GIG 'EM: THE HISTORY OF THE TEXAS A&M AGGIES
By Simon Carroll
The second in a series of articles looking back at the creation, tradition, rivalries and success of some of the heavyweight programs in college football history. Here we focus on Texas A&M University
The Great State Of Texas
If you live in Texas, you don’t know what the word small means. Everything is bigger, everything is better in the Lone Star State. There is a level of hubris that bonds it’s thirty million residents like no other. A not so silent understanding that they are blessed to live in the greatest of all of America’s domains….
This makes sense. Consider that eighty percent of the population live at least 70 kilometres from any other state in any direction. They simply know nothing else. And despite the state having significant racial and cultural diversity, they all share that unique bond of superiority.
State loyalty is put by the wayside on Saturdays. Ruthlessly so. Texas has the most Division 1 football programs out of any state in the US with twelve. That’s four more than Ohio who have the second most with eight. And boy do they not like each other. Over the past 100 years, many of these teams have shared conferences and bitter rivalries. In particular Texas & Texas A&M, two programs steeped in history and without doubt the most successful. But the truth is Texas A&M seem to hate EVERY team in-state, and a few more for good measure. To understand what makes them so vitriolic is to go back to the roots of the institution.
Texas Agricultural & Mechanical (A&M) University was established in College Station in 1871, albeit with a slightly different title. It has the largest student body in Texas with more than 69,000 students (only UCF has more students in the United States). And as an elite research university is the only college in Texas to hold all three designations as a land, sea and space grant institution.
It is one of six senior military colleges in the USA which has a corps of cadets on campus every year. In fact it was compulsory to be a member of the corps until 1965. More than 20,000 Aggie cadets served in World War II. To this day, a huge number of graduates use their qualifications to take up roles in the armed forces. They are an extremely proud alumni and take umbrage against any perceived slight from other institutes of learning.
This pride manifests itself into what’s known as the “Aggie Spirit” – a set of traditions that all students are encouraged to adopt. There are some as simple as saying “Howdy!” to everyone you pass, to wearing a signature “Aggie Ring” to identify yourself off-campus.
Other traditions require more discipline, including enrolling as a cadet and volunteering for service and community activities. On campus they have their own language; words that only certain people can say and phrases that would mean nothing to an outsider.
In short, the university and it’s members encourage a wholesome family dynamic that is revered within College Station but often sneered at as twee or sickly from rival schools. It is this solidarity though that causes their passion for their school to run deep. It has also led to some great rivalries when it comes to academic sports.
Their football team plays at Kyle Field – the fourth-largest stadium in college football with a capacity of 102,733. It is marginally bigger than Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, home to their rivals The Longhorns. Such is the vociferousness of their fans it has acquired the moniker “The 12th Man”.
Their passion for their team is unmistakeable with every attendant dressed or painted in maroon. When A&M get points, the students turn and kiss their dates. As the fable goes “when the team scores, everybody scores”. Game Day at College Station is a spectacle in itself regardless of what goes on between the hash marks.
The biggest and longest-running rivalry is of course with Texas. From 1894 until The Aggies switched conferences to the SEC in 2012, the two intrastate foes battled each other every year, usually on Thanksgiving. Texas has by far and away had the better of this rivalry on the field winning 75 of the 117 tilts. But the contest since the mid-sixties has been a much more even affair. So not only does Texas have a superiority complex when it comes to football but they also play in Austin. And Austin & College Station could not be more culturally opposed…
You’ve got the Maroon with their rigid military & traditional values against the Burnt Orange from the most liberal city in the state. Whilst one school promotes the sciences and service the other encourages freedom of expression and art. Add all this to a football crazy state and you can understand why competitive nature gets the better of some come the holidays.
In anticipation of this contest, Aggies students host a bonfire the night before and practice their “yells” for the game. This involves taking a midnight stroll and shouting their chants at the top of their voice. The alumni for both schools have been known to amp up game week; Texas’ live mascot Bevo (a longhorn steer) was branded by four A&M students in 1917 with “13-0”, the score of their previous contest. Some 76 years later a group of Texas alums kidnapped Reveille, a four-month old mixed breed collie mascot of The Aggies that is referred to as “The First Lady”. She survived the prank and lived for ten years, and was the sixth of nine First Ladies that have graced the sidelines of Kyle Field since 1931.
This rivalry has been put on hold somewhat since Texas A&M moved conferences to play in the SEC in 2012. The University of Texas had negotiated their own TV deal outside of the Big 12 and some schools in the conference felt they were monopolising all the resources. Given A&M’s long-perceived notion that they were forever playing second fiddle to The Longhorns it was the final reason to look to pastures new. The defection was seen as the moment when they stepped out of Texas’ shadow and became the undisputed biggest state team in a conference of their own.
As you may have gathered, most of Texas A&M’s rivalries are borne from a sense of injustice and perceived misrepresentations. They also don’t like to have losing streaks against certain teams. They possess a loose rivalry with LSU based on a record of 3-17 against The Tigers from 1945-1973. Their epic 74-72 overtime win against them last season was the first time they beat LSU since 1995.They have a dislike for Arkansas stretching back to their time together in the old Southwest Conference. Arkansas has the better of that matchup too at 41-30-3.
But in-state the rivalry is all too personal. The Baylor Bears and The Aggies have long been seen as rivals due to the similar level of football over the years. But things got a bit nasty in 2012 when then-Baylor president Kenneth Star attempted to block A&M from leaving the conference with a federal court injunction.
Some attribute the rivalry with Texas Tech to The Red Raiders decision to rotate a statue of Will Rogers and his horse so that the rear of the animal was pointed at the direction of College Station. And the competitiveness with TCU is said to have created the Aggies words and hand sign of “Gig ‘Em”. This was a response to board member Pinky Downs asking “what are we going to do with these Horned Frogs?”.
But interestingly enough, the craziest rivalry had very little to do with football at all in that it was sparked off by a basketball game: In 1917 Texas A&M beat Rice University 21-13 in Houston. The Owls forgot to take their life-sized mascot, (a stuffed owl) home with them. One of the Aggies cadet corps liberated it and took it back to College Station. From here the story gets not only complicated but rather surreal and involves ransom notes, guns fired, two car crashes and a break-in to a military armory. This tale is pieced together from newspaper clippings and historical archives at both universities and is excellently pieced together on Reddit. Take a look here:
Modern Day Aggie Football
The move over to the SEC coincided with the rise of the football program under Head Coach Kevin Sumlin and marquee offensive players Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Manziel, better known as “Johnny Football” in College Station, was the first ever Freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. His brand of sandlot football involved a big arm and a lot of scrambling and improvisation. It melded perfectly with Sumlin’s Air-Raid offense.
The Aggies went 11-2 the first season in the SEC, shutting up their Austin neighbours who were convinced that they had made a huge mistake jumping ship and joining an ultra-competitive division. The NFL welcomed Manziel and Evans in 2014, and is full of notable Aggie Alumni including Ryan Tannehill, Von Miller, Martellus Bennett and Myles Garrett.
Since the halcyon days of Johnny Football things have slowed a little but they have never won less than seven games. Last season Jimbo Fisher came over as Head Coach from Florida State – considered a huge hire for the school. He proceeded to take them to a 9-4 record and a second place finish in the SEC West behind Alabama. They ended the LSU hoodoo and won a bowl game, a promising start for Fisher at Kyle Field.
Heading into 2019 they have one of the nation’s most promising Quarterbacks in Kellen Mond. They may also have a breakout star with Defensive End Micheal “Pinball” Clemons. Residing in the same division as The Crimson Tide is going to be a permanently tough situation. In, fact it’s a stacked group from top to bottom and will forever be competitive. But a typically robust recruiting class for Fisher will get the Aggie faithful excited. Whatever their fortunes, expect the 12th Man to be in full voice once more.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.