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Jackie Sherrill Has Bonfires Burning Bright at Texas A&M, but Where There's Smoke . . . : QUESTIONS IN AGGIELAND

September 01, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — First Man: "Did you hear about the Texas A&M Aggie who could count to 10?" Second Man: "No." First Man: "How about five?"

Aggies believe in God, country and tradition. They say 'Howdy' to strangers, respect authority, protect their own. You ask Aggies to meet your parents, to say grace, to slice the Thanksgiving turkey.

And where does it get them?

For starters, the rest of the Southwest Conference can't stand the Aggies, especially when they're coached by that high-priced workaholic, Jackie Sherrill, ranked seventh in the Associated Press preseason poll, picked to return to the Cotton Bowl and quite possibly win the national championship.

Of course, you can count on those city-slicker newspapers and television stations in Dallas and Houston to be up to no good. The same goes for the NCAA and all those questions it's asking about A&M's star quarterback, Kevin Murray.

And then there are Aggie jokes--hundreds of them, all poking fun at this one-of-a-kind place and its peculiar habits.

"I think the higher you get on the pile, the more visible you are and the more people try to pull your feet from under you," says Bum Bright, a former A&M board of regents chairman and now owner of the Dallas Cowboys. "Every other school is jealous of what A&M's got. There's two groups: There's A&M and then there's everybody else."

No argument there.

This is the school where you stand for an entire football game, in memory of A&M's legendary 12th Man. Don't ask.

This is where they construct four-story bonfires for the annual game against the University of Texas, a project that requires about 5,000 logs and 200,000 hours of student labor. About 40,000 A&M fans attend the ceremony.

At A&M, there are no skirt-clad cheerleaders waving pom-pons. Here they have yell leaders--five guys with crewcuts who wear starched white uniforms and are elected to their positions by vote of the student body. Yell practice is held at A&M's Kyle Field the Friday before a home game . . . at midnight.

If A&M scores a touchdown, field goal or extra point, tradition dictates that Aggies kiss their dates or spouses. The freshman manual apparently disregards safeties.

About that manual. Every freshman gets one and had better learn it. Included in the handbook is an explanation of A&M idiosyncrasies. You discover that you don't dare walk on the grass near the campus union. One visitor did and found himself immediately confronted by a uniformed female ROTC cadet. She was a senior. Only senior cadets can wear the freshly shined, brown knee-high riding boots. " 'Preciate it if you could stay on the sidewalk," she said. "The grass serves as a memorial to fallen Aggies."

Sorry.

Moose is another way of saying your date was a disaster. A fish is a freshman. Dead elephants are seniors completing their spring semester. Hated University of Texas is called t.u., referred to as "that small secular school in Austin."

In the student bookstore are bumper stickers. I'm an Aggie's Mom. I'm an Aggie's Dad. I'm an Aggie's Parents . . . Grandfather . . . Grandmother . . . Sister . . . Brother . . . Girl . . . Guy. What's next? I'm an Aggie's Dental Hygienist?

And so it goes. This used to be an all-male military school. Then it went co-ed and grew to an enrollment of about 37,000. But this is a place that doesn't forget its past. The corp may number only about 2,500 members, but it remains the spiritual heart of the school. When cheerleaders from Southern Methodist once wandered onto Kyle Field, a sacred area to A&M folks, a cadet went after them with his saber. Aggies love their football. Always have. They never boo. If A&M loses, the students stay after the game and practice their yells.

"I've been here for four years," says Shea Walker, an A&M wide receiver. "We'd be getting beat bad and the fans in the stands would be yelling and hollering like we were either ahead by 20 points or it was a real tight game. It's crazy here."

Tradition comes at a price. Because of their campus peculiarities, A&M students consider themselves an easy target for abuse. Walker recalls telling a friend that he had chosen to attend A&M.

"He said, 'I don't think you realize you're going to be an Aggie for the rest of your life.' "

Darkness has long since made its way across the A&M campus. Jackie Sherrill sits in his office, fresh from another meeting with his coaching staff. He has been here since 5:45 a.m. He has overseen two practices, met with reporters, completed his daily jog and attended to various bureaucratic duties.

Now he props a phone against his ear. "Radio talk show in Oklahoma," he says.

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