On Thanksgiving Eve, under a moonless, Lone Star night, Texas A & M coach Jackie Sherrill weighed the moment. Across a muddy plot in College Station, 50,000 Aggies huddled to celebrate the torching of Bonfire, a 55-foot pyramid of oak as cannily crafted by students as your average space shuttle. Sherrill, conservatively dressed under an off-white trench coat and either grinning or grimacing against the chill, set his baby blues on the pyrotechnics from a pipe-and-wood-plank dais. With a home win over Texas the next day, his team could finally incinerate its image as an ever-promising bunch dimmed by his profile and his portfolio. Hey, you hear about the Aggie football team? They thought since their coach's contract rolls over, that meant they should, too.
A & M makes a flaming fuss over every game with the Longhorns. But this one meant more than bragging rights. For the first time in 42 years, the SWC title, and thus a trip to the Cotton Bowl, hung on the outcome. Before these crazed fans—the storied 12th man—Sherrill behaved like a CEO briefing his stockholders. He made some harmless remarks, introduced a few players and joined in the school's elaborate yells. "Our fans like to blow the balloon up," said Sherrill, explaining his low-key manner. "But you don't pump that sucker up to bust it."
Texas sure couldn't bust it. Before a standing-only crowd of 77,607, Texas A & M wallopped the Longhorns 42-10 for its most lopsided victory over Texas since 1894. At last Sherrill, who signed a ballyhooed $1.6 million "evergreen" contract in 1982 and then guided A & M to three .500 seasons, had taken the Ags to riches. Moreover, with just seven senior starters, even more booty may lie ahead. "In a place like this, with all the tradition and support," Sherrill says, "once the foundation is built, there's a chance for a lot of success."
Two key additions to that foundation came last January when Sherrill hired Lynn Amedee as offensive coordinator and Joe Avezzano as offensive line coach. Both are former head coaches—Amedee at Tennessee-Martin (1980-81) and Avezzano at Oregon State (1980-84). Amedee took on the chores of designing and calling plays. He also lessened quarterback Kevin Murray's burden by asking the receivers to read coverages and telling Murray simply to read the receivers. Then he orchestrated a Revolving Boar backfield by alternating bruisers Anthony Toney (6', 230 pounds) and Roger Vick (6'3", 221). Ta, ta: balance and ball control. Says tackle Doug Williams, "Those two guys, Amedee and Avezzano—shoot, that's the offense."
Don't forget Murray. He led the SWC in total offense as a freshman two years ago. But in his third game last season he broke his right ankle and dropped out of school to begin rehabilitation near his home in Dallas. At first it was tough. "The thing that kept me going," says Murray, "was that I wanted to be twice as good as anyone thought I'd be." When asked before this season what the key to A & M's success would be, Murray responded, "For me to stay healthy."
Murray's road back got bumpy in September when a Dallas TV reporter alleged that an alum had slipped Murray several $300 payments and leased him a Datsun 300ZX. Murray, surprised on the air with the charge, denied it. A & M, along with the SWC, is investigating, but as of Sunday, the NCAA wasn't involved. Though he has two years of eligibility left, Murray doesn't seem fazed by the allegation and even believes it rallied his teammates. "They saw the heat was on their leader's back," he says. He, in turn, has guided the most prolific and balanced attack in Texas A & M history. Against Texas, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 146 yards and three TDs, as the Ags ran for 183 yards and passed for 185.
Ah, yes, Texas—not a school short on tradition itself. Like the Aggies, the Longhorns entered the game with an 8-2 record. Texas had relied on an aggressive defense, spectacular kicking and the grace of quarterback Bret Stafford, who had completed 72% of his passes in his last six starts. However, rumors swirled that coach Fred Akers was in a win-or-else predicament. It didn't seem to matter that he would have edged past Darrell Royal's winning percentage (77.4) if the Longhorns had beaten A & M.
But it was not to be. Texas A & M scored first on a 10-yard pass from Murray to flanker Jeff Nelson early in the second quarter and then again on a 78-yard drive to open the second half. Trailing 14-0 and at his own 20-yard line, Stafford launched a rare first-down pass. Linebacker Todd Howard tipped it and cornerback James Flowers picked it off, setting up the Ags' third TD, which came just 36 seconds after the second. Three minutes later—following a stalled Texas drive and a 24-yard punt return by Jimmie Hawkins to the Longhorn 34—they had another. With the 21-zip third quarter, A & M ended up outscoring its 1985 opponents in the period 118 to 14.
"All year we've been coming out playing better the second half," said linebacker Johnny Holland, who had 14 tackles against Texas. "We've changed. The guys have a little more character for 60 minutes." Some, though, might question how much character A & M had shown in the second half the week before. Against TCU, the Aggies led 46-0 late in the game when Scott Slater made an onside kick, of all things.
Whatever, after the smoke had cleared last week (A & M fires a cannon after each score), the smooches had subsided (students kiss their dates after each score) and a locker room chorus of happy birthday had passed ( Sherrill turned 42), no one in Texas was making Aggie jokes.