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Texas A&M makes $75 million bet to beat Alabama

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference media days at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. (AP)

ATLANTA — When I saw Jimbo Fisher in College Station in mid-February, he was hustling from his football team’s winter conditioning workout in the Aggies’ palatial McFerrin Athletic Center to his own personal workout in the Aggies’ palatial Davis Player Development Center.

(There is plenty of palatial at Texas A&M.)

Jimbo moves fast and talks faster, so there wasn’t a lot of time for meandering conversation. I quickly asked my question of greatest curiosity: Does a man’s hand shake when he signs a $75 million contract?

Fisher laughed and shook his head.

“It didn’t,” he said. “It was kind of surreal, though.”

Ten years, $75 million. That’s the staggering sum Texas A&M dropped in Fisher’s lap with one simple request in return: overthrow Nick Saban, win the Southeastern Conference and win the school’s first football national championship since 1939.

The day after I spoke with Fisher, A&M chancellor John Sharp sharply reinforced the expectation. After a panel discussion at the Chancellor’s Century Council meeting Feb. 16, Sharp presented his new coach with a “national championship” plaque – a title to be delivered at an undetermined future date.

“I thought it was kind of nice,” Fisher said here Monday, during his first Southeastern Conference media days appearance. “I liked it. He had the same commitment that we did. … I hope we fill that [date] in quickly.”

Good thing Fisher liked the plaque, because there is no hiding from the aspirations in Aggieland. Not anymore. They’ve laid all the cards on the table.

At present, no program in America is trying harder to win a national title than Texas A&M.

It gave Fisher a contract most college coaches could scarcely imagine because he’s actually been there and done that, winning the 2013 national title at Florida State. It swallowed a reported $10.4 million buyout of the previous coach, Kevin Sumlin, an outlay that many in college football would have previously seen as unreasonable. It lured away Notre Dame’s prized defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, with a three-year deal that averages $1.8 million a year.

The Aggies are spending crazy money because they’re raking in crazy money.

USA Today reported in January that Texas A&M’s 2017 athletic revenue soared to nearly $212 million, less than $3 million behind industry leader (and former bitter rival) Texas. Four years earlier, A&M’s reported revenue was just less than $94 million, while Texas’ was nearly $166 million. In terms of revenue growth, the Aggies have been on a stratospheric curve.

Forbes.com had a recent breakdown of where A&M is getting its revenue, and the area of massive growth has been contributions – from $36 million in 2014 to $93 million last year. Alumni and other boosters are putting their money where their national championship dreams are, funding all the previously mentioned palatial athletic facilities.

“The culture here – the people take unbelievable pride,” Fisher said in February. “They live the culture.”

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher signs autographs for fans as he arrives for NCAA college football Southeastern Conference media days. (AP)

A less-productive part of that culture has been some heavy-handed boosterism. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the egos – especially egos that are tied to football.

The most memorable example of that was less than a year ago, when regent Tony Buzbee went on Facebook and declared that Sumlin needed to go all of one game into the 2017 season. Granted, it was an epically bad game, after the Aggies blew a 34-point lead to UCLA. But that outspoken criticism hinted at how many cooks were in the College Station football kitchen.

That’s just one example, though. The regent-level thirst for football glory has been present since A&M entered the Southeastern Conference in 2012.

The night before A&M’s first SEC football game, school regent Richard Box offered then-commissioner Mike Slive his vision for his alma mater’s athletic future. It had to do, as is so often the case in College Station, with A&M’s eternal battle with Texas. Their football series was over for the time being, but the rivalry never ended.

“When we do play again,” Box said that night, “we’ll be the controlling brand.”

Two months later, a freshman quarterback named Johnny Manziel led a stunning upset of Alabama. The Aggies would go on to finish 11-2 and Manziel would win the Heisman Trophy, and all signs pointed to A&M achieving controlling brand status faster than imagined.

It never happened. Not because Texas surged (far from it), but because A&M backslid to its customary good-not-great status. The last five records have been 9-4, 8-5, 8-5, 8-5 and 7-6. The SEC record in that time: 19-21.

And after that shocking day in Tuscaloosa in 2012, A&M has gone 0-5 against Alabama. So have a few other SEC opponents, but none of them have the combination of resources and hubris possessed by Texas A&M.

Sitting on a gold mine of local football talent and with a gold mine in contributions, the school upped the ante on the rest of ‘Bama’s underlings in the SEC West. They went out and got the one active national champion coach who was both realistic and attractive. (Urban Meyer wasn’t leaving Ohio State and Frank Solich is at Ohio University for a reason.)

After eight great seasons at Florida State, a new challenge and a ton of cash put Jimbo in cowboy boots. He arrives with the expectation that the backseat chirping Sumlin endured from regents will diminish – for now.

“I think it’s just an opportunity there and a challenge that I didn’t want to walk away,” Fisher said, “when I knew we had the administration in place that will have the same vision in which we have.”

All Jimbo Fisher has to do now is win a national title. The money may be surreal, but the expectations are very real.

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