Texas A&M Aggies: Jason Cook

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- For years, Texas A&M felt like its identity was defined by others.

Whether it was other schools in the state of Texas or other members of the Aggies' former conference, the Big 12, some felt that the outside world viewed A&M through another lens.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Sumlin is 15-3 as coach of the Aggies.
The move to the Southeastern Conference gave the school a chance to change that, and the hiring of Kevin Sumlin prior to the 2012 season gave the football program an opportunity to redefine itself. And while in the thick of its second year of SEC membership, A&M has taken full advantage of establishing its brand, not only regionally, but nationally.

While the exposure that comes with being in the SEC helps, winning football games helps quite a bit too.

"That's all it is," senior running back Ben Malena said. "When you're the so-called 'it' school, you must be winning. That's just something that Coach Sumlin has brought over, a winning attitude and believing that we could win every single game."

Texas A&M is a tradition-rich school and its roots as a regional, all-male military institution with a heavy focus on agriculture are what the school was long known for. As time passed, things changed.

While the Aggies are still very much about tradition, the school has grown into a research-intensive institution with more than $700 million invested in that endeavor. There are more than 27,000 women in the student body of more than 50,000, 50 years after women were first admitted to the school.

Changing the old perception of not only the school, but the football program, was something Texas A&M aimed to do upon entry into the SEC. So far, it appears A&M has been successful, especially on the football side of things.

"As your program starts to move on, you've got to be known for something," Sumlin said. "Whatever that is, you like to try to control what that is. Everyone's going to have their opinion about who you are and what your program is. What you try to do is get out there and speak for yourself and not let everybody else talk about Texas A&M and Texas A&M football."

Sumlin helped change the culture around A&M football in several ways. He put together an energetic coaching staff, several of which were assistants of his at his previous head coaching stop in Houston. They brought an aggressive, up-tempo, no-huddle offense that was a smashing success in its first SEC season.

He added nuances like playing hip-hop music during the team's practices (something he did at Houston and adopted from Washington coach Steve Sarkisian after a 2011 visit to the Huskies' spring practice), tweaking the uniforms the Aggies wore for some games last year (the Aggies sported all-white uniforms and all-black uniforms on separate occasions) or changing the team entrance to add music and smoke as the team comes out of the tunnel before home games. Players say he fosters an atmosphere that, while business-like, is about having fun.

"He's very plugged in helping shape how we want to present Texas A&M," said Jason Cook, associate athletic director for external affairs. "I think he really has a pulse on the things that are important to Texas A&M, but also the things that he can tweak around the edges.

"I think that he has brought a new look, a different feel, a new kind of energy behind Texas A&M that we haven't seen."

During a spring scrimmage in April, Sumlin wowed recruits and fans in attendance by bringing in a live disc jockey to spin tunes at Kyle Field. Sumlin and associate athletic director for football Justin Moore put together a unique experience by bringing an equipment truck onto the Kyle Field sideline with DJ Double R, a Texas deejay whom Sumlin has known since he was at Houston, inside with his turntables, flashing neon lights and a camera projecting the image of the scene onto the scoreboard for all in attendance to see while the Aggies participated in a roughly two-hour-long scrimmage dubbed "Friday Night Lights."

Things like that have helped shape the way recruits think about Texas A&M football. Sumlin and Moore also conceived the idea to start their own web site and "social content hub" for A&M football dubbed "AggieFBLife." Run by FusionSports, Inc., which is in the business of digital brand management for professional athletes, the website (AggieFBLife.com) as well as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine accounts by the same name provide a unique, insider view into Texas A&M football. The accounts often showcase behind-the-scenes videos of players conducting their daily business at practice, in games or in between, in the locker room or the Bright Football Complex. They're documented by a videographer that has complete access to all aspects of A&M football and the initiative is unique for a major college football program.

"We wanted to create the message of what Texas A&M football was, not what everybody else was telling them," Moore said. "Our goal was ... create our own brand and our own message of what Texas A&M football is and do it in a unique way that our target audience will actually consume the information."

But at the end of the day, it comes down to winning. What helped the Aggies expand their brand was the success had in their inaugural SEC season. After going 11-2 and having a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, who has become the biggest celebrity in college football, it created a perfect storm of sorts that pushed A&M football to the forefront of the national conversation. Merchandising sales went up, attention and coverage -- both football and non-football -- has increased significantly. Television ratings for A&M games are consistently high.

Accomplishing those things in the SEC, the country's premier football conference, opened the door for exposure that is unprecedented in A&M history. The difference in national exposure and national perception now compared to the Aggies' pre-SEC days is drastic.

"Night and day," Cook said. "They know who we are now."

Despite attention, Aggies focused

September, 6, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In answering the final of several questions he received on Tuesday about his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the negative attention said quarterback received after the game and what it's like to be in the middle of it all while shots are fired from critics across the nation, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin looked at a reporter with a knowing smile and gave the world a peek into what's really happening inside the Bright Football Complex.

Johnny Manziel
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite much of the attention centered on Johnny Manziel, the Aggies say it's not affecting them inside the locker room.
Sumlin's message was clear: You might think the national scrutiny is getting to us, but it isn't. In fact, it might be doing us a favor.

"Obviously, after last Saturday, people want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now," Sumlin said as the smile slowly crept in. "And in a way, right now, for me as a coach, I'm not going to complain about it. Because it's kind of putting a wall up between us and everybody."

That wall became necessary because having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most talked-about athletes on the planet, Johnny Manziel, on its roster has created an easy target for that attention. Last season, much of it was positive as Manziel set records, led the Aggies to a takedown of No. 1 Alabama and he became the first freshman to win college football's most coveted individual award.

This year is different. After an offseason in which Manziel checked items off a bucket list that most sports fans can dream of, endured criticism for tweets, leaving the Manning Passing Academy early and becoming the focal point of an NCAA investigation, a lot of the attention became negative. The scrutiny got to the point that Manziel was vilified by some for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he committed against Rice and celebratory hand gestures that he -- as well as his teammates and other players across the country -- have done before.

Texas A&M senior associate athletic director for external affairs Jason Cook recently told TexAgs Radio, a show that airs on local radio station KZNE-1150 AM, that he received as many calls from celebrity gossip site TMZ as he did from traditional sports media outlets during the NCAA investigation into Manziel.

But the Aggies say they're letting none of this get to them.

"I believe with the off-the-field issues, we really don't bother ourselves with that," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "… When it comes to the off-the-field issues, Coach Sumlin and the staff upstairs will definitely handle that. But as for on the field, right now, I feel like we're playing well and we can only get better from this point forward."

The wall is more than a metaphor. While the coaches and players might be taking an "us against the world" approach in their newfound fame, a wall is also what Manziel and the school have put up -- for now -- when it comes to him speaking publicly.

The 20-year-old has not spoken to the media since SEC media days in mid-July. Texas A&M wisely did not make him available to the media during the NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from autographs and the school stayed mostly silent on the matter as well.

As reporters wait with bated breath, Manziel remains away from the microphone. Sumlin said Tuesday that he felt this isn't the "right time," for Manziel to speak but that when the time comes, he will.

"I think it's important now, based on where he is, that his focus is to try to be our quarterback and a student-athlete," Sumlin said. "That's his biggest challenge right now. It's not his challenge to be here. That's me."

Does having to answer for Manziel frustrate his teammates?

"No, it doesn't," senior running back Ben Malena said. "It comes with it. You want to have a defending Heisman Trophy winner as your quarterback. That's not a bad thing."

Malena stressed what life inside the Aggies' locker room was really like.

"What's perceived from the outside world is, nine times out of 10, a complete [180] of how the team looks at it," Malena said. "So how you guys might single him out or anything like that doesn't hurt us as a team, because right now, we're just focusing on getting ready for Sam Houston."

So far, life inside the emerging walls appears to still be business as usual. Whether that changes remains to be seen and the Aggies' showdown on Sept. 14 against Alabama could certainly play a role in that. Sumlin is aiming to keep his team's focus with what's happening on the field, not all the noise off of it.

"The discussion we had Monday, both in here and on the field, I think our players understand that," Sumlin said. "And there's not much confusion on what goes on here in this program."

Texas A&M mum on Manziel's status

August, 27, 2013
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Those looking for a definitive answer from Texas A&M on the status of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel in advance of the Aggies' game against Rice on Saturday will have to wait.

Aggies' athletic director Eric Hyman released a statement on Monday evening indicating that head coach Kevin Sumlin, assistant coaches and players were asked not to comment on the status of Manziel, who is the subject of an NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from signing autographs. Sumlin, his coordinators and several players are scheduled to meet the media on Tuesday for the Aggies' regularly scheduled weekly news conference.

“The focus of our coaches and student-athletes is solely on preparing for Rice this Saturday, and in the best interests of Texas A&M and the 100-plus student-athletes on the team, I have instructed Coach Sumlin, his staff and our student-athletes to refrain from commenting on or answering questions regarding the status of our starting quarterback, Johnny Manziel," Hyman said.

A source told ESPN.com's Travis Haney that NCAA investigators spent nearly six hours with Manziel on Sunday.

It is worth noting that both Hyman and senior associate athletic director for external affairs Jason Cook referred to Manziel as the Aggies' "starting quarterback" on Monday evening. Cook did so in a tweet related to Hyman's statement that read "Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin, staff and players will not address starting QB Johnny Manziel's status at weekly presser on Tuesday. #12thMan"

Manziel was listed No. 1 on the Aggies' recently released depth chart. Starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who is suspended for the season opener, is also listed first on the depth chart, so that isn't necessarily an indicator of Manziel's status. When asked at different times during preseason training camp this month, Sumlin hasn't indicated whether he plans to start Manziel in the season opener. Manziel spent the duration of training camp taking practice repetitions with the first team.

Manziel has not spoken to the media since the news of the NCAA's inquiry into the allegations against him broke on Aug. 4. After addressing his redshirt sophomore quarterback's status briefly on the first day of training camp, Sumlin has directed all questions about Manziel's off-the-field status to Cook.

Cook or the athletic department also hasn't commented on Manziel's status or whether he will play. Last week, Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp did make strong comments in support of Manziel, telling Bryan, Texas, television station KBTX: "I know he's innocent. I know that he didn't do what they accused him of doing.”

Early this month, Manziel's attorney, Jim Darnell, predicted while he was a guest on The Herd with Colin Cowherd that Manziel would start against Rice.

Last season, Manziel compiled an SEC record 5,116 total offensive yards along with 47 total touchdowns. He became the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy.

Manziel is not scheduled to appear at the Aggies' news conference on Tuesday. Manziel's backup on Saturday will be either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill.

Joeckel appeared in five games last season and attempted 11 passes. Hill is a three-star prospect out of Southlake (Texas) Carroll who signed with the Aggies in February.

Decisions that defined A&M in 2012: No. 1 

January, 18, 2013
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This week, GigEmNation looks back at five decisions that helped define Texas A&M's 2012 season. These moments could be on or off the field or could have even come before the season, so long that they had a lasting impact on the Aggies' 2012 campaign. Today, we look at our pick for No. 1, A&M's decision to move to the Southeastern Conference.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M
Patrick Green/Icon SMITexas A&M's move to the Southeastern Conference has paid off.
Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin called the school's decision to join the Southeastern Conference a "100-year decision" but it took less than a year for the Aggies to see the potential of what membership in the country's premier football conference could do for them.

They officially joined the SEC on July 1, 2012, just more than nine months after the decision became official. In six months, things have changed drastically, particularly for Aggies football.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The moment many Texas A&M fans have awaited since the Aggies turned their eyes toward the Southeastern Conference arrives Saturday. And it will come with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a program that has a fan base like the 12th Man and home game atmospheres that rival any in the country.

ESPN's College GameDay will be in town. A national television audience will be watching. A signature SEC program that has national championships on its mantel, Florida, is the opponent. And it's the opener after a schedule change that followed a long offseason with immense anticipation.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Brett Davis/US PresswireKevin Sumlin, who was 35-17 in four seasons as coach at Houston, will begin his tenure at Texas A&M on Saturday against Florida.
Texas A&M's first SEC game is finally upon us.

"It'll be a big game," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "It's our first SEC game, so it comes in a different way. Either way, it was going to happen. And it's why you play college football. It's why you coach, it's why I came here, it's why hopefully [the players are] here. You're here to play at the highest level, and the atmosphere surrounding this game for a first football game of the year will be an atmosphere that guys will remember for a long time."

There is plenty at stake for the Aggies. For starters, it's a conference game, so it has meaning in the SEC standings. But Texas A&M hasn't looked at its move to the SEC as simply a football move. To many, it is more than that.

"It's interesting that part of our deliberations in the conference move, we never did talk about what our football record was going to be in 2012," Jason Cook, Texas A&M vice president for marketing and communications, said in August. "This was truly a brand move for Texas A&M. Just like the University of Texas wants the Longhorn Network to expand their brand, we believe that the move to the SEC provides the opportunity to expand the Texas A&M brand on a national level."

The Aggies hope to use the national platform that the SEC provides to educate the nation on their university. From its academics, to research, to athletics and its fan base, Texas A&M is looking to show the country what it is all about.

"A lot of people are interested in Texas A&M; they're wanting to learn about Texas A&M," Cook said. "They're wanting to find out more about us and sometimes they don't have the context of our traditions and our spirit and our sense of family that we have, but that's where we see the SEC move as a great opportunity to really wipe the slate clean and introduce people to the true Texas A&M brand without it being filtered by some of the other institutions here in the state of Texas."

From a football standpoint, the Aggies are aware that they have something to prove to those who think they will struggle. The SEC is widely considered the premier football conference in the country and the fact that the Aggies enter after a 7-6 campaign in their last Big 12 season hasn't given onlookers nationally reason to buy in to the Aggies succeeding quickly, especially in the tough SEC West.

While it's not their sole focus, the players are cognizant of the perception. This weekend will be their first chance to shape the national opinion.

"I feel like people are kind of counting us out a little bit in the SEC and they think we can’t play with those guys because they haven’t seen us in that league yet," senior linebacker Sean Porter said. "But just because we’re new doesn’t mean they’re going to pick on us. We’re not going to back down from anybody."

Sumlin pointed out last week that nobody really has an idea of what the Aggies have gotten themselves into. Viewers will begin to find out Saturday.

"Everybody's got their opinion," Sumlin said. "Nobody really knows what we're getting into. Everybody thinks they do."

With all the buzz surrounding the game, emotions will certainly be high at kickoff. Sumlin is aiming for a balance in that dynamic in order to keep his team from being overcome by them.

"What's going to be important for us is to use the emotion of the weekend but not get caught up in it," Sumlin said. "And use that emotion to our advantage but not as a disadvantage by being too caught up in it that we don't remember what we're supposed to do. We've got a bunch of young guys playing, too, so it'll be interesting."

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