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April 9, 2013

Aggies are today's cool school

Texas head coach Mack Brown has tried to reinvent himself and his program multiple times since Texas lost a national championship to Alabama at the end of the 2009 season.

First, he decided that Texas needed to be more physical and run the ball like a SEC program because the loss of Colt McCoy in the national title game left them one dimensional. That didn't work in 2010 because Texas lacked both the line and the backs to run the ball at all and between that and a below standard run defense, Texas went 5-6.

After that season, Brown went out and totally revamped his staff. He added multiple coaches from the SEC including defensive coordinator Manny Diaz out of Mississippi State. His new offensive coordinator was Bryan Harsin from Boise State who used formations and personnel to gain leverage and power advantages in the run game. The Horns changed up their recruiting to add more tight ends and picked up better quality runners like Jonathan Gray.

For two years, that formula helped Texas improve from the ash heap of a 5-7 campaign in 2010 but the climb was slow and torturous for a program that was used to competing for Big 12 titles on an annual basis. Along the way, Texas started having prospects decommit at the receiver positions because they were unable to get their downfield passing game going and generate the big numbers that they had in the past.

When Harsin left to take the Arkansas State job at the end of the 2012 campaign, Brown shifted gears one more time to speed up the rebuilding process. Major Applewhite had been co-offensive coordinator with Harsin and he was given the reins to do whatever he wanted. Texas had found itself in shootouts in the pass happy Big 12 and in a state whose high school coaches all ran the spread and overflowed with quarterback and receiver prospects. Applewhite believed in the spread and so re-installed it as Texas' primary offense even though Texas had just spent multiple recruiting classes adding running backs and receivers better suited to play in a pro style attack. In addition, the Horns believed that the offense would be a better selling point given the defections in back to back classes of the state's two top receivers, Thomas Johnson and Ricky Seals-Jones. Both had been committed for months to the Horns and wound up committing to in state rival Texas A&M which ran the spread.

But even that amount of change wasn't sufficient enough for Brown. Alabama's Nick Saban won his third national title in four years at the end of the 2012 season and Saban was known for his relentlessness as a recruiter. He employed multiple personnel whose sole job was to evaluate talent which supposedly gave him an advantage over his adversaries in acquiring said talent. In fact, the NCAA proposed rules changes in January (since rescinded) that would be right up Saban's alley and would not only permit hiring more staffers and allowing other staffers to actively recruit.

In addition, Brown now had to contend with a couple of serious issues involving the one thing he always had done well and that was recruiting. Texas A&M brought on Kevin Sumlin as head coach and Sumlin immediately began to use A&M's move to the SEC as a major selling point. In addition, he brought in a younger staff and the majority of them had been recruiting coordinators at previous stops. His big guns, David Beaty in Dallas and Claence McKinney in Houston, had been high school coaches in the regions they recruited and they not only knew all of the other high school coaches in their areas but they knew the prospects intimately as well. Finally, he was young enough and energetic enough to translate those attributes into actions such as flying in on a helicopter to see Seals-Jones and A&M quarterback commit Kohl Stewart in person.

Not only did the Aggies bypass Texas in the recruiting rankings (landing more four star prospects than ever before), the cow college in the middle of nowhere became the hip place to be. It didn't help when the Horns suffered multiple decommits down the stretch prior to signing day including four star ranked runner Kyle Hicks to TCU (TCU!) just days after the Frogs came into Austin and beat Texas on national television. Even though Brown had taken Saban's defensive tackles coach Bo Davis during the great purge of 2010-2011, it didn't stop Arlington Heights five star defensive tackle A' Shawn Robinson from decommitting to the Tide just days before signing day.

Again, Brown looked to Saban to do add something different to his program. He already tried to run a pro style offense when he hired Harsin (like Alabama's) and acquired Davis in the winter of 2011. Now, cries rang out across Austin that he should emulate Saban one more time and add a director of player personnel to coordinate recruiting and others to watch film and improve Texas' evaluations (which had obviously fallen off between 2006 and 2010 as evidenced by the Horns' record on the field). Thus, Texas hired Patrick Suddes (who was assistant director of player personnel under Saban) away from Alabama to be director of player personnel and basically coordinate all of Texas' recruiting efforts.

All of a sudden, Suddes seemingly gave Texas new energy. Texas started extending more offers in the 2014 class and used new assistant Larry Porter's ties to make forays into Louisiana, a state that supplied not just the SEC but other parts of the country with blue chip talent. Texas even had a sophomore day, bringing in 2015 prospects from across the state and even securing multiple commitments nearly two years in advance of signing day.

Between the sophomore day and its spring game, Texas had apparently rectified its recruiting problems vis a vis the Aggies and at least leveled the playing field.

Then, the Aggies came back from spring break and Sumlin and his staff put together Friday Night Lights, a scrimmage at night under the lights of Kyle Field. The scrimmage itself was used as a recruiting tool as prospects were allowed down on the field alongside the players (not permitted at a spring game). A number of 2014 and 2015 prospects were invited so the event served as a sophomore day of sorts for A&M.

However, the highlight of the event was when the music began playing over the PA system at Kyle Field and the Jumbotron cut to a picture of a DJ spinning records and tunes that played throughout the night. For everyone that was there, the music provided an energy that normally wouldn't be associated with a scrimmage that drew a good crowd by the standards of most scrimmages but couldn't compete with that of even a spring game, much less a Saturday night SEC contest at Kyle Field. It resulted in better overall play and allowing recruits on the sidelines next to the hits and sounds personalized everything for them.

The response was unanimous among the prospects that were there: the DJ was the best part of the evening, playing songs that were on THEIR playlists…and on the playlist of the coach that was the head coach at A&M.

Just like that, everything Brown had spent weeks and even months planning and putting into place to trump A&M crumbled in an instant…and the scrimmage itself hadn't even started yet.

For all of Texas' efforts and schemes, you can't be cool unless you can relate to the people that you are trying to recruit. Sumlin and his staff KNOW cool because they are young enough and smart enough to know how to relate to 15, 16, and 17 year olds that the lifeblood of any college program.

It wasn't just in evidence last Friday night either. Sumlin and his staff know how to get the best out of the talent on hand, to motivate youngsters to learn from their mistakes, play their technique, and most importantly to be physical, even against bigger opponents. For all of the talk about Johnny Manziel and A&M's talented offensive line (considered to be the best in the country last season) last season, A&M's front seven consistently stopped the run in a conference that emphasizes running the ball even though there was all of one four star prospect in the group. They turned a finesse corner, Dustin Harris, into a physical edge player who could jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and come up in run support.

When you can relate to prospects, you can relate to players and vice versa. This is an inherent trait, not a learned one. In a program that for years hired coaches that struggled to understand what made a 17 year old tick, Sumlin and company inherently understand and it's a trait that previous A&M coaches could not have ever picked up up on no matter how long their contracts would have been.

Mack Brown can bring in different people. He can try different things. But at the end of the day, your head coach either understands how to relate to people or you don't. Sumlin does and that's why the Aggies are now ravaging the Horns in front seven recruiting, taking four four-star caliber defensive linemen in 2013 and the top linebacker, defensive tackle, and potentially the top defensive end in the 2014 class in the state of Texs.

Brown can do well enough with what he is doing to continue to garner good classes. He'll still beat out Oklahoma for prospects (something that's been happening since the middle of the previous decade) and that should be enough to compete for Big 12 titles. But Sumlin and his staff are getting the best talent at the important positions, talent that will enable them to compete for SEC championships and in turn for national titles.

And like it or not, it's because you can't fake cool….and A&M KNOWS cool.


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