December 01, 2011
Texas A&M's fourth season under Mike Sherman began with the Aggies basking in a pending defection to the SEC and its highest expectations in a decade. It ended tonight with Sherman being led to the guillotine on the heels of a 6-6 campaign defined by blown second-half leads and a steady drumbeat of disappointment, drawing the curtain on a tenure that encompassed 25 wins and 25 losses.
In its own way, it was a remarkable, carefully honed achievement: A near-perfect ode to mediocrity.
Under different circumstances, there might have been some solace in the fact that A&M was so close. Five of the Aggies' six losses in 2011 came by a combined 17 points, two of them in overtime, three of them against teams ranked in the top dozen of the latest BCS standings. Five of the six came after they led by at least two scores in the second half. They played arguably the toughest schedule in the country, and were in every game except one (a 41-25 loss at Oklahoma on Nov. 5) down to the final snap. Even after last week's last-second loss to Texas, the computer polls remained suitably impressed with the overall product.
But Texas A&M wasn't an up-and-comer building toward a run in 2012: On the heels of a 6-1 finish in 2010, it was a consensus top-10 contender this summer with no glaring weaknesses. The 2011 Aggies had the savvy senior quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), the best 1-2 tailback punch in the Big 12 (Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael), a completely intact receiving corps, a nearly intact offensive line featuring at least two future draft picks and eight returning starters from a vastly improved defense under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter. It was the single best opportunity A&M has had for a move on the Big 12 On the other side of the regular season, they limped in with losses in four of their last five, marquee wins over Iowa State and Baylor and something less than a winning record for the third time in four years.
Sherman returned to College Station from a decade in the NFL, including six years as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and may well go down as the patron saint of dour, milquetoast refugees from the league. The trajectory of his tenure at A&M is a model for the genre: Four years, zero conference championships, ending with a minor breakthrough (9-4 in 2010) that's immediately followed by a disappointing return to mediocrity. Four other ex-NFL head coaches have been hired for their first college head coaching job since 2002:
• Chan Gailey (Georgia Tech): Six years, zero conference championships, ending in a minor breakthrough (9-5 in 2006) that was immediately followed by a disappointing return to mediocrity (7-5 in 2007).
• Bill Callahan (Nebraska): Four years, zero conference championships, ending in a minor breakthrough in (9-5 in 2006) that was immediately followed by a return to mediocrity (5-7 in 2007).
• Dave Wannstedt (Pittsburgh): Six years, zero conference championships, ending in a minor breakthrough (10-3 in 2009) that was immediately followed by a return to mediocrity (7-5 in 2010).
• Lane Kiffin (Tennessee). One mediocre season (7-6 in 2009), which he parlayed into his dream job at USC. What can you say? The man is a trailblazer.
See also: Mike Shula, Al Groh, Greg Robinson and Charlie Weis, all longtime NFL assistants turned infamously failed college head coaches. Their teams are indistinguishable, and their fate is always the same.
If campus titans like Nick Saban, Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino couldn't hack it in their brief stints in the pros, the grim offerings coming in the opposite direction have failed to produce anything better than the equivalent of an early exit in the playoffs. Which, come to think of it, is exactly how they all fared in the NFL, too. The principles of Chan Gailey Equilibrium are eternal: Wherever you go in life, basic competence and a reflexive deference to conventional wisdom under any and all circumstances will produce victory exactly 58.3 percent of the time.
Now: Who's going to roll the dice on Jack Del Rio before it's too late?