Rivalry game caps rocky season for Aggies coach

Friday, November 29, 2002

AUSTIN -- Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum thought he had been through the worst of an already difficult season. His defense was crumbling, his team was losing at home and disgruntled fans were calling for his job.

And then it got worse.

On Monday, just as A&M (6-5, 3-2) started preparing for today's game against rival Texas (9-2, 5-2), Aggies freshman defensive lineman Brandon Fails died after collapsing in his dorm.

The rivalry and talk of Slocum's tenuous future suddenly got pushed to the back page of the newspapers and deep into the back of the coach's mind.

"When you sit in a room with a mother and father and tell them their son is dead and you see the hurt and pain and grief and all that comes with it," Slocum said, "everything else pales in comparison."

Preliminary autopsy reports showed Fails died from a blood clot that formed as result of a leg injury and eventually traveled to his lungs. Fails had had surgery in October and would not have played Friday.

Slocum has had to deal with tragedy before. Fails was the third Aggies player to die during his 14-year tenure.

And in 1999, the campus was stunned when the log stack for the university's traditional bonfire collapsed and killed 12 people and injured 27. That year, Texas A&M rallied in the second half for a 20-16 victory.

Texas A&M players will wear small patches with Fails' number, 89, on their helmets during today's game. Out of respect, the 10th-ranked Longhorns canceled their traditional "hex rally" that is supposed to bring the Aggies bad luck.

Bad luck would seem to be following Slocum this season.

After a slow start, the winningest coach in A&M history overhauled his traditional run-oriented offense and started the throwing the ball all over the place. The points started piling up but so did the losses as the Aggies' once-feared "Wrecking Crew" defense collapsed.

And the drumbeat for Slocum's job steadily got louder.

He got a vote of confidence last month from new university President Robert Gates who then said he would leave Slocum's future in the hands of a new athletic director to be named later.

Even a win over then-No. 1 Oklahoma silenced the critics for only a little while. They were back at full volume a week later when the Aggies lost their fourth home game of the season to Missouri.

So the question keeps coming: Will this be Slocum's last game at A&M?

Slocum, who has record of 123-46-2, says he won't retire and doesn't listen to his critics.

"Unfortunately, you have in every program a vocal group of people, with the Internet medium nowadays and radio call-in shows, they can create a lot of noise," he said.

At Texas, coach Mack Brown's job isn't on the line but fans are disappointed the Longhorns aren't playing for a Big 12 or national title.

Texas still clings to slim hopes of sneaking into a Bowl Championship Series game. A win today preserves their 18-game home winning streak and would give Texas consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1969-70.

Texas senior quarterback Chris Simms wants one last win in front a home crowd that has both cheered and jeered him over the last four season.

"I don't want to go out like a chump," Simms said. "I want to go out like a champ."

Simms may have the most on the line personally. He was the star recruit in 1999 and fans expected him to lead Texas to a national title.

Texas has been in the hunt for conference and national titles the last two years but disappointing losses -- with Simms turnovers playing a big role in a couple of them -- knocked them out.

Last year, Simms guided Texas to its first 10-win season since 1995. This season, his 2,669 yards passing and 21 touchdowns rank second in school history. The same goes for his 53 career TD passes. His 6,669 career yards rank fourth.

He's already beaten A&M twice, with one of his biggest games in 2000 when he passed for 383 yards and three touchdowns in a 43-17 win.

But there's still has no conference or national title, and perhaps no escaping the shadow that casts over his career.

"I'll never say it was a failure," Simms said. "We've had so much fun and won too many big games to say this whole four years is a failure."

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