Texas A&M fans won­der when they’ll reach Alabama’s heights

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - MIKE FIN­GER mike.fin­ger@ex­press-news.net twit­ter.com/mikefin­ger

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.

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