Franchione unfazed by '03 struggles

Aggie fans, repeat after Coach Fran:

"Year Two is easier than Year One."

It has been that way everywhere Dennis Franchione has coached. At all six of his prior stops in a head coaching career that began in 1981, his team won from one to four games more in the second season of playing for him than in the first.

That is good news for Texas A&M, because last year did not go well. The Aggies struggled to finish 4-8, the school's worst record in 31 years. It was a year that had Franchione going home at night and, to use his word, "bemoaning" the problems he encountered in getting the team to pull in the direction he wanted.

"The whole year," Franchione says, "was a test."

The Aggies seemed particularly ill-suited for Franchione's demands of physical play. Symptomatic is that Texas A&M lost five games by at least four touchdowns. Even worse? November 8, one of the darkest days in Aggie history. The team gave Oklahoma a 77-0 victory that set off a national debate over whether the Sooners had run up the score.

"You don't ever block it out and forget about it," Texas A&M junior free safety Jaxson Appel says. "When it's 115 degrees out and you're running, you have to remember how it felt to lose to Oklahoma 77-0 and use it as motivation to never let it happen again."

It is clear that Franchione instituted the rule of My Way or the Highway, and he hasn't eased up. From the end of last season to the start of practice this month, 16 players left the team.

"There's a big difference in attitude," senior wide receiver Terrence Murphy says. "There is more enthusiasm. Last year, we had a few guys back down after a game got out of hand."

Franchione did not waver. He continued to demand work in the weight room. He has begun to plug younger players into the lineup. He also took the names off the backs of the players' jerseys, mainly to get their attention.

"I've rebuilt programs," Franchione said. "It's not like I was in a situation where I threw up my hands, and I'm not sure how to handle these things. That gives me strength to stay the course."

There are still issues on the field. Example: The Aggies committed six turnovers in their return game last season. Fran jokes that he considered using two returners for punts, "one to catch the punt, and one to recover it" when the first one fumbled.

He has solved part of that issue, he thinks, with one of his players. Murphy, a productive wideout from the day he stepped on campus, will catch punts. Murphy is an excellent example of the kind of improvement that the Fran Plan achieves. He set a school record during the offseason with a vertical leap of 41.5 inches, one inch higher than any Aggie has ever jumped.

Murphy could use the extra step. He caught a team-high 44 passes, and ran 80 yards for a touchdown against Utah. But he didn't catch one touchdown pass.

"It was a joke inside the team," Murphy says. "I got tackled inside the five at least eight times."

The Aggies have a good mix of returning starters, redshirt freshmen who will demand playing time and junior-college players, especially to fill big holes at linebacker. Player personnel and attitude aren't the only things that will be different this season. The players now understand better what Franchione and his staff want.

"You don't have to second-guess your first step," Appel says. "That first year, you don't know if you're making the right step. Your first step is instinctive, instead of you wondering if this is the right thing to do."

No one is wondering whether hiring Franchione was the right thing to do. But in a time when Texas and Oklahoma have taken up permanent residence in the top 10, Aggie fans would like improvement in a hurry. Fran's history tells them that Year
Two is the time.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.