Despite loss, A&M celebrates new era

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It's the age of Twitter, and you want to boil these new Texas A&M Aggies down to 140 characters. You want to say something pithy and martini-dry, pull out your snark. New league but not a new result.

Texas A&M led Florida by 10 points, 17-7, and lost, 20-17, just as it did five times last season.

Go ahead, hit send, and move on. But you didn't just miss the point. You never saw it. At the end of the first Saturday of the rest of Texas A&M's athletic life, the result of the game didn't matter much at all. They held a coronation on this Texas flatland, a celebration of what this university has become.

If you will pardon the expression in this red-leaning state, the move to the Southeastern Conference is change the Aggies can believe in.

History tells us that change is not something this campus handles well. In the span of Dr. Robert L. Walker's adult life, Texas A&M has changed from an all-male, all-white military institution into a coeducational, multiracial university respected for its research. Walker, the university's senior executive for development, graduated from A&M in 1958, four years before women enrolled.

"Students thought of this as a place where plowing farmers came," Walker said, "and marching soldiers."

Students thought of this as a place where plowing farmers came and marching soldiers.

-- Dr. Robert L. Walker, Texas A&M senior executive for development

They didn't want women. They didn't want students of color. They didn't want women in the corps. When that happened a generation ago, some of the male cadets would put raccoons and armadillos in the female cadets' dorm rooms at night.

But the university adjusted. Billy Pickard arrived on this campus as a student on June 1, 1952, the day after he graduated from high school in San Antonio. After his college graduation, he returned as a trainer for coach Gene Stallings nearly a half-century ago and never left.

"I remember so vividly," Pickard said, "one of the professors at the vet school telling me, 'I'll tell you one thing. There ain't going to be no women in my class.' About 10 years later, he came to me. 'Let me tell you something. You remember me telling you that? They are the most magnificent students we got.'"

As Pickard spoke, the Corps of Cadets marched into Kyle Field, going all the way around the turf. The makeup of the Corps -- the men, the women, every shade of skin -- reflects what Texas A&M has become. Pickard watched from the sideline with grandfatherly pride.

"Every kaleidoscope of America that you'd want to look at," Pickard said. "It's a kaleidoscope of people. … If you got a lick of patriotism, when you see all that, you realize how magnificent that really is."

Those old Ags, the ones who thought change meant the end of the world, wouldn't recognize the place today. So many buildings are new. And now the conference is new. But the old Ags would recognize the love that the university engenders among its students and, as they call the alums around here, the former students.

"Even though physically we've changed drastically," Walker said, "the culture of A&M has not changed that much."

Walker had four children who graduated from Texas A&M. Of his eight grandchildren, one graduated from A&M, three are currently enrolled and the other four aren't old enough for college. He likened the feeling to a big fraternity, Phi Delta Aggie.

"The SEC is right for us," Walker said, "because, frankly, this is hard to say, but we got tired of the University of Texas trying to run the show. I don't even want to say that. I don't want to make people mad. But too long, we were not leading out because we were tied to the University of Texas. I think it was just time for A&M to launch out and be more competitive in the athletic arena. We feel like the SEC is the right place for us."

And unlike all the other changes, the Aggies embraced this one.

"I think we may need a little time to be competitive in football," Walker said. "We're probably going to need a couple of years to get the playing field level. But playing Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Florida, those kind of schools, that's good. Today is very special."

As a student trainer under coach Bear Bryant, Pickard worked at the famous Junction training camp. His job was to take Bryant's son Paul Jr. for an ice cream every afternoon. He has given his life to the place. He would give his life for it. Over the course of his lifetime, the university has grown and matured.

Given the evolution of Texas A&M University, he is asked, what else is there to change?

Pickard pointed to the videoboard that towers over the south end zone.

"The scoreboard," Pickard said. "That's what you got to change."