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Senior College Football Columnist

After its best year ever, Texas A&M looks to outdo itself again

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In the middle of Texas A&M's best year ever, there are small defeats.

AD Eric Hyman's nephew called fraud when his uncle secured one of the first Johnny Manziel Heisman posters. The quarterback's signature was included but -- as noticed by the nephew -- it was a printed facsimile.

"I had to get another poster and have Johnny sign it," Hyman said. "Now I'm his favorite uncle."

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Coach Kevin Sumlin can't hear on his phone at times, for all the construction going on outside his office. It's one of the drawbacks of a $16 million facilities upgrade.

Heisman winner Johnny Manziel has been victimized, he knows that now. They lurk everywhere, trying to get a piece of the athletic equivalent of Justin Bieber.

"From football player making headlines to being on TMZ to being a celebrity," Manziel recalled recently. All that since becoming the biggest "it" player in college football since Tim Tebow.

There have been cease and desist letters. Trademark violations. Unlicensed product. Walking across campus has become a challenge, judging by his decision to take online classes.

Manziel had one final left following the Heisman win on Dec. 8. He ended up posing for pictures with a professor and everyone in the department. It took him 30 minutes to get out of economics building. A normal existence left the building shortly thereafter.

"I have to realize that's not how life can be for me anymore," Manziel said.

In this best year ever for Aggies everywhere, these small defeats are stuffed in some moldy gym bag of the mind. They have their forgettable place in the forever redefining of a university and a football program. Never again will A&M enjoy the simultaneous head rush of separating from Texas, beating Alabama, winning the Heisman and joining the SEC in the same academic year. Since July 1, when that separation became final, every Aggie wish has come true.

The Big 12 is in the rear view mirror. Texas is down. A&M is up -- to incredible heights. There is the first 11-win season in 14 years. There was that for-the-ages win at No. 1 Alabama. A Heisman. A Heisman phenomenon. A top five finish. A possible top-five beginning to 2013.

And that was in the first nine months of the school's new life. That limitless future has not gone unnoticed down the road in Austin.

"Eleven wins at A&M is unbelievable and they're pumped," Mack Brown said. "Nine wins here is a disaster ... They're on top of the world and [it seems like] we're horrible ... It's really interesting how perceptions can change."

Out of Texas' shadow, into the national conversation, and with three years' eligibility left for its quarterback, what does A&M now do for an encore?

"We just got here," Sumlin said modestly, but also with a bit of foreshadowing.

That's the scariest part. Things can get better. Much better. Sumlin and his young, energetic staff just sewed up their second recruiting class. The new offensive coordinator is all of 27 having already tutored Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith in his short career.

"The thing about this offense is in Year 1 it's kind of experimenting, learning about it," said Jake Spavital. "Year Two is normally when they go off in the passing aspect."

That was quite an experiment in 2012. Manziel set the SEC total offense record.

"Now, he's handling me the keys to the Cadillac," Spavital said of former coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, now the Texas Tech head coach. "Johnny's going to be a better passer next year."

Better?

Sumlin may be the only one within a 500-smile radius with some perspective. That one man Bowl Tie Revolution, president R. Bowen Loftin, has to be tap-dancing all the way to the next alumni meeting. It was his force of nature that got the Aggies to the SEC after unfortunate comments by an ESPN programmer touched off another round of Big 12 realignment.

"I really don't think Johnny would have won the Heisman if we weren't in the SEC" Hyman said. "I don't know if we would have won it if we were still in the Big 12."

But true success is achieved over time. While suffering A&M's success, Texas types quietly remind that Mack Brown turned things around in 1998, the first of 12 consecutive seasons of at least nine wins.

Sumlin, the second-year coach, quickly points out that for all that success, the Aggies finished ninth in the BCS, tied for the second in the division and tied for the fourth-best SEC record.

"It's not just coachspeak," he said. "We're trying to catch up. People say, 'You guys have a target on you.' Why? We didn't win the SEC West, we didn't win the league ... To me, those guys always have a target on their backs."

What Sumlin didn't mention is those guys, Alabama, come here in Week 3 of the season. The Aggies are one of only five teams to beat the Tide since 2008. Consider that Sumlin, a monster recruiter, is just now gaining access to defensive linemen in the Southeast who are the lifeblood to SEC programs.

"We're not there yet," Hyman reminded. "We've had a shot of adrenaline."

The questions being asked around Austin are tough ones. Brown can't get over the perception that he "missed" on Texans Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Manziel.

"Nobody ever tells the story, who else offered him [Manziel] in the state of Texas?" asked Horns offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.

According to rivals.com, Baylor, Rice and Texas-San Antonio. Manziel, a three-star recruit out of high school, famously broke a commitment to Oregon to come to the Aggies.

"There are guys named Tom Rossley and Mike Sherman," Applewhite said of the Aggies former quarterbacks and head coach. "They deserve a hell of a lot of credit for recruiting the guy.

"Let's be honest, he was not offered by Houston. That's where Kevin Sumlin was. He had all the opportunity in the world."

Brown is well aware that in this immediate world of social media those 12 consecutive nine-win seasons are a memory. A&M is hot. A year at this time, the program was two games over .500 since 2007 and didn't have a starting quarterback. Since the glory days of Colt McCoy at Texas there have been Garrett Gilbert, a five-star bust, and promising current quarterback David Ash, a junior.

"The truth is there are reasons for every decision you make," Brown said. "We offered David Ash as our quarterback and we're really proud of where he is and where he's headed."

Meanwhile, Johnny Football "went from athlete who was playing quarterback to being a quarterback who was athlete," Sumlin said. His twitter following grew from 3,000 to 300,000. Those Twitterati practically had kittens earlier this month when Manziel was shown in a TV feature driving away from the football facility in a Mercedes C 63 AMG.

His second one, actually. He first Mercedes, a high school graduation gift, was hit in the football facility parking lot. Dad, John Paul, works at a car dealership.

"It's a touchy area," Manziel said. "It's another gray area with the stereotype, how a majority of guys in the NCAA come from families that aren't like mine, that aren't as fortunate as mine having money."

The Johnny Football equivalent to Bieber Fever appeared in Army fatigues in December in the Dallas airport. The "soldier" convinced Texas A&M's quarterback that his platoon back in Iraq were big fans. It would mean a lot to them if Manziel would sign a stack of A&M helmet decals.

"A mountain high worth of stuff," Manziel said.

What the hell, the quarterback thought. He had an hour layover and wanted to be patriotic.

"Sure enough," Manziel said. "My dad gets a text. They're on EBay. Somebody took all those helmet stickers and slapped them on blank helmets."

Johnny Football's celebrity then trapped him on a plane in the middle seat between two guys with UPS boxes stuffed under their seats.

"Hey," one of them said, "have you ever signed autographs at 30,000 feet?"

His heart melted one night in the Bright Football Complex parking lot after a study hall. There were two men sitting in a car with memorabilia all made out personally to individuals. All Johnny had to do was sign his name and make folks happy. Advisors already had told him that personalized autographs devalue the souvenir for resale so they couldn't be cashing in could they?

"What happened after I signed, they wiped the names off," Manziel said.

Hello, again, autograph black market.

Hyman convened a Johnny Football summit in his office about a month ago. The AD's arrival on campus had basically coincided with A&M's entry into the SEC. This was his chance to catch up, to impart is wisdom. The 62-year old Hyman hired Gary Patterson at TCU, inherited Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. As a player at North Carolina in the early 1970s, he remembered being trampled by an Ohio State sophomore named Archie Griffin.

That long-ago encounter allowed Hyman to consult with the two-time Heisman winner: What's the toughest thing about fame?

"He said, 'Learning how to say no,' Hyman said. "To this day, Archie is being asked for his autograph."

"The meeting that Eric Hyman had wasn't a get-after-you, tell-you-what-to-do meeting [for Manziel]," Sumlin said. "[It was] 'We're here for you. You don't have to handle this on your own.'" Hyman knows a little something about the SEC, Heisman, administration, people. Everyone was invited to that meeting -- coaches, compliance, marketing, Manziel's parents, the franchise himself. They talked about everything from security at practice to academics to Mike Hill. That's the name of the external relations guy at Florida. He was consulted about how the athletic department handled Tim Tebow.

That phenomenon is the only thing that compares to Johnny Football.

"What I told his dad and mom at the Heisman is, 'He's no longer a freshman, he's no longer a sophomore, he's no longer a junior, no longer a senior,' Hyman said. 'He's a Heisman.' From where he is today to where he was a few months ago, he's learned how to handle situations."

As Sumlin, Hyman, Applewhite and Brown will remind you, it is early. The New York Times reported the quarterback had been subject to random drug testing and was to undergo drug and alcohol counseling. Johnny Football has been photographed flashing stacks of Benjamins while gambling legally at an Oklahoma casino. His self-admitted fondness for celebrities has had a 6-foot-nothin' kid from Tyler, Texas happily posing with the famous and beautiful.

None of it is necessarily bad, just a reminder that for the Heisman winner and his program long-term success is still to be defined.

For now, Texas A&M will settle for those big wins in its best year ever.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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