COLLEGE STATION (AP) — Five years later, Texas A&M is back where it started.
In 2002, the Aggies were 6-5 heading into their season finale with Texas, and disgruntled fans were calling for a coaching change. By then, A&M had slipped from elite to ordinary, the “Wrecking Crew” defense had become a remnant of the past and its once-steady supply of in-state recruits had started looking elsewhere.
The Longhorns beat the Aggies 50-20 and three days later, R.C. Slocum was fired. Texas finished 10-2, won the Big 12 South and played in the Cotton Bowl.
The bitter rivals meet for the 114th time Friday and the scenario is much the same, right down to the records.
Dennis Franchione succeeded Slocum, but he’s failed to lead the Aggies back to prominence, with hardly a defining victory to show for his efforts.
With a messy e-mail scandal this season added to his ho-hum record, he’s likely coaching his last game for A&M, even if the Aggies (6-5, 3-4 Big 12) upset the 13th-ranked Longhorns (9-2, 5-2).
Franchione, who is 31-28 at the end of his fifth season, has dodged questions about his future since his personal assistant was caught e-mailing inside information about the program to boosters who paid $1,200 a year to get it. The anti-Franchione sentiment from fans has only intensified as the Aggies have lost four of their past five games.
The school has reportedly started negotiating a buyout of Franchione’s $2 million-per-year contract that runs through 2012. A&M officials have denied those reports.
Franchione says he’s kept himself insulated from the firestorm seemingly swirling around him.
“I get here early, and I spend all of my time working on game plans with the coaches,” Franchione said. “I go to practice, I spend my time with the team. As I eat dinner, I watch the practice tape.
“Other than my personal family, that is my entire focus. It has been for almost all the time. And certainly, this year. That’s the only thing that I control, and that’s what’s most important.”
Franchione probably saved his job by beating Texas 12-7 last season, A&M’s first win in Austin since 1994. The Aggies drove 88 yards for the deciding touchdown in the closing minutes to snap a six-game losing streak in the series.
There’s been even less margin for error on the field this season for the Aggies, who have faced the added burden of answering countless questions about the uncertainty surrounding Franchione.
But the Aggies say playing in games like last year’s win over Texas make it worthwhile.
“Those moments you have like that one, when you got in the huddle and those guys were laying it all on the line for each other, that’s something you hold on to forever,” said quarterback Stephen McGee, who ran for the winning touchdown last year.
Once again, the Longhorns are playing for much more than sentiment.
Texas can win the South Division with a victory over A&M and an Oklahoma loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Horns can also secure their seventh consecutive 10-win season.
And there’s that whole revenge thing — the loss to A&M last year cost Texas a berth in the Big 12 title game.
“We have a bad taste in our mouth,” quarterback Colt McCoy said. “We lost the opportunity to be able to play for the Big 12 championship and who knows what happens after that. I think it’s big for us to go down there to finish this season.”
The Longhorns have averaged 42 points during a five-game winning streak that started after a loss to their other big rival, Oklahoma. In that span, McCoy has averaged 264 passing yards per game and thrown 10 touchdowns.
“We know that ever since the Oklahoma game, we have talked about finishing, we’ve talked about being committed to one another and fighting to the end,” said McCoy, who gave a passionate speech in the locker room after the OU loss dropped Texas to 0-2 in conference for the first time in 50 years. “I think that we have showed that throughout all the games since then.”
Like all in-state rivalries, Texas-Texas A&M divides families, strains marriages and pits former high school teammates against each other.
McGee and Texas receiver Jordan Shipley led Burnet to Class 3A championship games in 2002 and ’03. Aggies offensive lineman Kirk Elder’s mother went to A&M, and his stepfather played for legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal. Texas tight end Jermichael Finley and A&M running back Jorvorskie Lane are brothers by the same father.
“Last year, it was my bragging rights. I just bugged him all the time,” said Lane. “He’d be like, ‘Whatever,’ and he’d get a little mad. This year, it could go either way. We’re really looking forward to playing each other again.”