Debating Texas A&M’s Big 12 Legacy with Kevin Hageland

Kevin Hageland is the co-host, along with Cory Mageors, of the “K&C Masterpiece” nightly radio show on 105.3 The Fan, home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers. Hageland is also an Aggie, having attended school there in the late 1990s. This put him squarely in the heyday for the Aggies in the Big 12. In 1998, the Aggies won their only Big 12 title, in just the third year of the conference. They finished that season 11-3 and lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

I do a weekly radio appearance on their show about college football. Not sure how I convinced them that that I was an “expert” on college football, they clearly haven’t read my season preview Big 12 Bullet newsletters.

So I thought Kevin would be the perfect person to discuss the Aggies’ Big 12 legacy. For one, he’s an Aggie, two, he is a professional sports opinion-haver, and three, I think he has a really good perspective on things. He doesn’t have a super-inflated opinion of the Aggies, but he is still a fan and believes the best about them.

I, on the other hand, am super biased against the Aggies. So that’s why I brought Kevin in to have this discussion as opposed to me just giving my opinion. I wanted someone to provide counter-points.

The following is my conversation with Kevin, we talk about A&M’s time in the Big 12, that legendary 2012 team and whether Texas and A&M should renew their rivalry.

The Aggie Big 12 Legacy

With the benefit of time and a clean view of their time in the Big 12, how would you sum up their legacy in the conference?

Underachieving. If you just looked at the last decade, I think underachieving is the best description, because if you go back and look at the last half-decade of the Southwest Conference, we ruled and were in the national spotlight. And we were in two of the first three Big 12 Championship games and then that was it. Those two years were it, they never made it back. You had high hopes based on the ’90s but then the 2000s were disappointing.

What are some of the reasons for that underachievement?

Specifically related to the 2000s, what happened was we clearly got surpassed by Texas. And another thing that hurt Texas A&M was recruiting became more nationalized. And I know there are examples you could find of players from different parts of the country going far away to play, but for the most part recruiting was a very local game. A&M could always say that they were in the best football state in the country and they were able to get recruits that way. Instead of having to compete against the other Texas schools for players, you were recruiting against every other team in the country. And obviously you got overthrown by Texas who was one of the most dominant teams of that decade.

So was the move to the SEC just a way to get away from Texas? Do you think they had a legitimate gripe and reason to leave?

I would liken it to getting out of a bad relationship and needing any tiny reason to pull the trigger. The reason they used was the Longhorn Network and the unfair distribution of money to other teams in the conference. Yeah, ok, I guess, that was the last reason. A&M was just looking for some reason to get out and that gave them the perfect out, as it did for Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado.

Plus everyone wants to be wanted and when the best conference in college football says they want to bring you aboard it’s hard to say no. Not to mention the inherent recruiting advantages that comes along with it. It’s no coincidence that you have seen them rise in the recruiting rankings over the last few years, because the move to the SEC. It’s made them into a national school. Before the SEC they weren’t a national school. I love Texas A&M, I really do, but it wasn’t a national school. It is now.

So let’s say A&M stays in the Big 12 but brings in the exciting and dynamic recruiter Kevin Sumlin as the coach still, do you not think they’d have been up there in the recruiting rankings?

I really don’t because time after time on Signing Day you hear kids reference the idea of playing in the SEC. You would not see them in the top five of the recruiting rankings if they were still in the Big 12.

What about the argument that the Aggies being in the SEC has “opened up” the state of Texas to all the other SEC schools for recruiting? Do you think that has had any effect on the entire state of Texas college football? 

I think it’d be better to say opening it up more. I do agree with that. A great example of that is Greg Little who ended up at Ole Miss. He was the No. 1 offensive lineman in the country and he went to Allen High School. He committed to Texas A&M, but all-of-a-sudden he changed his commit to Ole Miss and I think that is a direct manifestation of the effect of A&M being in the SEC. I don’t think there’s any way Greg Little was going to go to Ole Miss otherwise. I would dispute the fact that A&M being in the SEC opened up the state to SEC schools, but I would say that it did make it easier for them to recruit the state.

One of the draws for Texas A&M is that they can tell a kid that he can stay in the state of Texas and still play in the SEC. I think that’s a huge draw. And then other schools can work the SEC angle harder and say “Which is more important to you: playing in Texas or in the SEC?”

2012

Let’s go back to the end of the Big 12 era. The Aggies followed up R.C. Slocum with Franchione, who was mostly a disaster. Then they brought in Mike Sherman, and I think Sherman is such an interesting guy when it comes to legacy. He basically has one good year out of the four he coached, and then he’s 6-6 in 2011 and he’s fired. And there was probably no one protesting his firing or begging for him to get another chance. Yet, once Sumlin is brought in he coaches Mike Sherman’s players to that magical 2012 season. It wasn’t Sumlin who recruited Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans, Ryan Swope or those four offensive linemen who eventually went in the first round. Those were Sherman’s guys, yet Sumlin was the one who got the huge extension and all the praise for it. However, clearly Sumlin’s offense was a major part of the success. So who do you think deserves more credit for that season? Did Sherman get a raw deal?

Sometimes that’s a tricky deal to figure out who gets the credit for success. I’ve seen many talented players come into the college ranks and do nothing. So it’s hard to figure out who gets the credit for that team, Sherman or Sumlin. That was always the knock on Mack Brown was that he was a great recruiter but couldn’t coach. Obviously he could coach, it’s not like he was John Mackovic.

And while we are talking about that 2012 team, the first A&M team in the SEC, I have always maintained that if they had been in the Big 12 that year they would have won the National Championship. 

I think that team no doubt wins the National Championship game. Their two early losses were to Florida and LSU and they were by a combined eight points. A&M wasn’t going to play any team in the Big 12 that could grind them out in that same defensive style that Florida and LSU played. The Big 12 had good teams that year but they didn’t play in the same way that those two teams played. A&M could have won any shootout with a high-scoring team. Those very physical teams were tougher for A&M to deal with, especially early in the season. The Florida game was the first game of the season, their first game in the SEC. By the time they got to the Cotton Bowl that year everything was clicking and they beat the brakes off of Oklahoma 41-13. They dominated that game only a few weeks after they rolled into Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama.

Exactly, that’s what I mean when I say they would have won the National Championship, because for the first time since 1998 they were better than every other team in the Big 12. And if they were undefeated they would have been in the National Championship game and probably would have played Alabama, who we know they could beat. What about if there was a College Football Playoff back then, would they have made it even in the SEC?

If there had been at eight team playoff, A&M would have been in it and they would have won the National Championship. They wouldn’t have gotten in a four team playoff because they two losses. And if they had stayed in the Big 12, they definitely would have won the National Championship. It’s a shame. But, at the same time, would they have had the same components that helped them be as good as they were? I don’t know.

Most of the players on that team were recruited to A&M when they were a Big 12 school. That’s why I say that it was the Big 12 team that A&M brought into the SEC that would have won the title. The SEC recruits didn’t start contributing until later and they haven’t ever reached the level of the 2012 team.

I try not to think about that too much because then I’ll be crushingly sad that we did not get a National Championship in 2012.

Was it worth it?

So that brings me to my main question: Knowing everything you know now, from the fact that the 2012 team could have won the National Championship in the Big 12 to the fact that A&M is now a national recruiting school and even now with the Jimbo era, is the move to the SEC an overall positive move? Or is it 50% positive? Or even a net-negative?

I wouldn’t say it’s 100% positive because of that 2012 year. But I would say 80-85% positive. I really disagree with the narrative that A&M was middle-of-the-road in the Big 12 and they are middle-of-the-road in the SEC so it’s no different. That is a nonsensical argument to me. That argument is idiotic. Look at this year for example, A&M almost beat Clemson, a team that most people think will be in the College Football Playoff or National Championship game. Yet, A&M will still probably finish fourth or fifth in the SEC West. That’s how stacked the SEC is. So being in the middle of the SEC is a whole different ballgame from being in the middle of the Big 12. Who are you talking about in the Big 12 as your primetime teams?

In the past it’s usually been Oklahoma,, TCU, Oklahoma State, or West Virginia.

Yeah, true. So now look at the SEC, you’ve got LSU and Auburn playing each other with both teams ranked in the top 11. Alabama is always in the National Championship. You just had Georgia in the title game. So the SEC is always so stacked. It is frustrating to not see A&M rise above. But being in the SEC puts you in so much better of a class of football than being in the middle of the Big 12.

But don’t you feel like that’s a moral victory that doesn’t mean much? 

It doesn’t to me because we never transcended that in the Big 12 for the last decade. If we would be guaranteed to be in the top two or three of the Big 12 every year I’d be like ‘Hell yeah let’s go back.’ But that’s to me just speculation because it never happened. I’d like to think that’s the case, but what I do know is that we are a competitive team in the most powerful football conference in college football. Whereas we weren’t that in the Big 12. So I understand your point but I agree to disagree on that.

Wouldn’t it be better to be in a conference that you think you can win and by winning the conference you make the College Football Playoff as opposed to finishing third or fourth in your division? Because then you’re just saying “Hey it’s better to be in the middle because these teams are good.”

I say no and the only reason is I saw a decade where I held the same opinion on the Big 12 and I can think that it’s going to happen every year in the future but that’s based on ’90s A&M. And if we won the Big 12 that would make the headlines, but I also know that when we beat a Top 10 Auburn team on the road, that made the headlines. And when we beat Alabama on the road, that made the headlines. And this game against Clemson was a marquee game. I don’t think it was a marquee game because it was A&M against Clemson, I think it was a marquee game because it was Clemson against an SEC school. So I understand your argument, but I just don’t know that that would be the case. I think it would be, but I also thought we should have been in the mix for the last decade and we weren’t.

Basically, your argument is that these SEC A&M teams as a whole are better than the Big 12 A&M teams when it comes to talent because those really good players wouldn’t have gone to A&M without the allure of the SEC?

Absolutely. And we are only six years in so I haven’t given up hope that A&M can move into the top three or four of the SEC. Have they done it consistently? Absolutely not. But A&M was just ranked as the most valuable team in college football, so they are always in a good position with the alumni and donor base to consistently be Top Five in the country. I refuse to believe that we can’t compete with Auburn and LSU and Alabama. We brought in a marquee coach, we have the best stadium in Texas and we have one of the richest alumni bases in the country.

These are all not new developments for A&M. They’ve always had the money. So what do you think the reason is that A&M has consistently underachieved throughout their history? Is it a culture thing or is it just bad luck? 

That’s a great question. I don’t really believe in bad luck. Maybe there is something to the culture because the culture is not for everyone. I love A&M and the culture, but when people joke about it being a cult I definitely see why they would say that. I don’t personally believe that, but being someone who went to school there I certainly understand why others might believe that. That’s a great question that I wish I had the answer to, but if I had the answer to that I would get on the horn with Jimbo right now and solve it. I honestly don’t know. If you look at some of the great draft picks that have come out of A&M, it’s amazing. Myles Garrett, one of the best defensive players in the NFL, Mike Evans, one of the best receivers in the league, and several others came out of A&M. So why haven’t we been able to consistently win with guys like that? I don’t know.

I think I know what you are going to say to this, but when it comes to Jimbo, do you think A&M would ever be able to hire a guy like that away from a school like Florida State if they aren’t in the SEC? Or do you think it was all just the money?

Well, I certainly agree that it was at least partially the money. Some people have said A&M sucks because we had to give him all that money. And I’m like ‘There’s no salary cap!’ You do what you have to do. We’ve got the money, we just spent $450 million renovating the stadium.

But yeah, the SEC is a big factor. Jimbo has really hammered that home. He talked about playing Clemson and said “You’ve got the ACC and the SEC, no doubt the two best conferences in college football.” Look at where our last coach came from: Houston. I loved Kevin Sumlin, but he was making a move up from Houston to A&M. Jimbo Fischer was making a move that would not be seen as a move up if A&M was in the Big 12, but being the SEC added a little cache.

Saw ‘Em Off

Are you of the school of thought that says A&M should never play Texas again because they have nothing to gain from that game? If they lose it then they lose their biggest recruiting advantage of claiming to be better than Texas just because of the conference.

I hate that argument. What does A&M have to gain? The love and adoration of its entire fanbase. Almost all of your fanbase wants to see that game again. I want to see that game again, even though it means that we could lose. Keep in mind, I, like many people, have a lot to lose in that game personally. My sister went to Texas and that game is at Thanksgiving. If you think I hear about that game all Thanksgiving and all during the holidays, you’re damn right I do. My son wants to go to Texas because he loves Aunt Amy. He talks trash about it all the time. Two of my closest family members are aligned with Texas, so on a personal level I have plenty to lose if we lose this game, but you can’t not have it. That was such an important part of my love of Texas A&M growing up. It still makes me sad. That’s why every story, even if I know it’s clickbait, I click it if it talks about the rivalry coming back. I desperately want to see those teams. No disrespect to LSU, but that game at Thanksgiving just ain’t the same.

Yeah and Texas seems to keep switching between TCU or Texas Tech being their “rival” now. You can’t just make up new rivalries.

It’s not! Their rivals are Oklahoma and Texas A&M. So I wish everyone’s ego would get out of the way. And that argument that the SEC schedule is too tough to play this non-conference game is a load of bullcrap. You just played Clemson! If you want to load the rest of your schedule up with Louisiana-Lafayette and others so you can play Texas in non-conference, I accept that. I will watch garbage games if we get to play Texas again.

What do you say about the potential loss of recruiting power in the state though? Some say A&M should never play Texas again because if they lose then they can’t claim to be better than the Longhorns. 

That’s real for sure. Right now it’s all theoretical so you can just say A&M is the better team because we have the better conference and recruiting rankings. But is that really how you want to roll? You just spent all that money to have the best stadium in Texas, you just spent all that money to have the best coach in Texas, and you have the best recruiting in Texas and the best traditions in Texas, but you’re afraid to play to see who the best team in Texas is? That’s bull. And I don’t approve. Not that they asked me for my opinion.

I think you represent the way most Aggies would see it. I think most Aggies want that game back. Because right now the Aggies don’t really have a rival. Texas still has Oklahoma, but A&M has Arkansas and LSU, which are “rivalries” but not in the deep-seated way that Texas and A&M are.

Those games are all fine and well, but still to me the one of the greatest moments I ever saw live was the Texas game my junior year. It was a heartbreaking set of days. This was the year the bonfire collapsed and killed 12 people. It was awful. I remember going out with all of my roommates on the day that the bonfire would have been lit up and there was a candlelight vigil out there. I don’t ever recall an official announcement being made, and this was before social media or anything. The word just spread across the campus. There were tens of thousand of people there. And then we had the game against Texas and A&M was losing in the fourth quarter, but it was just like everyone knew we were going to win the game. Not that winning a football game solves anything, but it was the most unbelievable game I’ve ever been a part of. And it was so emotional. It was circumstance of the bonfire and the emotion and the tragedy, but it was also because it was Texas. It wouldn’t have been the same if it was against LSU or Arkansas or anybody else. It was an unbelievable moment that brought some semblance of healing to the campus. And a huge part of that was because of who it was against.

I think it can be a cliché or an insult that people used to say about A&M when they’d say that A&M didn’t care about being good, they just cared about beating Texas. Obviously that’s not exactly true, but it certainly gives you something to look forward to in a bad year. No matter how the rest of the year has gone, if you can beat your rival then you at least have that to hang your hat on for a year.

Oh sure, no matter what, going into that Thanksgiving game you’ve got something to cheer for. I remember when Ricky Williams broke the college rushing record against us. Texas fans might remember that game for that record, but they really remember it because we were the No. 5 team in the nation and they knocked us off and ruined our season. We were still the higher ranked team with the better record at the end of the season, but it didn’t matter because Texas ruined it for us. There’s something to be said for that.

Every team needs that in college football. A&M is one of the few major teams in college football that doesn’t have that huge rivalry currently. You can probably remember every time y’all beat Texas.

Absolutely. I remember my freshman year was an 11 AM game in the rain and me and my roommates had stayed up too late the night before because we were looking for a Nintendo 64 and we overslept. And we got out there in the pouring rain and the freezing cold and I thought I was going to die. A bunch of our friends gave up and left but I didn’t. And we won and it was amazing.

So what do you think the conferences will look like in ten years?

If you had asked me that a few years ago I would have said that there would be four Super-Conferences with 16-24 teams. It’s been interesting to see the pushback on that. I think the conferences have made some compromises that have made them stronger, like the Big East accepting basketball-only schools. I kind of think the conference alignment will survive the way it is now. We’ve gotten past the hysteria and the waters have ebbed some and everyone has calmed down.

I agree, I was all-in on the Super-Conferences. I thought the Big 12 would be gone for sure. But now, everything seems fairly calm.

Yeah they seem like a fighter who got rocked and got to take a break in the corner. And now they’ve gotten their wits about them and they’ve regrouped with a new strategy.


Thanks to Kevin for talking with me. If you’d like to see some bonus content from this conversation you can sign up for my Big 12 Bullets newsletter here. We don’t talk about A&M much, but

 

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