Texas A&M hoops finds place on football's back
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- At a school steeped in so much tradition, Texas A&M head coach Billy Gillispie knew there was a place for his fledgling basketball program. It didn't take Gillispie long to find that place: right on the back of the school's storied football program.
Late Friday night, after more than 28,000 Texas A&M students and fans packed the student side of Kyle Field for the traditional Midnight Yell Practice, the Aggies basketball team was front and center.
Once the crowd sang the "Aggie War Hymn," in which entire rows "humped it" and swayed in opposite directions, and after the lights were turned out at 12:25 a.m. so Aggies could kiss their dates or "flick their Bics" to find an unoccupied set of lips, Gillispie's team began its season of rare expectations.
Before his first season at Texas A&M in the fall of 2004, there wasn't much interest in basketball on a campus where football has always mattered most. The basketball team had endured 10 straight losing seasons and had just concluded an 0-16 Big 12 campaign. Predictably, the school hadn't spent much time organizing a Midnight Madness event.
So, Gillispie came up with a unique way of finding his team exposure. One Friday night, just after the stroke of midnight, the Aggies practiced in a parking lot behind the Dixie Chicken, the students' favorite local watering hole that claims it serves more beer per square foot than any other bar in the U.S.
There were no stands, just two goals in the parking lot. Still, students and fans enjoying themselves in the North Gate Entertainment District started to congregate, and eventually crowds 10-to-15 deep surrounded the court. When Gillispie then went on to lead his team to one of college basketball's best turnarounds, from 7-21 record to 21-10 overall, including two victories in the postseason NIT, fans started filling Reed Arena for games, too.
"When I first came here, I said if people won't come to Midnight Madness, let's take Midnight Madness to them," Gillispie said early Saturday morning. "People have been excited about it."
Before last season, Midnight Madness fell on the Friday night before a home football game. So Gillispie asked athletics director Bill Byrne about including the basketball team's first practice in Midnight Yell Practice. Byrne and football coach Dennis Franchione didn't object, so Gillispie went to the five yell leaders who stage the event at Kyle Field on Friday nights before home football games and at out of town locations before road games.
"I was really worried about it because it's the yell leaders' show," Gillispie said. "I didn't want to step on anybody's toes or impose."
Last year's event, though, was a hit, and Friday night's was even bigger. Last season, the Aggies finished 22-9 and won eight consecutive games late to finish 10-6 in Big 12 play. Texas A&M received its first invitation to the NCAA tournament since 1987 -- the first at-large bid in school history -- and upset Syracuse in the first round in Jacksonville, Fla. The Aggies lost to Final Four-bound LSU in the second round on a last-second 3, but staked their claim as one of college basketball's up-and-coming programs.
"People have said for a long time that it's a sleeping giant," Gillispie said. "We've just been sleeping too much."
Friday night, when most people were already sleeping, dozens of Texas A&M students were assembled outside Kyle Field, waiting for the gates to open to claim their place in the stands. The event wasn't scheduled to begin for nearly two hours.
"It's amazing," said Texas A&M junior center Joseph Jones. "It's one of the most amazing things you'll ever see."
Midnight Yell Practice is a Texas A&M tradition that started in 1932, when two freshmen asked the senior yell leaders to hold a midnight practice to motivate students for the upcoming football game. The yell leaders said they weren't authorized to organize such an event, but they might show up anyhow at the YMCA building around midnight. The school's corps of cadets and marching band showed up, too, and railroad flares were used to light the event. One of college athletics' best traditions was born.
Friday night, the Aggie marching band led a parade from the Quadrangle near the corps' dorms and marched to the stadium, with the five yell leaders leading the way with torches. Thousands of students and alumni lined the route, and fell into line once the procession passed.
Around 11:30 p.m., the school's women's basketball team, which also is ranked in the top 10 nationally in some preseason polls, took the practice court. The court of interlocking rubber tiles had been placed on the sideline near the student seating section -- far away from the football field as to not harm the grass. Coach Gary Blair addressed the crowd and each of the women's players was introduced.
Yell practice started about 20 minutes later and five male students, wearing overalls and t-shirts, assembled at midfield. Two junior yell leaders did 107 pushups while three senior yell leaders watched. Reveille, the school's American collie mascot, was escorted on the field. The dog, considered the first lady of Aggie land, is the highest-ranking member of the corps of cadets and is a five-star general.
Company E-2 is charged with caring for the dog; if Reveille sleeps on a cadet's bed, then the cadet sleeps on the floor. The dog also attends class with its handler. In the past, if the dog barked during class, the professor was to immediately dismiss the students, but the tradition stopped when the dog mysteriously started barking before too many tests.
With Reveille watching, the yell leaders made their way to the stands and started leading the cheers. Everything is done with hand signals. At one point, each person in the crowd of more than 25,000 started "humpin' it," leaning forward to maximize their voices.
"It's the only place where you'll see five guys controlling 40,000 people," said Elmer Schneider, Texas A&M's chief of police.
Mike Fossum, the first Texas A&M astronaut to travel into outer space, addressed the crowd. School president Robert Gates, former director of the CIA, watched from courtside. Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush wasn't there, but was probably sleeping nearby in his apartment at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on campus. Hopefully, the cannons and fireworks didn't wake him.
Around 12:30 a.m., Gillispie's team took the court. The Aggies return four starters, including senior guard Acie Law and Jones, both preseason All-Big 12 choices by the league's coaches. There are five new freshmen, all from Texas, and a junior college transfer -- a recruiting class that was ranked in the top 25 nationally and considered the best in school history.
"Our expectation is to win the national championship," said Law, who became a crowd favorite when he hit a game-winning shot to beat rival Texas last season. "We're as talented as any team in the country. We might not be on paper, but we're tougher than anybody and closer than anybody."
Recruiting the Lone Star State has been Gillispie's biggest priority; the Aggies already have three players from the state committed to sign this fall. One of them, 7-foot center DeAndre Jordan of Christian Life Center in Houston, is ranked among the top 10 prospects nationally and might have been an NBA lottery pick next year if not for the league's new age requirements.
"There's so many good players here," Gillispie said. "We're not only recruiting Texas, but we'd be crazy not to get a large percentage of our players from Texas. One of the things we've been able to do is get a lot of people to make unofficial visits here because we're close to so many cities. Once they're here, a lot of them fall in love with the place."
And, finally, Texas A&M has fallen in love with its basketball team. There has never been much to embrace. The Aggies haven't won a conference championship since 1986 and have played in the NCAA tournament only seven times.
The 1979-80 season was largely considered the greatest in school history, when the Aggies beat Bradley in the first round and upset North Carolina in double-overtime in round two before losing to eventual national champion Louisville in overtime in the Sweet 16.
Shelby Metcalf, the coach of that team, was fired midway through the 1989-90 season, and the Aggies have had five coaches since then. They believe they finally have the coach who will get it done.
"Everyone has expectations," Gillispie told the crowd early Saturday morning. "Expectations that we've never had here. A lot of people get scared of expectations. But our guys are tough and they say, 'Bring it on!' "
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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