Fran rules as a rebuilder

For those who doubt Dennis Franchione's gift for rebuilding faltering football programs, the turnaround executed by his Texas A&M team in 2004 should lead to a change of opinion.

The Aggies have recovered from a disastrous 4-8 campaign last year to a very respectable 7-4 mark and Cotton Bowl berth against Tennessee. That may not qualify as miracle work, but when you look at the futility exhibited by the Aggies last season and consider that they played one of the toughest schedules in the country this year, the improvement is certainly significant.

This isn't the first time Franchione has revived a struggling program. Before abruptly departing Alabama, he turned a three-win team into a 10-game winner in two years. He inherited a 3-8 Alabama team in 2001, but went 7-5 that season. In 2002, The Crimson Tide went 10-3 under Franchione.

During a three-year stint at TCU prior to coaching at Alabama, Franchione forged a 25-10 record. The Horned Frogs won a combined 24 games in the six seasons prior to his arrival.

As coach at New Mexico earlier in his career, Franchione took a team that went 3-8 in 1992 to a 9-4 record and WAC Mountain Division title in 1997.

As impressive as each rebuilding project has been, Franchione is perhaps proudest of this year's turnaround. What has been the most pleasing thing about this team?

''The way they have become a team, no doubt about it,'' Franchione said. ''We were a collection of individuals last year. Becoming a team with a new coach was a real new concept for them that we had to go through the growing pains of transition. They have come together as a team and have played for each other. We have taken the names off the back of the jerseys.

''It has been a very gratifying experience for me by seeing them come together as a team and to see them be productive as a team. To see them go through what they did last year and to go into the locker room and see their faces after some of the big wins was exciting. Watching their confidence grow was really an enjoyment for me this season.''

Even the most optimistic fan had to wonder how quickly the Aggies could right the ship after some of the devastating setbacks of 2003. The bottom fell out in a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma. Other blowout defeats came at the hands of Texas (46-15), Nebraska (48-12) and Texas Tech (59-28).

''It was one of my toughest in 31 years of coaching, if not the toughest,'' Franchione said. ''There were a lot of low points. You have to go on to the next game very quickly, try to move forward. You can't dwell on it too long. The whole season was pretty draining.'' v How did Franchione approach 2004 after such a disappointing 2003?

''Our team came back in January kind of refreshed, with a renewed sense of purpose,'' he said. ''We didn't have to dwell on the past. I dwelled on the future and what we needed to do to get better. I think the past gave them something that they didn't want to go through again and that was motivating for them. We didn't think about last season except to look at statistical data such as turnovers, takeaways, penalties and things like that to show them how we could get better.''

As they began piling up wins this season, the Aggies were able to avoid the cockiness that can sometimes ruin a good start. They continued to play with the same intensity and purpose, even after defeats, Franchione said.

''Having turned around enough programs, one of the things that happens sometimes is that when you win a game you want to bask in it too long,'' Franchione said. ''We haven't had that problem. I haven't seen that at all.''

The rough 2003 season was a learning experience for a young Texas A&M team. The growing pains were well worth it, as the talent level has improved and the confidence level has escalated.

''This team is more talented,'' Franchione said. ''I don't think there is any argument about that. The redshirt freshmen have really done that, as have the junior college kids. The talent was here and it's gotten better. They have a year under their belts. There are other issues that go with it, but it's hard to do without talent.''

Despite playing a demanding schedule, the Aggies played the best teams extremely well. They lost 42-35 to Oklahoma and 26-13 to Texas -- considerable improvement over last year's losses to the same opponents. They beat Texas Tech 32-25.

''We have played the toughest schedule in the nation, and when you play in the South Division of the Big 12, it is probably as tough as it gets,'' Franchione said.

''Our players have done a great job. The players have been resilient. We played three overtime games in a four-game span. We have been a couple of plays better than some teams, and we have been a couple plays worse than some teams.''

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