Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ags To Riches -- PART ONE

The following is an in depth look at the meteoric rise of the Texas A&M women's basketball program. This 12th Man Foundation exclusive is the first in a four-part series, which will continue through this Friday. The story originally appeared in the January issue of 12th Man Magazine.

In a story that almost defies explanation and reason, it’s particularly ironic that the city of Lubbock, Texas, plays a surprisingly large role in the resurgence of the Texas A&M women’s basketball program. The mere mention of the windswept town, where Aggie dreams in most sports have gone to die far too often in recent memory, is usually met with cringes of pain in Aggie circles across the state.

But something special happened out in the place that has been the thorn in the side of so many Aggie teams. In a couple of different ways, Lubbock has played an important role in the unprecedented heights the women’s basketball team has now reached.

It almost seems fitting that head coach Gary Blair’s return to Texas Tech, the school from which he graduated in 1972, had such significance.

On Feb. 12, 2003, while Blair was still coaching at Arkansas, a hapless Aggie team wandered into Lubbock to take on the Lady Raiders. Seventh-ranked Tech laid a Texas-sized beating on the dismal Aggies, waltzing to an 83-38 victory. It was the school’s 22nd consecutive home win over A&M and pushed the all-time series record to an embarrassing 47-8 margin.

One-and-a-half months later, athletic director Bill Byrne replaced former coach Peggie Gillom with Blair.

The following spring in 2004, the Aggies again made the trek west for what had become their annual whipping at the hands of Texas Tech. The 12,207 fans inside the United Spirit Arena that night no doubt took their seats expecting another 20-plus point rout for Tech, which again was ranked No. 7 and considered by many to be a Final Four contender.

Only, that didn’t happen.

Instead, the Tech faithful saw a scrappy Aggie team claw and battle possession-for-possession with the supremely talented Red Raiders. A&M trailed by just one point at the half and faced a precarious five-point deficit with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the game.

While the nervous fans inside the arena wondered if it was really happening—surely, their team couldn’t lose to lowly Texas A&M—the undermanned Aggies eventually wore down. They didn’t score in the final three minutes of the game and Tech prevailed with a tougher than expected, 65-56 victory.

While that game barely registered a blip on the national radar, the significance of the nine-point loss was not lost on the A&M staffers.

Steve Miller, who was then the team’s media relations coordinator, vividly remembers the conversation on the team bus leaving the arena.

“That group played so hard and played such great defense that they had a very good Texas Tech team on the ropes,” recalls Miller. “We were riding the bus back to the airport, and the coaches were talking about the game—(associate head coach) Vic Schaefer and I still talk about this—and they said, ‘You know, I think we just put the league on notice tonight. Our kids play hard, we play a different brand of basketball than anyone else, and we didn’t win tonight, but we put a scare into them.’

“It was that night, out there in Lubbock, that the players and coaches looked around and said, ‘You know what, we can compete. We have a chance.’”

It’s been almost five years since that night in Lubbock, and those words ring eerily prophetic.

Indeed, the Aggies have long since put the Big 12 Conference on notice. Now, however, it’s the nation that is wondering just what in the world is going on in College Station.

To truly appreciate the perch on which the Texas A&M women’s basketball team now resides, it’s important to look back and realize how stunningly bad the program had become. In hindsight, it never should have fallen so far. After all, the Aggies won the final Southwest Conference Tournament in 1996, prior to the start of the Big 12. In fact, the Aggies won 20 or more games in the three seasons leading up to the conference’s demise, sandwiching a NWIT Tournament title between two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Lisa Branch, an honorable mention All-American in 1996 and the school’s all-time leading scorer, graduated after A&M won the conference tournament title that season, however, and the Aggies quickly slipped into anonymity.

The team won just 18 games combined in 1997 and 1998. Peggie Gillom took over the following season (1998-99) and promptly finished in last place in the Big 12. In fact, Gillom’s first three years resulted in finishes of 12th, 11th, and 12th in league play, setting the Aggies light years behind powers (at that time) Texas Tech, Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma.

Even Baylor, which was the only team to finish behind A&M in 2000 began righting itself. The Lady Bears vaulted to sixth place the next year and second place in 2002.

The discrepancies between A&M and the rest of the Big 12 South were growing at an alarming rate. During Gillom’s tenure, the Aggies were 8-45 against the other five teams in the division, with the high water marks (if you can call them that) coming with 2-9 finishes against the South in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Even in those years, though, the Aggies never won a game in the Big 12 Tournament, finishing 0-5 under Gillom in the conference’s postseason playoff.
In short, the Aggies were buried.

“They were about as invisible as you could be for a Division I program in a major conference,” said ESPN.com women’s basketball writer Mechelle Voepel. “They came into the (Big 12) conference with at least a little bit of momentum, and they just really weren’t able to keep pace.

“It was a big surprise, not just because it’s such a big and well-known school athletically, but you add in that Texas is such a great girls high school basketball state. It was just one of those things where you sat there and thought there’s no reason in the world this program shouldn’t be good with the right staff in charge.”

Around the time Voepel and others may have been muttering that very thought, change was beginning to percolate through the halls of the A&M athletic department offices. Former university president Robert Gates pegged Bill Byrne to be the school’s new athletics director in late 2002, and one of Byrne’s first changes came in women’s basketball.

On March 12, 2003, the day after yet another first-round shaming in the Big 12 Tournament, Byrne announced Gillom’s contract would not be extended. Twenty days later, Blair was introduced as the school’s seventh women’s basketball coach.
The tide was about to turn.

1 comment:

Duchess said...

The B12 South has become a monster division. As an OU fan, the second highest compliment I can pay Gary Blair is that winning against A&M has become a BIG win :) The highest compliment I can pay him is that I like the way he runs his program, the way he treats his "kids".

We not only have good coaches in the South 12, we have some of the classiest coaches in D1 women's basketball and Blair is one.