Texas A&M fans wonder when they’ll reach Alabama’s heights
COLLEGE STATION — They cheered for Gene Stallings, and he deserved it.
More than six decades after he survived the most notoriously grueling football training camp ever, he shook off two strokes and a heart attack in one year to return to his alma mater.
So when Stallings, 82, saluted from the end zone just a few days after his latest health scare, everyone at Kyle Field stood and applauded.
And yet it was not quite the full-throated roar reserved for more dearly beloved Texas A&M legends.
Stallings, of course, remains a living, breathing reminder of the question Aggies have been asking themselves since the 1950s, and continued to ask Saturday night:
Why can’t we have what Alabama does?
Even after the topranked Crimson Tide beat the Aggies 27-19 on Saturday night, there isn’t a great answer to that question.
Texas A&M plays in a half-billion-dollar palace, turns fans out for a game-day environment as impressive as anybody’s, and always reaps its share of talent from the nation’s most fertile recruiting area.
But just like when Bear Bryant left College Station for Alabama in 1958, there’s something missing, and the quest to figure out what it is continues.
Back then, Alabama had Bryant’s momma. Later, the Crimson Tide had Stallings, the former A&M player who was part of the legendary “Junction Boys” and seized a single conference championship as Aggies head coach — the 1967 team honored Saturday — but was otherwise a flop.
For most of his seven seasons at A&M, Stallings couldn’t win, which made it all the more infuriating to the Aggies when he — like Bryant — went on to lead the Crimson Tide to a national title.
Whether it ever has been the program’s stated purpose, the desire to reach the heights Alabama reached long has been A&M’s motivation.
Aggies, after all, do not set goals of mediocrity, even if they find themselves mired in it.
So when they decided to join the nation’s most respected football conference, and then began that new era in 2012 by knocking off the Crimson Tide in Alabama?
That wasn’t just the game that earned Johnny Manziel a Heisman Trophy.
It was the game when it finally became realistic to believe the Aggies would have what Alabama had.
It hasn’t worked out that way since then. Saturday’s latest loss marked Kevin Sumlin’s fifth in a row to the Crimson Tide, which does not make him unique among college coaches but does serve as a reminder that his era might have peaked just as it was beginning.
Still, signs of hope remain. A&M played the country’s No. 1 team as well as anyone has all season, which could bode well for a strong finish against a schedule lacking another great opponent.
For most of Saturday night, the Aggies certainly did not play like a team with a coach who’s about to be fired.
They had a game plan that made sense, and they played hard, and they delighted a huge crowd with thrills provided by an often-dazzling freshman quarterback.
Then they lost to a team that simply is better than them, and just about everybody else.
“It’s tough,” A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk said. “That’s how Alabama is.”
It’s how Alabama has been for a long, long, long time. Few possess a better understanding of this than Stallings, who weathered 10 hot miserable days in Junction and seven mostly miserable years on the Kyle Field sideline but needed to go to Alabama to find glory.
So, yes, the Aggies sure appreciate what he accomplished.
They only wish that someday, Alabama might want what they have, too.