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The More Things Change...

Years ago, on a different board, I posted a transcript of Blair Cherry's 1951 Saturday Evening Post article "Why I Quit Coaching Football". Cherry had been an extremely successful HS coach in the '30s, was Bible's chief assistant at Texas, and had coached Texas to a 32 - 10 - 1 record from 1947 - 1950. Basically, he quit because the Texas fans expected to win every game, and complained about his coaching through every media available (basically- mail, newspaper letters, and telephone) all year round.When I posted the article, one of the good board members wrote, "You man it's been like this for over 50 years?" Yep. But this post is not about the Texas fans or the Texas job. It's about repetitive patterns in football, and how we confuse the causes of the repeating cycles with the resulting patterns. The lesson is not that Texas fans need to change to break the cycle of criticism (they won't). The lesson is that Longhorn coaches either need rhino-thick skins or to perform at an obviously elite level in order to tolerate fan expectations. Even Royal came under criticism before his first MNC. Folksy manners and appeals to the base are just not enough to keep a coaching regime going in Austin.

I said this post wasn't about Texas. I was musing recently about the coaches in SWC history, and noted that despite the number of Aggie coaches with notable accomplishments, none have retired from the job in College Station to iconic status. Look, very few coaches get to "retire", or leave on something close to their own terms. At Texas, Royal and Bible got to. At Alabama, it's pretty much just Bryant in the modern era. If Tressell gets to retire, he will be the first Buckeye coach since Paul Brown to get to leave willingly. The Ags have had some very accomplished coaches, and either fired them (Norton, Stallings, Sherrill, Slocum) or seen them leave for better situations (Bible, Bryant).

I had always wondered about the firing of Homer Norton. He actually won a MNC at TAMU, in 1939 (Mickey Herskowitz recently wrote a book about it). How does a guy like that get fired? From a school that is ridiculously proud of all past accomplishments?

I was researching old Dallas morning News articles recently, and looked into the events of 1947, when Norton was fired. Get this (the articles' publication dates are listed first, then the gist of the article, then my comments in parentheses) -

1-29-47: Ag alums call for firing Norton. They feel that the Ags have too much talent to underperform as they did in 1946. (In '46, they went 4 - 6. It was a very volatile time in college football as teams assimilated returning war veterans.)

2-25-47: Norton is offered $10K to leave TAMU by the Former Students (based out of Houston). His contract called for him to be paid $10K/year to be AD and football coach, and he had three years remaining.

4-2-47: The TAMU President relieves him of his AD duties. He declines to fire him as coach. A reading from the state legal department says that the school cannot pay Norton his remaining salary without him working.

6-26-47: The interim AD hires Harry Stiteler (Rice OC) as an assistant, to coordinate TAMU's offense. Norton has no comment. (Key point- TAMU ran the Single Wing. Rice had converted to the "T", and finished 1947 #10 in the AP poll. I'm guessing Stiteler was considered a "T" formation expert)

8-13-47: Just before the season starts, longtime assistant Dimmit leaves. (The article implied he didn't want to leave and that Norton wanted him to stay).

9-28-47: Great non-related headline from the season- "Tech Plays Confuse Aggie Defense" (the Ags did win, 28 - 7, so they mustnot have been too confused. Still, it's too great a headline not to share).

12-13-47: $20K raised by Ag alums to get Norton to resign (they finished '47 with a 3-6-1 record). He continues to receive his $10k/year as an employee, serving as a special consultant. The Ags hope to hire Bob Neyland from Tennessee. (Seth Meyer voice- "Oh, really!" At that time, Neyland's record at Tennessee was 128 - 16 - 8, 92.9%. What in the world gave the Ags the idea that he might leave Tennessee, where he had coached since 1926, to move to College Station? That's besides the point that he was completely committed to the Single Wing. The Ag big cigars bring in Stiteler, and then want to hire a head coach who would fire him.)

Stiteler ended up getting the job, and lasted three years. His records were 0 - 9 - 1, 1 - 8 - 1, and 7 - 4. I don't know if he had a newsletter. Norton's record from 1934 to 1947 was 82 - 53 - 9.

There, you have it all. Upset Ag alums pull a coup, spend too much money buying the coach out, and have unreasonable expectations of who would want the job. That describes about every coaching change at TAMU we've seen. This may be the ur-Ag Power Play, where they ran off the coach who succeeded more than any other in College Station.

Think about it. Emory Bellard (Ag coach from '72 - '78, 48 - 27 record in a rebuilding job) built that team up to Top 10 status in the '70s, and quit after his OC (Tom Wilson) convinced Houston alums that Bellard's wishbone should be replaced by Wilson's pro-set "I". Bellard couldn't tolerate the lack of university support in the face of booster pressure.

Tom Wilson was removed by (Dallas Ag alum and big cigar) Bum Bright.

Bright ran the search that flirted with Bo Schembechler and hired Jackie Sherrill.

Slocum (winningest Ag coach ever) was forced out by a booster coup, and Fran identified and hired by the same boosters (LeBreton of the FW Star-Telegram was writing about it in October, 2002) before current Ag AD Bill Byrne came aboard. When Fran failed to deliver the goods, the TAMU big cigars didn't overtly run him. However, the key ingredient in his expulsion, the leaking of his secret newsletter, did come from a booster. Of course, the preferred replacement among Ag faithful was Steve Spurrier, a choice that seemed possible to nobody outside Brazos county.

Not every athletic program operates this way. This isn't the NFL, where every team has the same basic structure- Owner, GM, and coach. At some schools the AD is autonomous, at others the President and/or Board of Regents are in charge. TAMU seems unique for its history of big donor boosters calling shots. The lesson from this story is that the Ags should stop letting their big time boosters call the shots in their program. I hear from Ag friends that this is changing under Byrne. The next few years should test that.

Milan Kundera ("The Unforgettable Lightness of Being") wrote: "Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition."

Ags are happy. And you should be happy too in that I didn't drag out the Santayana quote.