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Around the country A&M has always enjoyed a reputation for playing tough, aggressive football even when it lacked great talent. It?s one of those rare schools whose tradition compels teams to overcome challenges that can defeat other programs. In other words, a team of halfway-decent Aggies can usually play with anybody, including a squad as talented as Oklahoma?s.
The Aggies hadn?t had a losing season in 20 years, and in 1998, under coach R.C. Slocum, they had won the Big 12 championship. In ?02, Slocum?s last year, the Aggies went 6?6 and lost by 30 points to rival Texas. While that had prompted the university to fire Slocum after 14 seasons and more career wins (123) than any other coach in school history, in retrospect it looked like a dream year.
Franchione brought his entire staff with him from Alabama, where he had gone 10?3 in his second and final season, the same year that the NCAA stripped the Crimson Tide program of 21 scholarships, banned it for two years from playing in a bowl game and imposed a five-year probation. The punishment was for infractions committed before Franchione was hired at Alabama, and his ability to win in the face of such adversity had made him an instant hero in the state. That changed when he decided to abandon Alabama and head to A&M. His departure infuriated the Crimson Tide faithful. They felt hustled and betrayed: With an impassioned speech about commitment, Franchione had persuaded his players to remain with him at Alabama though the NCAA would have allowed them to transfer without losing a year of eligibility, yet he had bolted as soon as A&M came calling.
Many in Tuscaloosa took Franchione for a fool and a hypocrite. Who, after all, leaves a storied program like theirs for the boondocks of College Station? What?s more, who cons his players into staying when he himself secretly desires to leave?
While Franchione has reserved a full reply to these questions for a book he plans to write, he and his wife, Kim, never felt entirely at home in Tuscaloosa. Though proud to lead one of the nation?s most famous football teams, Franchione felt suffocated by the scrutiny that came with the job, and he didn?t know what to make of fans so obsessed with the Tide that they seemed prepared to eat him alive.
His decision to forsake Alabama so upset one Crimson Tide fan that he wrote Franchione an unsigned email threatening to ?gut [him] like a deer? if ever he returned to the state. It was only one of 6,000 pieces of hate mail that Franchione received the week after he left for College Station. In another message a man who dared to identify himself said he hoped to see A&M?s plane crash with Franchione, his staff and their families on it. He added that he hoped there would be no survivors. Some of the correspondence with a threatening tone were turned over to the FBI, says Mike McKenzie, A&M?s liaison for external operations. ?The emails still come, even now,? he says. ?You read them and think, What kind of human being writes this sort of thing? Dennis Franchione is a football coach.?
Shortly after the Franchiones landed in College Station, Kim told Dennis she was going to build their ?pine-box house,? meaning she wouldn?t move again unless it was in a coffin. A&M indeed looked like the last stop for Franchione, who?d coached at nine colleges in 24 years, his longest stint being five years at New Mexico in the ?90s.
Evaluating A&M?s talent, Franchione and his assistants saw that their first priority would be to recruit better. At Alabama, Franchione?s top two defensive squads ran the 40yard dash in an average time of 4.7 seconds. At A&M he inherited a team whose top 22 defenders averaged more than 5.0 seconds in the 40. At Texas Christian, where Franchione coached before going to Alabama, he?d had 40 players who could bench-press 400 pounds or more. At A&M last year only four players could bench that. Worse, the Aggies had players--a few of them starters--whom Franchione had passed on when he was recruiting for TCU.
Still, A&M was now his team, and it was down 49?0 at halftime in the 2003 Oklahoma game. As Franchione took the worst beating of his career, he wasn?t about to begin pointing fingers. ?I can never put our players under the bus,? the coach says. ?I think players win games and coaches lose them. The responsibility of what happened at Oklahoma lies with me first.
?I?m here for all the times, not just the good ones.?