The boys who have the real old fight, as their oft-recited song goes, live out on a piece of flatland called College Station. Texas A&M hasn't made the long trip from there to the Cotton Bowl since the 1967 season, but wanting dies hard at a fiercely prideful place that inspired one alumnus to build his swimming pool in the shape of an Aggies boot, and, when asked at his daughter's wedding who gave the bride away, reply, "Her mother, her father and Texas A&M."
The Aggies are finally back in the Cotton Bowl and all the A&M crazies have come, including the guy who flies the school flag over his lawn and the other faithful followers of E. King Gill, the original 12th Man who is immortalized on campus in an ancient bronze statue. They haven't been here but once in the last 40 years, so they are probably entitled to all this shrieking and hollering.
But 11th-ranked Texas A&M's 9-2 season and berth in the Cotton against 16th-ranked Auburn has come in the middle of increasing allegations of NCAA violations. According to published reports, players allegedly have received signing bonuses, incentives, car payments and other favors from a variety of alumni and coaches under former coach Tom Wilson and current coach Jackie Sherrill.
The accusations, coupled with a wealth of young talent that will be around for a while, may make A&M one of the most intriguingly roguish teams in the country. Should the Aggies beat Auburn, they would gain a measure of respect that has been missing in the past mediocre seasons. But win or lose, they also will have to face an ongoing in-house investigation and possible NCAA inquiry.
"It doesn't bother us," linebacker Todd Howard said. "We're here for the game. What it's like is knowing the Russians have nuclear arms. It's in the back of your mind, but you don't really think about it."
Texas A&M is used to controversy by now, particularly under the tenure of Sherrill, the enigmatic head coach. Four years ago, Sherrill came out of the University of Pittsburgh with a reputation for genius to sign with Texas A&M for $1.2 million over five years. The move gave the school a reputation as one willing to do just about anything to win a national championship.
Cut to three mediocre seasons of 5-6, 5-5-1 and 6-5, and a lot of controversy, conflict and rumors of his demise. But Sherrill finally has a good one, and judging by the youth of this team, a mix of primarily juniors and sophomores, the Aggies may well be contenders for the national title next year.
They led the Southwest Conference in offense and defense, averaging 419 yards a game and holding opponents to 281. Alternating running backs Anthony Toney and Roger Vick gained 860 and 780 yards, respectively. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Murray threw for 1,965 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The character of Texas A&M's team seems inextricably mixed with Sherrill's personality. A former Alabama linebacker, he is made up of razor-blade cheekbones and a pair of ice-water eyes that say you bet I can. As a coach he is part magician, part egotist, and perhaps part charlatan, but he surely gets it done. At Pittsburgh from 1977 through 1981, he never lost more than three games in a regular season and went 11-1 in his last three years.
With Sherrill, it is virtually impossible to unravel true character from an array of personas. "I've shoveled chicken manure and I've sat in on board meetings," he says.
He talks in circles and in his own invented lingo that occasionally approaches psycho babble. One moment he is the good old boy who "rode the backs of my players," the next he is the sweatless genius.
"Tell me a job I can't do," he said. "And I'll go out and do it."
Said one acquaintance: "That should be on Jackie's tombstone. Except then he'd probably try to rise from the dead."
This year, Sherrill has done something very important at A&M.
"The main thing he said when he recruited me," says defensive end Rod Saddler, "was that he'd get us to the Cotton Bowl. He said to just give him time. I never doubted it.