How Johnny Manziel transformed Texas A&M and SEC landscape

Johnny Manziel was truly one-of-a-kind during his two seasons of football at Texas A&M.

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If you wanted to crystallize the rise of the SEC brand’s during eight years when the league ran off seven straight national titles, you could sum up the SEC’s ascension by pointing to three iconic players — Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel.

In Biblical terms, Tebow begat Cam who then begat Manziel. 

All three men won Heisman trophies and sent the SEC brand surging into the national sporting stratosphere, to the point where only the NFL had more value in the football universe and where few pro quarterbacks were more well known than the college trio of Tebow, Cam and Manziel.

When Tebow left the SEC in 2009 after four remarkable years, most felt we’d never see a player like him again. The next season, Newton rose from football oblivion, leading the Auburn Tigers to a 14-0 record amidst a storm of national controversy over whether or not Auburn had paid him to play. When Cam left, national title in tow and NCAA investigation ongoing, the SEC expanded a year later to add Texas A&M and Missouri and a little known redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel stepped onto the national stage. 

By the time Manziel pulled off the upset road win over Alabama in 2012, it was clear Johnny Football was special, the latest signal calling rockstar SEC quarterback. The Heisman followed, then came a thumping victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, an important win that demonstrated the rise of A&M over a traditional Big 12 power. 

After a season of dominance came the tumultuous Manziel offseason, when every step Johnny took was a national story. That offseason’s narrative wave crested at SEC media days, a manufactured event that has become a cultural touchstone on the Southern sporting calendar, when Manziel sat down with ESPN’s Joe Tessitore for an interview that was carried live and treated with all the seriousness of a major national crisis: Why had Manziel been kicked out of the Manning Passing Academy?

Manziel’s answer — that he’d overslept — ran on ESPN networks hundreds of times.

Just when you thought that Manziel’s fame had crested, along came the newest bombshell — ESPN reported Manziel had received money from autograph brokers for his signature.

The resulting investigation dominated college football headlines and ultimately led to a half-game suspension. A half-game suspension that, you guessed it, also turned into a major national controversy when Manziel returned to the field and received a taunting penalty in the second half of A&M’s opener against Rice.

For a week, the national college football conversation boiled down a single sentence: Was Johnny Manziel out of control?

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We should have been surprised that one 20 year old could so take over the national sporting conversation, but those of us who had spent much time watching SEC football weren’t surprised at all. Manziel was the new Cam — Tim Tebow with the skirt-chasing gene.    

As Manziel prepares to take the field for the final time in his career — against Duke on New Year’s Eve in a Chik-fil-A bowl whose evening start time is imperiling relationships across the lonestar state — it’s worth considering Manziel’s legacy in a larger context than simply wins or losses.

While he didn’t win a national title like the other two Heisman-winning quarterbacks who helped define an SEC era, he may have done something even more important: Manziel changed A&M’s football trajectory while validating the SEC’s decision to expand to 14 teams.

Think about it: Did Tebow or Cam fundamentally alter the trajectories of their respective programs? Of course not. Before both men got to campus, Florida and Auburn were national football powers. After both men left, the schools have continued to excel.

Tebow and Cam were singular talents with great on-field accomplishments, but their successes didn’t redefine either of their schools. If Tebow or Cam had never gone to Florida or Auburn, both schools would have won fewer games, but would our perception of either school be markedly different?

No way. 

But what did the nation know about Texas A&M before Johnny Manziel arrived on campus?

Not much. 

For most of the nation, Texas A&M football was a blank slate, a program waiting to be defined. Enter Manziel at that crucial moment.

It wasn’t just that Manziel became the greatest Aggie football player in generations. It was that Johnny Football arrived at the absolutely perfect time, taking A&M football to its highest end of the year ranking since 1956. Yep, A&M combined its best year in football with its first year in the SEC.

Manziel’s timing was perfect — the man met the moment.  

For several years, I’ve been making the case that Texas A&M belonged in the SEC. To me, it was a no-brainer, a generational decision that offered extraordinary upside. The SEC and the state of Texas were like two star-crossed lovers fated to be together despite the myriad obstacles in their way.

DEAN SMITH: 1931-2015

No state outside the SEC better fit the South’s crazed football culture, and no market was more primed to be tapped by the nation’s second best football brand. While I believed A&M to the SEC had the potential to herald the rise of a new national football power, there was still lingering doubt in many minds. Could A&M, a perpetually underwhelming performer on the national landscape dwelling in the eternal shadow of the Texas Longhorns, win in the SEC?

Since most of the national media doubted that A&M would win, if the Aggies struggled in their first few seasons in the conference those doubters would pounce, turning A&M’s early travails into premature eulogies for the future. While those early struggles wouldn’t have detracted from A&M making the right long-term decision to join the SEC, they could have made the transition much more difficult and fueled the perception that the Aggies were in over their football heads.

Could that perception ultimately become such a reality that A&M was unable to rise quickly enough to be competitive in the conference? It was a concern. 

Instead, A&M won big — 11 victories in the Aggies’ first season in the SEC. Why did A&M win big?

It was simple — because of Johnny Manziel.

Without Manziel, it’s likely that A&M posts an 8-4 or 7-5 season in 2012. Hell, the Aggies might even have been 6-6 in 2012. Without Manziel in 2013, the Aggies could have been 6-6 in back-to-back regular seasons. The excitement of the SEC move could have withered, the age-old worries would have resurfaced, the media who predicted A&M would struggle would take a victory lap. In conjunction with Missouri’s stumbling entrance into the league, negativity would have suffused the SEC expansion stories.

What, many would ask, was the point of adding two perennial losers? Instead A&M surged out of the gate and this year, when A&M dipped, Mizzou rose. (The two schools have combined to go 19-14 in league games — A&M’s 10-6 and Mizzou’s 9-8. As a testament to how quickly the two schools have embedded themselves in the conference, I haven’t read a single article this year asking whether either school belongs in the SEC.) 

Along the way to an 11-2 season and a Heisman trophy Manziel united the Lone Star state behind the Aggies, but he also did something even more important for the long-term future of a newly expanded SEC: He created a shared narrative with Southern football fans.

A&M fans wanted desperately to be accepted into the SEC fraternity, and as SEC fans across the country experienced the whirling dervish in the No. 2 jersey, they created shared memories, a mystic chord of football season connectivity that reverberates into the gridiron future.

Manziel didn’t just win the Heisman trophy, end all arguments that the Aggies couldn’t compete in the nation’s toughest football conference and pull off what many A&M fans probably doubted they’d ever see — make the Aggies cool across the nation. He did something even more remarkable — he singlehandedly ended any and all objections to SEC expansion.

As hundreds of millions of dollars poured into A&M’s coffers, the stadium expanded, Kevin Sumlin reeled in stud recruits and signed a lucrative long-term coaching contract that will keep him in College Station for several years to come, the SEC Network prepared to launch and make it rain on SEC schools and Aggie football began to cast its own shadow for the first time over the Texas Longhorn football program, it became clear that Manziel didn’t just win the Heisman and entertain the hell out of SEC football fans the past two years, he did something much more significant. He branded Texas A&M on a national level and solidified the bonds of the nation’s toughest conference.  

Manziel’s most important legacy isn’t a title, an award or a mythical performance against Alabama. It’s something bigger — a fundamental altering of what can be reasonably expected of Texas, the SEC and Aggie football.  

Manziel did something that very few players, not even Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, were ever capable of doing.

Johnny Football changed A&M’s game.

Forever.