TEXAS – The last time Texas A&M played in Miami, then-Aggies coach Dennis Franchione wiped his brow and tried stepping away from the stench of a 34-17 regular-season loss to the Miami Hurricanes in 2007.
“The exhibition season is over,” Franchione infamously said, downplaying a nonconference setback with Big 12 play set to start the next week.
At the same time about 500 miles to the northwest, Jimbo Fisher was three games into his tenure as Florida State’s offensive coordinator under fabled coach Bobby Bowden. Three years later, Fisher would take over for Bowden, and in 2013 Fisher led the Seminoles to their last national championship.
A&M, which fired a flailing Franchione after the 2007 regular season, turned over its program to Mike Sherman and then to Kevin Sumlin, with each having no luck in trying to get the Aggies back to winning at least a conference title.
In 2016, plenty of A&M fans had seen enough of Sumlin’s ongoing haphazardness in College Station and yearned for a rising star coach at the University of Houston: Tom Herman.
This corner of the Houston Chronicle nearly five years ago even dubbed the anticipated race between the Longhorns and Aggies to hire the Cougars coach “the Tom Herman sweepstakes” and breathlessly intoned, “The real winners and losers at UT and A&M (will be) sorted out in about five years, once the grass blades settle from a pivotal 2016 for Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin.”
The envelope and drumroll, please, and no spoiler alert necessary here: The clear winner is A&M springing into the Roaring ’20s, based primarily on the time-honored notion that good things come to those who wait.
The Aggies in 2016 finished 8-5, and A&M hung on to Sumlin for what turned out to be one more mediocre season. The Longhorns in 2016 finished 5-7, and Strong was shown the (trap) door.
Enter Herman, who in turn was fired Saturday after four middling seasons at UT — the same day Fisher was preparing the No. 5 Aggies to face No. 13 North Carolina (led by former Texas coach Mack Brown, no less) in the Orange Bowl in Miami (site of Franchione’s exhibition season).
Ten years after A&M fired Franchione for ongoing averageness, the Aggies did likewise to Sumlin in November 2017, and it had Fisher lined up and ready for a fresh start away from Tallahassee, Fla.
In only his third season at A&M, Fisher had the Aggies in contention for the four-team College Football Playoff, and a committee debated into the night and then early morning of Dec. 20 whether A&M or Notre Dame should earn the fourth slot.
The 13-member committee ultimately chose the Fighting Irish (who lost to Alabama in the CFP semifinals Friday), sending the Aggies to the Orange Bowl for the first time in 77 years, where they faced Brown and the Tar Heels on Saturday night.
After Herman’s firing, UT quickly announced the hire of Alabama offensive coordinator Steven Sarkisian, a former head coach at Washington and Southern California. Sarkisian, too, has a memorable A&M connection.
In the Pigskin Classic to kick off the 1996 season, Sarkisian fired six touchdown passes in BYU’s 41-37 upset of No. 13 A&M in Provo, Utah. The game was A&M’s first as a Big 12 member, although it was against a Western Athletic Conference program.
“When the BYU offense gets rolling,” a grinning Sarkisian said after that game, “it’s hard to stop the train.”
His 536 passing yards 25 years ago this August are still an A&M record by an opposing quarterback. That game also featured the college debut of Aggies quarterback Branndon Stewart, a Stephenville High graduate who had transferred from Tennessee after losing out to Peyton Manning for the Volunteers’ starting job.
Stewart, in later taking over for an injured Randy McCown late in the 1998 season, guided A&M to what would turn out to be the Aggies’ most recent conference title in December 1998 — hence the dismissals of R.C. Slocum, Franchione, Sherman and Sumlin since.
Herman was one year into his Texas tenure when the Aggies turned to the national-title winning coach at FSU, Fisher. Startlingly in retrospect, Herman and UH had steamrolled Fisher and the Seminoles 38-24 to close out the 2015 regular season at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
“Great hire for them,” Herman said of A&M bringing onboard Fisher. “He’s a guy with a proven track record; he’s got a championship pedigree and he’s won a national championship. We’re excited to welcome him into the state.”
Fisher immediately upped the ante in recruiting between the old rivals, who haven’t actually played a football game since 2011 (thanks to A&M exiting the Big 12 for the SEC), something Herman initially dismissed a bit.
“It’s always difficult to recruit against them regardless of who the head coach is,” Herman said about a week after A&M hired Fisher. “But anytime somebody new comes in, the newness of it sells it a little bit. It has made things ramp up the last week or so … but I think it will be that way for a long time.”
Herman was right: It was “that way” all the way until his firing Saturday, a little more than three years after he had predicted as much. On the day Herman was cut loose, the Aggies ranked seventh nationally in recruiting for the class of 2021 via 247Sports, while the Longhorns checked in at No. 17.