After bitter 'Bama breakup, Franchione settling in at A&M nicely

Updated: August 16, 2003, 2:40 PM ET

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- While warming up for Texas A&M's spring game, quarterback Dustin Long paid close attention to the stands. Like all his teammates, Long was curious whether new coach Dennis Franchione would even come close to his goal of drawing 40,000 fans.

There were only about 10,000 people at Kyle Field when the team headed to the locker room for last-minute instructions.

"Everyone had it in the back of their mind -- is it really going to happen? We thought it was just a bunch of hype," Long said. "Then we came out for the game. And it was amazing."

They were greeted by a crowd of 41,072, up from 5,000 the previous year and more than many Division I-A schools get for homecoming. It was the ultimate proof that Coach Fran had captured the heart of Aggieland.

It's a feeling the folks in Alabama remember all too well.

Two years ago, Crimson Tide fans welcomed Franchione to Tuscaloosa just as eagerly, in hopes that he could repair their three-win team.

Did he ever. After a 3-5 start, Alabama won its final four games his first season. The late roll included beating rival Auburn 31-7, then the first bowl victory in five seasons.

Everyone was deflated a few months later when the NCAA pounded the program for misdeeds by Franchione's predecessor: a two-year bowl ban, 21 scholarship cuts over three seasons, five years' probation -- and threats of more.

But Franchione stood strong. He vowed to last through it and persuaded players to stay; not one transferred. The school showed its appreciation by offering a 10-year extension reportedly worth $15 million, even though Franchione had four years left on his original contract.

He never signed the new deal, but nobody seemed to care -- especially not once the Tide started rising. By mid-November they were 9-2, ranked No. 9 and had already clinched the best record in the SEC West.

Then, as Alabama was preparing for Auburn, reports surfaced that A&M was going to fire R.C. Slocum, the winningest coach in school history, and hire Franchione. Franchione called the notion "idiotic" and indicated he'd sign the extension soon.

He continued denying interest all the way until boarding a private jet bound for College Station on Dec. 5.

Franchione left for an interview and never came back, not even to say goodbye to his players. He told them via video teleconference, a final act of betrayal that powerful booster Lee Roy Jordan, a former star linebacker for Alabama and the Dallas Cowboys, calls "the biggest complaint we have."

Franchione insists he "always cared deeply about the players." That's about as in-depth as he's willing to get on the issue.

"No matter what I say, I'll end up on the negative side," Franchione said. Later, he added, "When you make a move, there are a lot of things that not everybody understands or sees. You have to know that and not let it bother you. I never let it bother me."

Good thing, because the backlash was severe.

A Birmingham radio station let fans torch, chop and mangle Franchione bobblehead dolls. Newspapers ridiculed him for false promises and for having touted loyalty, honesty and accountability on his Web site.

Part of the venom was because Alabama had never been jilted like this. Franchione's two-year tenure was the shortest since 1910. He was only the second coach since 1930 to leave for another college.

The fact he went to A&M made it worse. Didn't Paul "Bear" Bryant set the path by going from A&M to Alabama in 1958?

Franchione didn't see it that way.

A&M had always been high on his wish list. At his previous school, TCU, it was among four jobs he could've taken without a reported $1 million buyout. Alabama wasn't one of the other three.

So, after just two years with the Tide and with the NCAA hit worse than expected, here came the opening at A&M. Franchione faced a big decision: finish what he'd started in Tuscaloosa or go to College Station.

At 51, he was ready to stop climbing the coaching ladder. He and his wife, Kim, felt as if they were picking their last address for a long time.

Both jobs were at prestigious programs in powerful conferences, the right settings to win a national championship.

Texas was a strong attraction because the Franchiones consider it their adopted home state. In addition to having plenty of friends there, they knew life would be more peaceful because college coaches have a lower profile than in Alabama.

In the Lone Star State, the passion for pro football, and even high schools, helps spread the spotlight. And picking a loyalty between Texas A&M and Texas isn't as divisive as Alabama vs. Auburn.

"With all the circumstances and everything we had to analyze and look at, this was the one that felt the best to us," said Franchione, who signed a six-year contract with a three-year rollover.

A&M is the seventh program Franchione has run since 1981. While he's broken hearts with each change, he's also left every program better than he found it.

Southwestern College and his alma mater, Pittsburg State, both in Kansas, were coming off first-place seasons when he left. He then took Southwest Texas from five straight losing seasons to 6-5 and 7-4.

New Mexico went from 3-8 before he arrived to 9-4 and its first bowl game in 36 years his final season. At TCU, the 1-10 squad he inherited went 7-5 and won a bowl game his first season. The Horned Frogs won the WAC the next two seasons.

Without coaching a game at A&M, he's already given the program a boost.

In just two months, he hauled in one of the nation's top recruiting classes. Weeks later, a team weightlifting event drew more than 2,000 fans. Over the summer, attendance practically doubled the previous best at every "Coach's Night" function around the state.

His biggest coup, though, was the turnout at the spring game.

Holding it on parents' weekend helped, as did an e-mail Franchione sent the entire student body. He also made an impromptu speech at a midnight yell practice and mingled with the crowd at a parents' association barbecue that morning.

It went so well that Franchione is envisioning 60,000 fans at Kyle Field next spring.

"You know, in Aggieland, if you do something once, it becomes a tradition," he said, smiling.

Franchione is getting to know all about the school's many traditions.

He's memorized the Aggie War Hymn and made sure his assistants became well-versed in A&M lore, too. Each was assigned a topic to teach their colleagues at a staff retreat.

As part of his own education, Franchione met with the yell leaders, five students who roam the sidelines in all-white outfits and are considered the keepers of the school's spirit. He came away promoting their campaign asking fans to wave white towels while A&M has the ball. It didn't take long for him to be greeted at a speech by 1,000 twirling towels.

For Franchione, a unique thing about this job is that he isn't really rebuilding. A&M went 6-6 last season and upset No. 1 Oklahoma. There are plenty of talented players, even after losing two in the first round of the NFL draft.

Still, Franchione is making big changes.

He's switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 and he's spicing up a bland offense. He hasn't picked a starting quarterback, but deftly avoided a controversy by bringing both candidates -- Long, a junior, and sophomore Reggie McNeal -- to the conference media day.

"I think people, for the most part, understand we have some work to do," said Franchione, who brought along 14 assistants from Alabama. "They hope we win right now, but I think they have a good understanding of where we're starting."

They sure do. Take it from John David Crow, the school's only Heisman Trophy winner and the athletic director when Slocum replaced Jackie Sherrill, the last coach whose arrival generated so much optimism.

"I supported R.C. and would support him still. But Coach Fran is here now," Crow said. "And I love the way he's doing things."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index