Monday, November 25, 2002
Slocum under fire, but not feeling the heat
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- After more than three decades on the Texas A&M coaching staff, after 14 seasons as the head coach, after 123 victories, four conference championships and no losing records -- not one -- R. C. Slocum is no longer merely an Aggie. He is a topic.
The Texas newspapers spent last weekend debating whether Slocum, 58, had become Aggie non grata as the leader of the football team. Dan Cook, who has written in San Antonio so long he covered the winning locker room at the Alamo, reported the rumor that Slocum would be fired and replaced by Dennis Franchione of Alabama.
R.C. Slocum was 123-47-2 in 14 seasons with the Aggies.
Never mind that Franchione termed the report "idiotic," or that Texas A&M president Robert Gates released a statement earlier this month that the incoming athletic director, who may not be hired until January, would determine Slocum's future. The Aggies will take a 6-5 record to play at their archrival, No. 10 Texas, on Friday. They lost three of their last four games at Kyle Field, and the vocal dissenters among the Aggie current and former students (they do not call themselves alumni) would sooner vote for a Democrat than tolerate losing to Texas Tech, Nebraska and Missouri at home.
Tucked in among those three losses, two in overtime and one by a touchdown, is Texas A&M's 30-26 upset of then-No. 1 Oklahoma on Nov. 9. That quieted the rabble. In fact, when Slocum spoke at a booster function in College Station on Nov. 14, the overflow crowd at the Briarwood Country Club gave him a standing ovation. Two days later came the double-overtime loss to the Tigers, 33-27. The upset joined the Aggies' 1998 Big 12 Conference championship as ancient history.
Texas A&M has lost five games, none by more than 10 points. Even with a 3-4 record at home this season, Slocum's career record at Kyle Field is 72-12-1 (.853). Injuries have been so prevalent that only 10 players have started every game. Quarterback Reggie McNeal, the freshman who came off the bench to lead the upset of Oklahoma, is a future star. The 16 recruits who have verbally committed to sign with Texas A&M in February have already been designated as one of the top classes in the nation. Two high school juniors have given their word to sign with Slocum in February 2004.
This is a sick program?
"The majority is solid (behind Slocum)," said outgoing Texas A&M athletic director Wally Groff. "The things I measure it by are that our season ticket sales keep going up. We've sold 35,000, and (another) 30,000 to students. Contributions to the 12th Man Foundation keep going up. I'm a friend of R.C. He has really done a terrific job. What he has done compared to his predecessors is not even close."
Slocum's career winning percentage, .725, ranks sixth among active I-A head coaches. He has won half again as many games as the former leader in career victories, Homer Norton, who won 82 games from 1934-47. That success may be Slocum's problem. "The younger people," Groff said, "haven't seen us lose many games."
The Aggies dominated the last years of the Southwest Conference, winning 29 consecutive league games from 1991-95. As perennial powers Oklahoma and Texas have re-asserted themselves, they have usurped power from Texas A&M. The Aggies haven't won more than eight games in the last four seasons.
Groff's view of the students is accurate, judging by the views of students asked about Slocum outside of the University Center. "A lot of my friends think he ought to go," said junior Joe Bobbitt of Tyler, Tex., a member of the Corps of Cadets. "After we beat Texas, I'll know for sure."
The numbers speak for themselves, what we've done here. You want to be better, and I think we will be. ”
— Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum
"I think it's time for a face lift," sophomore Chris Hickman of Port Naches, Tex., said. "I've never been one to blame a head coach for things that happen. A&M has too much to offer to be content with a 6-5 team."
"I think it's sad, after all the years he's been involved in the program," freshman Jaclyn Farris of Corpus Christi, Tex., said. "But even after the OU game, it's about time."
The students remember the Aggies of their childhood. Slocum, and the other gray heads within the athletic department, recall the years when Texas A&M served as a virtual scout team for Texas.
"The numbers speak for themselves, what we've done here," Slocum said. "You want to be better, and I think we will be."
Slocum could wake up after a tornado ripped the roof off of his home and enjoy the sunshine beaming down upon his bedroom. "He's the most positive person I know," said his wife Nel, "except for his mother." Nel has seen him at work. She worked as his secretary for about a year until they married in 2000.
Behind the south end zone sits the Aggies' newest weapon in the football arms race -- a $27.5 million building, which will house the locker room, weight room, player lounge and football offices. Two years ago, Slocum kicked off the fund-raising by flying to Dallas to explain the project to Bum Bright, the former owner of the Dallas Cowboys and a fervent Texas A&M booster, and a longtime mentor to Slocum. Bright cut a check for $5 million.
"Seed money," Slocum called it.
He is confident in his relationship with the president. Not just Gates, the new university leader and former director of the CIA, but George Bush, whose presidential library sits on the northwest corner of the Texas A&M campus. Bush and his wife Barbara watch Aggie games with Nel in Slocum's suite at Kyle Field. The Slocums visited Kennebunkport last summer.
When the Bushes invited former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the library, the Slocums joined the former world leaders for a Tex-Mex dinner at a local restaurant. Slocum arrived bearing an Aggie jersey with GORBACHEV across the back and the number 12, representing the 12th Man, the Aggie fan who is always ready to enter the game.
In Slocum's small office in the Koldus Building on campus, a framed photo of former President Bush and Slocum sits on the table across from the coach's desk. Behind his head is a large framed photo of Aggie tacklers swarming Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson in the 1986 Cotton Bowl.
Slocum has been a member of the Aggie staff for 30 of the last 31 years. Early in his tenure, Slocum accepted a job as an assistant at Ole Miss. Slocum lasted one night in Oxford, then hightailed it back to College Station to ask head coach Emory Bellard for his job back. Slocum spent his one year abroad, if you will, as the defensive coordinator at USC in 1981. He couldn't get home fast enough.
"It's part of the thing we've created," he said. "Among active coaches since 1990, only Bobby Bowden has won more games than I have. We've been to a bowl just about every year.
"It's part of our society. There's an element that says you ought not to lose a game. Look at a program like Tennessee. They've lost four games this year. Florida State has been a very successful program. They've lost four games. Go around the country. There are a bunch of miserable football fans. Most fans, if you take a poll right now, are disappointed.
"It's the nature of the business. Coaches understand it. You don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. (South Carolina coach) Lou Holtz, a couple of years ago, looked like a magician. He's not any smarter than the rest of us this year."
Holtz also signed an extension of his contract through 2007 on Tuesday. If only Slocum had had that kind of week. On Monday, as the morning papers continued to discuss booster interest in Franchione, the discussion came to a public halt because of the sudden death of Aggie freshman tight end Brandon Fails, who died when an undetected blood clot moved from his lung to his heart. Slocum must prepare his mourning players, losers of three of their last four games, to beat the Longhorns in Austin.
"A guy wrote me a letter one time saying he stayed up all night after we lost to Texas in the last five seconds," Slocum said. "I wrote him back and said, 'You know what? Be thankful you don't have any real problems to deal with.'"
Slocum has two sons, Shawn, 36, an assistant on his staff, and John Harvey, 26, who was born with a heart defect. Surgery corrected the defect in the spring of 1999. Before that, at the very moment of one of Slocum's greatest coaching triumphs, Slocum saw in sharp relief the importance of a football game.
"I went for 20-something years not knowing how long he was going to live," Slocum said of his son. "In '98, when Sirr Parker scored that touchdown to win the Big 12 (Championship Game), I saw John Harvey jumping up and down, down there in the end zone, and he was purple." Slocum's eyes widened at the thought of it. "I was so thrilled we won, but I was trying to get to John to tell him to quit jumping. I was afraid he was going to fall over. Having to deal with that all these years helped me deal with [football] in the right proportion."
Only Bowden, Joe Paterno of Penn State and Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech have been head coaches at their schools longer than Slocum has held the job at Texas A&M. He remains unruffled by the tempest surrounding his team.
"This deal is real simple," Slocum said. "You coach, work hard, do a good job. If they don't want you, they fire you and you go do something else. If the time ever comes, someone wanted to come in and say, 'You're not the coach here,' fine. I'll go get another job."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.