He made the All-America team as a defensive lineman last season -- at LSU.
"I was right, 100 percent," Moore said.
At their daily 8:30 a.m. staff meetings last week, the Aggie coaches devoted time to recruiting. (For FBS coaches, recruiting is as everyday as brushing teeth.) During the discussion last Tuesday, Polian asked Moore, "What's that Texas stat?"
"Nineteen Texas kids have gone to LSU," Moore replied. "Four of them started. Eight of them are no longer with the program."
Sumlin is hoping to capitalize on in-state pride to keep the Texas kids who want to play in the SEC. That pride has motivated at least one all-star quarterback, although his eligibility expired a decade ago.
"I'm from Texas," said Kingsbury, who threw for 12,429 yards at Texas Tech from 1999-2002. "My dad was a Texas high school coach. Just growing up in it, there's a pride factor, thinking we play the best football here, at the high school level. It's a fun experience to try to take this to the SEC."
The transition, in all its forms, is running at full speed. The Aggies' first SEC game, on Sept. 8 against Florida, is 149 days away.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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