I’m a guy who loves college football traditions.
Hey, why else would I be writing this column every week?
For more than 30 years, I’ve been fortunate to visit some of the greatest venues in college football, places where you can feel the history as soon as you walk in the stadium.
I remember my first trip to Notre Dame in 1981 where LSU opened the season against the Fighting Irish and its new coach Gerry Faust. As Faust ran on the field for his first game, I was standing and interviewing the man he replaced, the legendary Ara Parseghian.
I always wanted to cover a game at West Point in upstate New York, and I did that when Memphis played Army in November 1985. What was supposed to be just a chilly day turned into a driving snowstorm, something dramatically different for an old Louisiana boy like me.
I covered the 1994 Tennessee-UCLA season opener at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Peyton Manning’s first collegiate game. The scenery around the stadium, the hills and the valleys, were beautiful.
I covered a regular season ending game at Florida State in 1996 when the Seminoles beat Florida (which turned around weeks later and beat FSU for the national title in the Sugar Bowl). But that day in Tallahassee as soon as the horn sounded, it seemed like the entire stadium raced on the field for the postgame celebration. I immediately went to Florida’s interview room.
When I walked back across the field 45 minutes later, every piece of turf that had been painted was gone, ripped up by the partying mob for a parting remembrance of the win. Around midfield, I found a bra, which rendered me speechless.
I covered a Louisiana Tech season opener in 1998 at Nebraska, a place where the home field crowd often applauds the effort of a visiting team exiting the team after a game. Late in that game, with exhausted Tech receiver Trey Edwards slumped behind his bench after catching 21 passes for 408 yards (no, that’s not a misprint), exiting Nebraska fans repeatedly reached over the fence, slapped him on the shoulder pads and said, “You played a helluva game, son.”
The one place I covered a game only once, and always vowed to go back one day because I absolutely loved it, was Texas A&M.
Until earlier this week, I’ve never had a reason to go to College Station again after my last visit. It was on a September 1982 afternoon when a Billy Brewer-coached Louisiana Tech lost to the Aggies despite Tech quarterback Matt Dunigan attempting 60 plus passes.
But now that Texas A&M is an official member of the SEC, announced this past Monday, I get to go to Kyle Field for the rest of my writing career.
And I can’t begin to tell you how fired up I am that the Aggies are now a member of the SEC family.
The SEC couldn’t have found a better fit, getting a school that should be a powerhouse immediately athletically and academically.
Besides a football team currently ranked No. 14th in the AP poll, the Aggies are the defending national champs in women’s basketball (coached by former Arkansas coach Gary Blair). Men’s basketball has advanced to six straight NCAA tourneys.
The baseball team played in this past season’s College World Series after sweeping the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships. The Aggies have qualified for Super Regionals three of the last five years and the school is about to complete a $24 million expansion and renovation of its baseball stadium.
A&M’s men’s and women’s outdoor track teams have each won the last three consecutive national championships. Both teams are coached by Pat Henry, who coached at LSU for 17 years, and winning a collective 27 men’s and women’s outdoor and indoor national titles.
A&M will enter the SEC as the third highest ranked league school behind Vanderbilt (No. 52) and Florida (No. 72) on the 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities. The Aggies are No. 100 in the world, No. 53 nationally.
All those things are great.
But since I do write this column called “Traditions,” the reason I love it that A&M is now in the SEC is simple. After growing up in Baton Rouge and watching A&M play LSU in Baton Rouge almost every year during the 1960s and 70s, I’ve never forgotten that the Aggies have some of college football’s most memorable traditions that they are fiercely, staunchly, stubbornly defend and uphold.
A&M has my favorite band, “The Fightin’ Aggie Band” in all of college football, 400 members marching with unbelievable military precision. It plays “The Aggie War Hymn,” the school’s fight song that immediately gets into your head and loops in a permanent sound track.
You’ve got to like a fight song that starts with the lyrics, “Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck, Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck”, and later includes the line, “Chigaroogarem, Chigaroogarem
Rough, Tough, Real stuff, Texas A&M!”
I don’t know exactly what Chigaroogarem means, but it sounds like a pesticide used to treat chiggers.
I also love a school that has a mascot for a dog and treasures it. A&M has a collie named Reveille, meaning the sidelines at SEC games will soon look like kennels, considering Georgia and Mississippi State’s live bulldogs, UGA and Bully, and Tennessee’s blue tick hound Smokey.
Like Georgia, which has all of its previous UGAs who have gone to doggie heaven buried in a memorial just off the field behind one of the Sanford Stadium end zones, A&M has gone one better with its past Reveilles.
The tombstones of the previous Reveilles are located outside the north end of Kyle Field. When the stadium was expanded and a north end deck was added, the Aggies built a small scoreboard outside so the spirits of the Reveilles can still follow the game.
Now that’s serious.
The all-male Aggie cheerleaders, known as yell leaders, hold midnight yell practice the night before a home game, drawing 15,000 to 30,000 cadets and fans. When the Aggies win a home game, the freshmen cadets storm the field, capture the cheerleaders, throw them in a campus lake and then stage a brief yell practice for the following week’s game.
If the Aggies lose at home (they actually never do because all Aggies claim “time ran out on us” after a loss), they stay briefly in the stands after a game for yell practice.
Also, Aggies cadets and fans never boo a bad officiating decision. They hiss like a coffin full of snakes.
Jackie Sherrill played college football three seasons under Bear Bryant at Alabama, last lining up for the Bear in 1965 from just eight seasons after Bryant left Texas A&M. When Jackie became A&M’s head coach in 1982, he immediately discovered the eccentric, but lovable traditions of the Aggies.
“Texas A&M is truly unique,” laughs Jackie, now 67, who coached at Texas A&M for seven years, won three Southwest Conference titles in 1985-86-87, and then coached at Mississippi State from 1991-2003 where he had seven winning seasons and guided State to the 1998 SEC championship game.
Before arriving in College Station, Jackie was well-versed about the A&M student body regarding itself as “The 12th Man.”
The legend of The 12th Man started at A&M on Jan. 2, 1922, when A&M was playing defending national champion Centre College in the Dixie Classic, the forerunner of the Cotton Bowl.
The underdog Aggies, in the midst of recording a 22-14 upset, had so many injuries that A&M coach Dana X. Bible didn’t think he’d have enough healthy bodies to finish the game. So he sent word to the press box where A&M cadet E. King Gill, a reserve who had left football after the regular season to play basketball, was helping reporters identify players.
Bible needed Gill, and Gill willingly volunteered and put on the uniform of injured player Heine Weir. When the game ended, Gill had not played a snap, but he was the only healthy sub left standing on the sideline. He later said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.”
From that point, every A&M cadet in the stands regarded himself as The 12th Man. Jackie had an initial idea to fully embrace the 12th Man tradition.
He wanted A&M’s yell leaders, who dress in white from head-to-toe, to wave white 12th Man towels over their heads during games to whip the cadets into a frenzy.
“I wanted to get some white 12th Man towels, pass them out to the crowd and have them wave them,” Jackie recalls Jackie. “I knew if I got the head yell leader to wave it, everybody would wave the towel. So I went to the head yell leader and told him what I wanted do.”
Jackie expected the response: “Yes sir, Coach Sherrill! That’s a great idea!”
Instead. . .
“He looked me dead square in the eye,” Jackie says with a laugh, “and says, `We’re not going to do it. There’s nothing artificial in Kyle Field.’
“I was speechless.”
While Jackie eventually found a way around the problem – he bought 2,000 white towels to distribute to fans and also told alums visiting for games to take towels out of area hotel rooms to wave (a move that Jackie concedes didn’t make him popular with College Station hotel managers) – he learned a valuable lesson that stuck with him the rest of his career.
“The key to it at A&M is like anywhere else – understanding traditions,” Jackie says. “No head coach at Texas A&M is going to win unless he understands the traditions of the school and he’s able to use the power of the students, which is the 12th Man, to help him.”
The 12th Man towel was just the start for Jackie. His next stroke of genius was having his entire kickoff coverage team comprised of walk-ons from the student body, a true 12th Man actually contributing on the field.
Naturally, everyone thought Jackie was crazy. Teams often lose because of mistakes in the kicking game. Why put a bunch of runts out on the field that weren’t good enough to earn a scholarship? Why risk that?
Opposing coaches smirked at Jackie’s idea. Even A&M alums, who loved The 12th Man tradition, were skeptical of The 12th Man Kickoff Coverage team. And the Aggies’ scholarship players didn’t welcome Jackie’s brainstorm one iota. . .at first.
“The scholarship players hated those walk-ons in the beginning,” Jackie says. “They beat the hell out of them in practice.”
That all changed when The 12th Man kickoff unit became one of the nation’s best cover units year and year out, usually ranked in the top five every season.
“The entire time I was at A&M, our 12th Man team never allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and it allowed an average of 12.5 yards per return,” Jackie says. “Today if you allow an average 25 to 30 yards, that’s good.
“I never worried about anyone returning a kickoff for a TD on us. These (12th Man) guys went out on the field 30 minutes before practice, we had open field tackling, went through practice with varsity, and then stayed 30 minutes after practice to cover kickoffs.”
It didn’t take long for The 12th Man kick coverage team to earn the respect of the scholarship players.
“I remember one day in practice, I wanted to do something I normally never did,” Jackie recalls. “I never would go full speed in kicking game, because I never wanted to get anybody hurt.
“But there was this day, I was upset. I blew my whistle and I said, `I want full speed on kickoffs.’
“Keith Woodside, our great running back, walked up to me and said, `Coach, you don’t want to do that.’ I was angry and said, `What do you mean, Woody?’ He said, `Coach, if you do that, somebody us going to get hurt. It’s not going to be those crazy guys (The 12th Man team) out there. It’s going to be us.’ The varsity didn’t want to practice against them.
“Our kickoff coverage was so good that college football changed its rule and moved the kickoff back to the 35-yard line instead of kicking off from the 40. And after first year, our varsity players not only enjoyed our 12th Man coverage team, but they protected them in games if the opposing team did something to them.”
Case in point: In 1988 Cotton Bowl when A&M squared off against Notre Dame and Heisman Trophy winning receiver/kick returner Tim Brown, The 12th Man coverage team had a field day with Brown after he returned the opening kickoff 37 yards.
He virtually got nothing the rest of the day, at least in kick returns. In the fourth quarter after A&M scored for a 27-10 lead in what eventually ended as a rousing 35-10 Aggies’ victory, Brown was tackled on a kickoff return by A&M 12th Man team member Warren Barhorst.
When Barhorst landed on Brown, he saw Brown’s fancy blue towel with gold trim tucked in his pants. The towel had `T 81’ embroidered on it, a gift Brown received from teammate Cedric Figaro.
''The towel was there, my mind thought of it, and I went for it,'' Barhorst said after the game.
Barhorst swiped the towel and began running towards the A&M bench with his bounty in hand. Brown got up, spied Barhorst, sprinted and jumped on Barhorst’s back to retrieve his towel.
Both benches emptied and when the refs broke it up, Brown had received a 15-yard penalty while Jackie was yelling to the officials, “Throw him out, throw him out.”
“Evidently, they (the 12th Man) had something planned on the sidelines,” Brown said later. “One guy held me down, and another guy took my towel. I didn’t mean to tackle him. It looked like I tackled him, I know. But I got my towel back. That was that. I didn't know I'd be called just for trying to get my towel back.”
Barhost thought it was hilarious. As a senior, he wanted to finish his career in a big way.
“When he (Brown) tackled me, I fumbled it,” Barhost said. “But what a way to end by college football career!”
Brown went on to a 17-year NFL career and should soon be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ol’ Warren Barhost hasn’t done badly for himself, either, as the founder and CEO of Barhorst Insurance Group, headquartered in Houston.
In August, he was named president of Jackie’s “The 12th Man Kick Off Team Foundation,” a non-profit organization comprised of 65 of Sherrill’s 12th Man members, created in 2007 to provide scholarships to Texas A&M students.
Jackie now lives with his wife Peggy in a small Texas town located between Austin and San Antonio. Having been one of the few people ever to be head coach at A&M and in the SEC – ironically the late Emory Bellard coached A&M (1972-78) and Mississippi State (1979-85) just like Jackie, Jackie is thrilled to have the Aggies join the SEC.
“They perfectly fit the pageantry and passion of the SEC,” Jackie says.
Let’s all Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck to that.