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December 17, 2012

Is Texas A&M following Florida's blueprint?

MORE: Awards shows mean opportunities

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Since the end of the R.C. Slocum era, Texas A&M has tried -- and failed -- to keep pace with the model of success enjoyed by archrival Texas.

Because of its struggles -- the team finished third or lower
in its division of the Big 12 in all but one season of the
2000s -- no one gave the good-but-not-great program a chance to have much success when it joined the SEC this season.

So how did the Aggies become one of the hottest programs in the country -- the one with a Heisman Trophy winner, the one that beat Alabama on the road, a program with a chance for its first top-10 finish since 1994 and the one whose recruiting and on-field future may look brighter than, dare it be said, the Longhorns'?

Easy. Whether intentional or not, the Aggies' sudden rise to success mirrors the model used by another national power: Florida.

When Florida was down (read: the Ron Zook era), it took a chance on an energetic coach with an offense that was publicly questioned as not SEC-ready. Urban Meyer came from a midlevel school and rose to prominence alongside his unorthodox quarterback, Tim Tebow. The Gators took advantage of their neighboring schools being lackadaisical and built a powerhouse. Now Texas A&M appears to be on the same road with Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel.

The comparisons are solid. Consider:

Culture-changing coach

Sumlin came to Texas A&M selling his vision of an offense straight out of a video game and a win-now, win-always mentality. He proceeded to chase the doubters out of College Station.

"There were a lot of naysayers about us going into the SEC," Sumlin said at the Lombardi Awards in Houston.

Sumlin's swagger inspired confidence in an unorthodox fan base that had been looking for a reason to believe again.

His approach won over a locker room that could have been fractured through the transition.

Now a program that had finished with a better record and a better recruiting class than Texas just three times since the Longhorns hired Mack Brown in 1998 has a leader it can trust.

Jeff Tarpley covers the program for AggieYell.com. He said that the approach Sumlin has taken from the first day has guided the rise.

"There was a sense of urgency from the start," Tarpley said. "It was a culture change that was clear. Sumlin was here to win and do it right away.

"He got everyone to buy in because he never talked about rebuilding. I think that had the veterans playing with energy and enthusiasm because he was giving them their time and not looking just to the young guys on the roster."

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said Sumlin is walking a similar line to the one Meyer traveled.

"Both went in and wouldn't accept losing," Farrell said. "Both are leaders, and they were both good at identifying a leader among the players that the rest of the team could gravitate to.

"The blueprint may be similar, but it was much easier to do at Florida. I think Sumlin is in that mold, but he is doing something unique."

Keep your quarterback close

Meyer spent four years as a head coach honing his craft before going to Florida. During his last season at Utah, the team was led by quarterback Alex Smith, who threw for 2,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and four interceptions. He added 631 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing.

Meyer then recruited Tebow -- bettering Alabama for his services -- and created a national craze.

Sumlin spent four years as a head coach honing his craft before going to Texas A&M. During his last season at Houston, the team was led by quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 5,631 yards with 48 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Sumlin inherited Manziel, who was recruited by Mike Sherman -- and stuck by him, naming him the starter -- and created a national craze.

"You say it like you didn't expect the success to happen," Sumlin jokingly said of Manziel. "No one did. It has been great to see him do what he is doing."

Farrell said the attention that "Johnny Football" has brought to Texas A&M is advertising that cannot be purchased.

"I was in New York for the Heisman Trophy dinner with Derrick Green, Derrick Henry, and Su'a Cravens -- three guys who are not considering A&M and probably don't know where College Station is -- but they all wanted to talk to Manziel and they all had seen him play," Farrell said. "He has become a cultural icon a lot like Tim Tebow was for Florida. It made everyone pay attention.

"Winning the Heisman was great for Manziel, but his play makes kids want to go play there. This isn't like Mark Ingram or something. Mark was great, but people didn't want to go to Alabama to play there because of him. I think receivers and backs will want to go to Texas A&M to play with Manziel."

Henry, a four-star running back committed to Alabama, said that meeting Manziel was a special moment.

"That was great," Henry said. "It was cool to see the trophy and to see him in person."

Tarpley said the Manziel-led victory over Alabama was a potential turning point for the program and the quarterback's popularity.

"It made A&M a winner at a very high level," Tarpley said. "To win at that level showed what the program could be capable of, and it made the school an attractive destination to kids from outside of the area.

"It has been fun to watch the exposure grow. From a size standpoint, Manziel is not Superman. In fact, he looks more like a kid you would find on the intramural fields than the Heisman stage, but he has become larger than life."

More than a perfect storm

An intelligent coaching hire, a lightning-in-the-bottle quarterback and an unstable flag-bearing program within the state represent a lot of things to fall into place for one program to boost its recruiting.

Even factoring in a move to the SEC, there are few differences between Texas A&M and Florida on the recruiting front.

"Sumlin changed the mentality in recruiting," Farrell said. "He is not afraid to go head-to-head with Texas and Oklahoma for kids.

"Right now, Texas A&M is recruiting at a level it has never done before."

Its current class is No. 7 in the Rivals.com national rankings. It has not finished ahead of Texas in recruiting since the Class of 2005.

"Getting Justin Manning away from Oklahoma and keeping Ricky Seals-Jones committed were things that would not have happened just two years ago," Farrell said. "It just wasn't happening down there."

Tarpley said Sumlin is not limited to selling tradition -- something that hindered his predecessors.

"Four years ago, the pitch was that A&M is close to home," Tarpley said. "Sumlin is selling himself; he is selling his personality, his assistants, playing time and winning. That was a missing ingredient for a long time."

Tarpley said that winning has made a major impact. Being able to talk about a positive direction and tangible results has been important.

"For the last 15 years or so, Texas A&M has had to battle with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Mack Brown at Texas, as well as Nick Saban and Les Miles at LSU," Tarpley said. "The three primary rivals for recruits all had really good head coaches and a lot of national success, and that made it tough to recruit against them.

"The team has proven that it can compete on the field and compete for recruits. It is not a 'hope to win' mentality; it is a 'we are winning.'"

Jason Suchomel, who covers University of Texas recruiting for Orangebloods.com, said the staff in Austin knows it has to improve its recruiting efforts.

"Right now, it is pretty clear that A&M has seized momentum in the state," Suchomel said. "Texas is still going to get its guys, but it is clear that Mack is going to have to roll up his sleeves because it isn't going to be like it was in the past."

Brown's age and his time at the program strike a familiar chord with Bobby Bowden and Florida State.

Farrell said the premier programs will remain on a high level in recruiting because of brand recognition but that the recruiting beds can be rocked.

"Florida State and Texas were and still are recruiting well, but they both experienced a real struggle to develop players and it cost them on the field," Farrell said. "Then it transitioned into a battle between the old guard and the new, fresh, forward-thinking regimes.

"Texas is not as exciting as it used to be, and Texas A&M is about as exciting as any team outside of Oregon to watch."

With all things working in the Aggies' favor, it would be unfair to call the success dumb luck.

"Just with things in your favor doesn't guarantee success," Suchomel said. "Texas A&M is hitting on everything it could. To say that they are just lucky right now is not fair to what is happening."

Sumlin agreed.

"We have a lot of positive things working for us right now," he said. "And I think people are starting to see that.

"The first part is getting their attention, and all of (the exposure) helps. Once we get them interested, it is easier. I don't think there is anything better than a Saturday at Kyle Field."

Crossing the finish line

Gandhi and football may be a stretch, but his axiom applies: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Texas has spent the better part of the Mack Brown era running circles around Texas A&M on the field and in recruiting, but that tide is turning and the Longhorns -- at the least - are done laughing and slowly learning they will need to fight the Aggies.

"The fan base is a little panicked right now," Suchomel said. "The word out of the athletic department is still that of confidence, but you can already see the changes in what they are doing. They know they have to be proactive."

Texas has six commitments for the Class of 2014. So does Texas A&M.

"Texas has never offered a junior before the current class has signed," Suchomel said. "The fact that they have guys committed and that they have offered a kid from the Class of 2015 shows that they are trying to be proactive and stem the tide."

Of the committed players between the programs, Texas A&M has the two highest-ranked commits.

Nick Harvey, a defensive back from Lancaster (Texas) High, and Hoza Scott, a linebacker from La Porte (Texas) High, pledged to be a part of the Texas A&M class and could prove to be the best players in the state.

While neither commitment is binding for more than a year, Farrell said that just having the early support speaks volumes for the future of the program.

"Hoza Scott is the type of player that Texas would have tapped on the head after signing day and said, 'You're coming with us,' but that is all changing," he said.

Tarpley said Sumlin treats all the current players the same and sells prospects on a similar message.

"He looks at players and puts a belief in them that he is going to put them in the best place to succeed," Tarpley said. "Everyone in the program has the feeling that he will be used to win football games."

Farrell said that aspect of his personality is what puts Sumlin in the same class as Meyer.

"Few, if any, coaches inherit a team with a lot of positive things going on," Farrell said. "To be able to make a dramatic change, you need to be a terrific coach, a great recruiter and have a willingness to play to the strengths of your players. I think that Sumlin, like Meyer, has all of those qualities."

The next step is to sustain the success.

If Sumlin can mimic the path of Meyer, an SEC division title and a national title could be coming to College Station.

Farrell said both are possibilities if the two paths are as similar as the earmarks indicate.

"They already have a quarterback, and they will surround him with talent," Farrell said. "Getting the talent in there is the first step to competing to win the SEC. If you do that, you can win a BCS championship."

Sumlin seconded that presumption.

"Recruiting is going really well for us right now," he said. "A lot of things are going in the right direction."



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