- Elizabeth Merrill
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The Blackberry shakes in Gary Blair's warm-up suit, interrupting a deep conversation about life, expectations, and now, his disdain for technology. He can read e-mails; he just hasn't figured out how to respond to them. The computer he got a month ago is barely plugged in. But he'll get back to all of them, the well-wishers and the mamas passing along barbecue recipes, even if it means dictating to his secretary.
"Instant communication," Blair says, "is the worst thing in the world for coaches today. The young student-athlete can always call somebody to listen to their problems instead of figuring it out themselves."
Cell phones, PDAs and all other electronic devices were stowed away in late January, when Blair summoned his Texas A&M women together to salvage the season. The Aggies were 1-4 in the Big 12, and falling woefully short of their preseason hype and top-10 ranking. Outside, dozens of theories floated. Maybe the offseason was too soft, the seniors were too scared, or maybe, their 62-year-old coach just wasn't connecting with the young folk.
One day Blair's phone rang, and it was a buddy from the WNIT. This is the one known about Gary Blair: The man loves to talk and rarely finishes any chat in less than 10 minutes. But on this particular day, Blair didn't return the call.
"I didn't want to utter those [letters] 'NIT,'" Blair said. "It would've been a big letdown after you're picked to win the conference."
He called in his top six players for what he dubbed a "Come to Jesus" meeting. Blair told them to look in the mirrah -- or, in non-Texas speak, mirror. He said there couldn't be any finger-pointing. No excuses, either.
The toughest thing about those early months was that the faces looking back at him were so familiar. Blair had coached his five starters for three years. He'd seen them go from 4-12 in the Big 12 to two straight NCAA tournament appearances. And now this was supposed to be their season, and in between a few nagging injuries, and buzzer losses, Blair was second-guessing himself.
"He went around the room and said, 'Hey, what do you think is wrong?'" senior guard Morenike Atunrase said. "We knew what we were capable of, and that the teams that were beating us shouldn't be beating us."
For weeks, and even after the Aggies advanced to just their second Sweet 16 on Monday, that meeting has been pointed to as the reason Texas A&M is now considered one of the hottest teams in the country. But in reality, it didn't change that much. Blair kept his same rotation, and never really raised his voice above the normal teddy-bear decibels. He wondered if the Aggies received a few too many pats on the back in the preseason and didn't put in as much work as they did in the summer of '06.
He knew it was too late to worry about that in January.
"We just went back to the drawing board and got back to it," Atunrase said. "We worked on fundamentals, and stepped our defense up. That's what turned around our game."
Two months later, the Aggies have won 11 consecutive games, captured their first Big 12 tournament championship and reached the regional semifinals for the first time since 1994. Their No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional is the highest spot ever for the Aggies and for Blair, who has taken three different programs to the NCAA tournament.
This season has taken a little bit out of everybody. In January, Blair had bone spurs removed from his elbow, only to watch his stitches come undone during a game against Texas Tech. With blood soaking through his shirt on TV, Blair figured he'd have quite a story to tell his grandson. The story got worse.
Attendance dropped, the Aggies stumbled -- and Blair was out at restaurants and Wal-Marts, trying to sell his team in unconventional places. All of their work wasn't putting new people in the stands. Who'd want to watch a 1-4 bunch?
"Our men's basketball team, they're like rock stars," Blair said. "You've got the new coach coming in, and it was sort of like Elvis was still in the building. I was like Jimmy Buffett. Everybody liked my music, but they weren't necessarily coming to all my ballgames."
They're paying attention now. Heading into the NCAA tournament, A&M beat four Top 25 teams in six games, sending a legion of Aggies fans on a five-hour trek from College Station to Baton Rouge, La., for first- and second-round action. Texas A&M routed 15th-seeded Texas-San Antonio 91-52 in the first round and then clinched its spot in the Sweet 16 with a 63-39 victory over 10th-seeded Hartford.
And Blair is proving once again that sometimes, the best messages don't come on a Blackberry.
He has always considered himself a late bloomer. Blair didn't marry his wife until he was 34, and didn't become a head coach until he was pushing 40. Now he's waiting for the next step: a 60-something national championship coach.
"I don't plan on turning this torch over to anybody anytime soon," he said, "because I want to keep going. Young people keep me young. I'd like to get to one more Final Four. Why should only the Tennessees, the Connecticuts and the Rutgers be the only ones thinking national championship? Why not Texas A&M?"
Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texas A&M is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years. But for as high as times are now, a team meeting in late January just might be what salvaged the season.