OK, Texas A&M never killed off its women’s basketball program for eight days like Oklahoma once did. But, let me tell you … the Aggies’ program, not long ago, seemed more or less dead.
Consider the thesaurus suggestions for this particular meaning of “dead:” uninteresting, unexciting, uninspiring, dull, boring, flat, sleepy, quiet, lackluster, lifeless.
Sure, some Aggies fans will wisecrack, “Hey, why are you bringing up Lubbock?” Just kidding! That might be a Gary Blair joke, see. One he could almost get away with because he is a Texas Tech alum. (Until they would then take his diploma away, that is.)
Seriously, we list those terms to describe what used to be Texas A&M’s women’s basketball program in the Big 12.
(I do like Lubbock, BTW. I’ve been there four times, and it’s always been fun. I like Buddy Holly, too. Did I mention how great Sheryl Swoopes has been for the sport? That was just a little, itty-bitty, Midwesterner-pretending-to-be-an-Aggie joke, Raider Nation. Remember, I live in Kansas, if you want to make fun of something …)
Anyway, back to A&M, which is in College Station. I’ve been there four times, too, if memory serves. Late one night, I was driving between there and Austin after a game. It seemed exactly the kind of place I could hope to achieve one of my lifelong goals, which is to see a flying saucer. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
But I do have to say, in the daytime, that area of Texas is really a nice place to take a drive. Leaving the gridlock nightmare of Houston behind, you feel “in the country,” and it’s just pleasant to be there and soak up the landscape. It really is.
However, for several seasons, being at a women’s basketball game at Reed Arena was pretty much unpleasant once the Big 12 formed. There had been some success there in the Southwest Conference days. But things went downhill quickly in the Jumbo Dozen. On what used to be weekly Big 12 coaches teleconferences, it was hard trying to find ANYTHING to ask regarding the Aggies after just a few league games. How many non-existent glimmers of hope could be conjured?
You couldn’t spell, um … “irrelevAnt” without the “A” in A&M. All right, wait a minute. Let me try that again.
How about this? You couldn’t spell “Moribund” without the “M.” You get the point. For the first seven seasons of the Big 12, Texas A&M was 22-90 in league play.
Then for reasons I will never understand, Arkansas essentially told Blair to feel free to get lost _ and this was around the time Texas A&M needed a new coach. So he found his way to College Station. His first season, 2003-2004, I was at Reed Arena for one of the losses in his team’s 2-14 Big 12 slate.
Afterward, Gary had an 8-minute opening statement to his press conference that answered every question I could have possibly thought to ask.
I went off to get my story done, and then at least an hour later, I was still in the media room piddling around on something post-deadline. In comes Gary. I was like, “What are you still doing here? Go home.”
Of course, his whole family was still in Fayetteville, Ark., and his brain was not able to turn off the game he’d just coached that night. So he explained in detail, X’s-and-O’s-wise, what should have happened for his team to have won. He just needed another year or two to get the right players in place.
There was no doubt in my mind that would happen. And it has.
A&M won the Big 12 tournament title last year for the first time, then made the NCAA Elite Eight. Tennessee’s resolve and big-game experience were too much at crunch time for the Aggies in the Oklahoma City regional final, but it was still a remarkable season for A&M.
If you were watching ESPN2 on Monday night, you saw Takia Starks lift A&M to a 57-56 victory over Oklahoma, breaking the Sooners’ 20-game winning streak. Then, the court rush by fans. I criticized the banality of these too-frequent court rushes on the men’s side in a recent blog post, and I can’t say I’m all that crazy about it on the women’s side, either.
However, it’s a little bit different story at Texas A&M because the fan base there is … something I can’t quite explain right. Every time I try to, they seem to think I’m making fun of them. I’m really not, it’s just … well, it’s like A&M fans aren’t just regular fans. To us outsiders, it’s almost like they take blood oaths and know about secret passageways and stuff like that.
It’s this intense kind of loyalty, doing hand signals and special cheers and following customs. If there’s any school in the country where I might have predicted a sincerely joyous court rush for the women, it’s A&M. Because they are so proud of all Aggie accomplishments, which is cool.
OU is without broken-fingered Whitney Hand for a few weeks, so that’s an unexpected hurdle for the Sooners. At 12-1 and still firmly in control of the league lead, they finish with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas.
A&M is 9-4 and has Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor left. A lot is still to be decided before the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City on March 12-15.
But Monday provided the Texas A&M players a night they will think back on all their lives. And it’s especially neat to remember where both the Aggies’ and Sooners’ programs have come from.