As I walked out of Kyle Field following the season’s last painful field goal, I could hear the interview beginning with Mike Sherman over the stadium speaker system. I had trouble understanding a lot of what he was saying, but the pain in his voice was clear. It was the same pain I could see in the faces of the mass of Aggies who were shuffling slowly down the ramp, periodically stopping for the human traffic jam at the bottom. Even the Longhorn celebration was muted in the mob.
I have seen this before. I am not talking about coaches being fired, though that is true; this is the third “final game” I have attended of an A&M head coach. What I have seen before is that I have seen people do everything right and then get punished for it.
What came to me in the days after the game was Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” “If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you . . . .” I have rarely seen a better example of this in my years than Mike Sherman. I have never heard him blame others. He has never thrown players or coaches under the bus when it obviously would have been easy to do so. Pick a game this year, and any Aggie fan can identify the players who made the critical mistakes that changed the outcome. Not Mike Sherman. As much as he knows about football, when it comes to blaming he simply pleads ignorance.
As head football coach, Sherman had his own standard for character and performance. If you were unwilling to live by that standard, you would not see the field, and you might not even see the locker room. That was apparent during his first year in which he sacrificed a completely winnable game because of what seemed to me to be the obstinacy of a player who did not want to pull his weight. I knew then that he was not about records, but about developing a system of excellence, one that valued integrity and character above outcomes.
I do not mean to imply that outcomes did not matter to our head football coach. With each excruciating loss, he suffered openly, but with composure. He modeled for the men in his locker room, and even for middle aged men like me, what it is to walk through the fire with your head held high. He removed a popular quarterback last year for productivity reasons, just as he had removed the popular quarterback before that one. And yet both those quarterbacks were completely loyal not just to their team, but to their coach. This is leadership that is rarely found in the business world or in athletics.
Mike Sherman is not an eloquent man, and he is not a schmoozer. He is a football coach who worked his way up and has had the bright lights shine on him at both the professional and college level. He seems to never have lost the sense of who he is. I read this morning that he told one of our top recruits that he ought to come here anyway and have a great career. I am confident that he will stay in touch with that recruit to make sure that he does, and that he will offer that young man any help that he needs.
We ought to attract coaches like that to Texas A&M, and we did. I heard on the radio this morning that the groundwork that Coach Sherman laid will provide the next coach the opportunity to succeed early in his tenure here. A statement like that has to make Mike Sherman smile wistfully. Doing things right may enable another man to succeed in the place that I am convinced he really wanted to finish his career. But I am sure he recognizes that those kinds of comments create exactly the kind of expectations pressure that a nine-win season does. And I am guessing that he has empathy for what that new coach will face in the SEC environment.
But I don’t think he will sit around feeling sorry for himself. It is our loss that Mike Sherman will not be a part of the Aggie community in the days ahead. As with Kipling’s poem, his goal with his players was to help them develop the perseverance through hard times that builds the character that would lead to the poem’s final line: “And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”
I have sat in a large auditorium and watched Mike Sherman march his players in to listen to a lecture on integrity. But I can say with confidence that he was wasting his time doing so.
Because all those players needed to do to learn about integrity was to watch what Mike Sherman did.