- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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The first -- and most important -- step, as it always is when preparing for battle, was to meet and understand the opponent.
And the one Texas A&M faced welcomed the Aggies with unsuspected grace rippled with dismissive undertones. They were the Texas Longhorns, after all -- long set apart as the standard bearer for all the opulence that can be heaved upon college football programs. To show their wares to the Aggies merited no worry, for a pauper can rarely fathom how to gain what an aristocrat has behind the gates.
But the gates were held wide that day in 2002 as then-Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, former Shell Oil CEO and major Aggies donor Jack Little, athletic director Wally Groff as well as three others were met at the Texas football facilities. A tour from the weight room to the office of coach Mack Brown ensued.
"[Brown's] office looked out over the field there, and he had a nice office area and then had a real nice living area where he could kind of entertain parents and recruits," Slocum said.
Slocum's office, he said, was in a parking garage, a desk with two stiff-backed chairs facing it. If a mother and father wanted to join their son to hear what Slocum had to offer, a folding chair would have to be wedged in.
"It was eye-opening to see what they had and we didn't," Little said.
Texas did have it all; oil drums full of money, national wins, a boardroom-to-barn-door coach, five-star recruits, everything but the sense to know it had just allowed a Trojan horse mission that would change the path of a program and a rivalry 10 years later.
For Little, hours away from watching his close friend, Slocum, be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and days away from seeing his school's new quarterback, Johnny Manziel, be on a bigger stage just a few blocks over and down from New York's Waldorf Astoria, these past 12 months have been a culmination of these past 10 years.
"We're on a mountaintop high right now," he said. "It's a great feeling."
The feeling was bought and paid for.
In the days following his trip to Texas, as well as five other schools to look at facilities, Little started a $50 million capital campaign. Texas A&M boosters raised $53 million. Two more campaigns followed. While each season was met with middling success on the field and the program suffered through multiple coaching staffs, cornerstones were being laid. By 2012, the foundation was strong enough to bear the weight of a winning college football program.
This season, Texas A&M, a school rooted in tradition, chose to uproot itself by moving to the SEC. The Aggies finished 10-2 through an arduous SEC schedule, beat No. 1 Alabama on the road, have a freshman Heisman Trophy candidate, have one of the hottest college coaches in the country, Kevin Sumlin, on its sideline and have commanded the attention of nearly every high school football player in the state.
"I don't think there is anybody hotter right now than the Aggies," said Randy Rodgers, a veteran college coach who was the recruiting coordinator at Texas and Illinois and now runs randyrodgersrecruiting.com.
Indeed the lone star over Texas has recast its light and now shines on College Station. And the beam appears to be unwavering. Because what Texas A&M was able to do as it threw up building after building was not just construct a program but build sustainability through recruiting.
"With the facilities improvement that we have had and the improved funding with this large alumni base that we have and with the coaching staff, there is no reason why we can't compete with Texas or anyone else," Slocum said. "We give kids a clear choice now in Texas to play at the highest level."
That choice has been aided both by Texas A&M's move to the SEC, long thought to be the nation's best conference, as well as the continued flatlining of Texas. Simply put, the Longhorns are no longer who they once were. Three seasons of mediocre results have tarnished the crown.
Recruiting, an area where Texas long has had first pick, has started to fray at the edges for the Longhorns. There have been three decommitments in the 2013 class. One running back, Arlington Martin's Kyle Hicks, was committed to Texas for nine months but spurned the Longhorns earlier this week and announced he would attend TCU, a new Big 12 foe.
Another, Sealy's Ricky Seals-Jones, is the No. 1 prospect in the state and has his sights now set on Texas A&M or LSU.
One of the top players in the state for 2014, linebacker Hoza Scott (LaPorte, Texas/LaPorte), was a Texas priority. But he has already declared his allegiance to the Aggies.
"Really, honestly, my decision and my mindset is on A&M," Scott told ESPN.com. "That's where I really want to go."
Defensive back Nick Harvey (Lancaster, Texas/Lancaster), another Texas target, committed to the Aggies in late November.
"Texas and Texas A&M were battling for the No. 1 spot," Harvey told ESPN.com.
"We have some people that were out there that were sitting on the fence in a wait-and-see mode with some other programs saying, 'Hey they're not going to win in the SEC. As a matter of fact, they're going to get their brains kicked in,'" Sumlin said shortly after the Aggies took down Alabama. "So I think for all intents and purposes, we've answered that question. We can handle it in this league.
"I think recruiting is going to reflect that," he added. "The people that were on the fence, now, our phone is ringing off the hook at this point."
That's not to say Texas is firing blanks. The Longhorns, who have the biggest war chest in college football, will still get theirs. Texas' 2013 class still has a higher ESPN ranking than Texas A&M or any Big 12 school. Currently four spots separate the two programs with Texas at No. 7 and the Aggies at No. 11. Given that Seals-Jones is not yet a sealed deal and that Texas commitment A'Shawn Robinson (Fort Worth, Texas/Arlington Heights) is taking a visit to USC this weekend, those rankings could fluctuate.
But the real reflection of any significant change is still a year away.
"Where you really start the momentum is in the next class, which will be 2014," Rodgers said.
In response to pressure applied by the likes of Texas A&M and its SEC brethren, Texas, which had staunchly refused to offer and accept commitments beyond one year in advance, changed its philosophy in the summer of 2012. Suddenly Texas was entering the speculation game with the others, if only because it was forced to do so by the others. Time was the Longhorns set the pace. The times have changed.
"We are constantly reevaluating everything we do after 14 years on a daily basis," Brown said in August. "Someone said that there was a big change in our recruiting of younger recruits before the 2014 class the other day, and what you did, you can't be afraid of change."
Change is what has gripped this state. That change was a long time coming for Texas A&M, a full decade in the making. But now that it is here, the grip of those at Texas A&M has become unrelenting.
"I don't think A&M has ever reached their manifest destiny," Slocum said. "If you look around the country at Ohio State, Alabama, Southern California, they have great rich histories and have been good and are still good and will continue to be good.
"We have had some brief forays where we reached to a national level team. But we're moving now toward where year in and year out Texas A&M is one of the real big programs in the country."
GigEmNation's Sam Khan Jr. and HornsNation's William Wilkerson contributed to this story.
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