Aggies find a way in Franchione's farewell
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- With his coaching deathbed not yet cold, Dennis Franchione finally gave Texas A&M fans -- the vocal ones, anyway -- what they've yearned for all season.
Friday saw quarterback Stephen McGee as a passer, not a runner; running back Jorvorskie Lane as a runner, not a 270-pound decoy; and explosive tight end Martellus Bennett as a primary read. On Friday, Franchione's Aggies pulled off trick plays, overcame long-yardage downs and dominated a Texas team that, unlike them, still had hopes of a Big 12 title.
Along the way, Franchione also provided a new punch line for an Aggies joke:
How do you screw up an Aggies funeral?
At least not easily. Or even all that willingly.
Franchione, the fifth-year failed savior whose reputation for recruiting and winning never came to fruition, announced his resignation 55 minutes after his Aggies closed the regular season with a 38-30 victory over No. 13 Texas. Defiant to the end, the silver-haired 56-year-old made it clear he was reading from a prepared statement in announcing his departure and then abruptly stood up and left the news conference even as athletic director Bill Byrne began thanking him for "his courage in making this decision."
"I've always said that coaches exist for only one reason: the players," Franchione said. "We have an outstanding group of young men on this team and especially great people. We want them to know that we love them, feel blessed for our time together and will miss them."
A&M spokesman Alan Cannon said the school will accept a bowl bid -- likely the Alamo Bowl -- and will use an interim coach. Byrne announced Saturday that defensive coordinator Gary Darnell will hold the interim position. Details of Franchione's buyout were not released pending ratification by the school's Board of Regents. Franchione, who sources said told his team he was leaving before the game, was scheduled to make $2.012 million a year through 2010, and he reportedly has an $800,000 buyout.
Most of the record crowd of 88,253 that came to Kyle Field to bury Franchione ended up praising him, albeit likely through gritted teeth.
As the teams finished warm-ups on the 45-degree day -- the Aggies wearing gray pants for the first time in 21 seasons, as if trying to match the day's mood -- the Internet crackled with activity. Posters on Texags.com, the leading Aggies site, speculated on everything from Franchione's next gig (eating government cheese) to his replacement (Houston Texans assistant Mike Sherman apparently already signed Tuesday, according to one poster's pipeline) to what happens if A&M wins the national title next year with Fran's recruits (he'll be a maroon-and-white Ron Zook).
The Aggies (7-5 overall, 4-4 in Big 12) set an ominous tone early, losing yardage on their first two running plays and getting a false-start penalty that gave them a third-and-20 at their own 24-yard line. A scrambling McGee broke through and lobbed a pass in the right flat to Lane, who gained 22 yards. They went on to score on a 35-yard McGee pass to halfback Mike Goodson and added a field goal by Matt Szymanski to go up 10-0 after one quarter.
Showing daring not often seen under Franchione, the Aggies followed that by driving from their own 5 to the Longhorns' 5, where holder T.J. Sanders skirted right on a fake field goal to put A&M up 17-0 in the second quarter.
"That's how we've been playing this game against them the last couple of years," A&M senior offensive lineman Cody Wallace said. "You have to take chances and hope they pay off."
Defensively, the Aggies took a few chances, but what paid off most was an honest pass rush that sacked Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy four times and pressured him all day.
"This week in practice, we worked a lot on staying in the pocket," said McCoy, who frequently found himself on the run. "They bull rushed and rushed on the outside. That threw us off."
Still, Texas (9-3, 5-3) appeared ready to boil the day down to a microcosm of Franchione's career -- great A&M promise and tease, not so much production -- when Brandon Foster's interception return to the 8 set up Jamaal Charles' touchdown run a play later to cut the score to 17-10 early in the third quarter.
And when McGee scored on a 6-yard run with 49 seconds left in the third quarter, Texas answered with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Quan Cosby, the first the Aggies had given up at home since Texas Tech's Rodney Blackshear went 92 yards in 1990.
Texas, though, unable to stand prosperity, promptly let E.J. Shankle take the ensuing kickoff to the A&M 49, where two plays later McGee found Goodson for a 44-yard touchdown pass to put the Aggies up 31-17. When McGee found Earvin Taylor for a 66-yard catch and run with 11:39 left in the game to put A&M up 38-17, Texas was finished.
When it was over, Longhorns fans were looking for their own set of scapegoats and wondering what happened to their defense, not to mention their Big 12 South mojo. Texas now has lost three Big 12 games and lost to Oklahoma and A&M in the same season for the first time in Mack Brown's 10 years as Longhorns coach.
A victory would have assured the Longhorns of at least a Big 12 South co-title. Instead, they had to hope Oklahoma State would beat Oklahoma on Saturday to force a three-way tie. Even if that had happened, OU almost certainly would have advanced to the title game based on tiebreakers. But Oklahoma won, 49-17.
McGee, who set records as a high school passer at Burnet outside Austin, completed 25 of 36 passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions for a career-high 362 yards. Lane carried 18 times for 69 yards, 42 in the first half as the Aggies established their ground game. Bennett, who had averaged only four catches in 10 games despite freakish skills that can create mismatches like the one he enjoyed Friday, had five catches for 48 yards and was a frequent target deep.
All of that was too little, too late for Franchione, who was finished despite helping the Aggies win two consecutive games against Texas for the first time since 1991-94. When the final gun sounded, defensive tackle Red Bryant helped carry his coach toward the center of the field one last time.
"It's a great feeling to be able to [in your] senior year to go out and beat your rival," Bryant said, "and be able to just tell a man you appreciate him, you know, for everything in life."
After hugging Texas coach Mack Brown, Franchione went to the sideline to join his team one last time in singing "Saw Varsity's Horns Off," as the Aggies call their swaying, arms-interlocked paean to the home fans. He then moved slowly to the end zone tunnel, surrounded by media and stopping occasionally for hugs and words of encouragement from well-wishers. He seemed to savor the walk.
At one point, Franchione pulled out a white hankie and brought it to his face. It certainly wasn't in surrender, nor was it to sop up tears. It was because the night, like the outcome, was cold. His nose was running.
Mark Wangrin is a freelance writer who lives in Austin. He has covered the Big 12 since 1996.