Just how difficult is it to run a clean program? Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum offers this response to that question: "Remember the story of original sin? Two people. One rule. One serpent. And look what happened."
Last January the NCAA (an organization of thousands of rules), having found that nine people (all Aggies) had been paid for no-show jobs during the summers of 1990, '91 and '92, banished A&M to the netherworld of probation. Sanctions included no TV appearances, no bowls and no shot at a fourth straight Southwest Conference title this fall. So what have Slocum's sinners done since? After opening with an 18-13 win over LSU, they went out last Saturday and scorched 15th-ranked Oklahoma 36-14. "People counted us out, but we're on a roll," says senior linebacker Antonio Armstrong. "The NCAA, bowl games, they don't matter. All that matters is these 11 games."
Wait a minute, haven't we heard that before? Why, yes, it was only a year ago that Terry Bowden led Auburn to an 11-0 record while the Tigers were on probation—an achievement that did not go unnoticed by Slocum. During the off-season he asked Bowden for guidance and was advised, "Use the adversity to unify the team and make every game an event."
The Oklahoma game was certainly an event. The Sooners' 44-14 win last year in Norman was the Aggies' lone regular-season loss since 1991, and as senior tailback Rodney Thomas said about this year's meeting, "This was our Cotton Bowl."
Thomas and sophomore teammate Leeland McElroy provide Slocum with an abundance of talent at tailback. McElroy, who last year ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 39.3 yards per return, is cited in the A&M media guide as "perhaps the most spectacular player to don the maroon and white ever." And he's the backfield backup. Thomas's 8,439 yards rushing at Groveton High remains the fourth best ever for a high school player anywhere.
Thomas is happy to share the spotlight. In fact he has been known to ask the coaches to give McElroy more carries. But then Thomas's ethics—which he refuses to discuss—are legendary. Two years ago a vending machine in the athletic dorm went berserk, spewing out free candy bars. Thomas, unlike many of his teammates, did not partake of the windfall, but waited for the horde to disperse and then inserted all his spare change into the machine.
Tailbacks like Thomas and McElroy and, before them, Greg Hill and Darren Lewis, have helped Slocum put together a 29-1-1 home record and a 51-12-1 overall mark since he took over in College Station six years ago. And what have these achievements brought the Aggies? Around the country they are still known more for sinning than for succeeding.
"We're a lot like Willie Nelson," says Slocum. "Texans always knew that Willie was a gifted musician. We just had to wait for the rest of the country to catch up."