This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of this 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Sydney Carter is going to have a big week in jewelry.
As a banner is tugged to the rafters of Reed Arena on Tuesday commemorating Texas A&M's first women's basketball national title, the senior guard and her teammates will receive their championship rings, hers sized for the middle finger on her right hand. It will be fawned over and modeled for a few minutes, then go back in its jewelry box.
The other ring, the one sized for the ring finger of her right hand, will go on and stay on after she receives it Friday. It probably will be on that finger every day, forever. It's just what Aggies do.
At its simplest, the ring, with myriad symbols denoting loyalty to school, state and country and the virtues to defend them all, signifies that a student has attained certain academic requisites, normally by senior year. But it's far more than a class ring. It is the key to the kingdom, this simple, symbolic trinket of a shared experience out in the Brazos Valley. It extends students' so-called "Aggie family" into an "Aggie network" and makes any place in the world "Aggieland," be it an airport lounge in Hong Kong, a boardroom in Houston or a roadhouse in Abilene. The ring is one simple yet cherished symbol in a place steeped in military roots and beholden to traditions of scabbard and sword, although it has not been a true military school since the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas became simply Texas A&M in 1963. All schools have traditions. Many remain on the pages of alumni literature. At Texas A&M, they remain a part of daily life.
"A lot of people say once you have that ring on, you'll never go without," Carter said. "That Aggie ring is something you will forever cherish. I'm going to cherish it as much as I am that national championship ring when I get it because it can do so many things for me out in the real world, and basketball isn't going to keep me around forever."
Aggies women's basketball coach Gary Blair graduated from Texas Tech and coached at several schools before arriving in College Station in 2003. His respect for the school's pomp and circumstance -- and undoubtedly, to some degree, his success -- have made him "an Aggie through and through," said school yell leader Patrick Ivey.
Learning of the compliment, Blair, a man with a knack for an anecdote that often blossoms into a tale and then a story, leaned forward in his chair and said succinctly, "Yes I am."
Then, as is his nature, he expounded.
"A lot of schools, as soon as you finish, like my Texas Tech ring, it goes into the drawer the year after you graduate," he said. "Not here. It's just one of the things, the traditions, so many traditions, that make this place special."
New season, old excitement
The crowd begins filing into Reed Arena on Saturday night an hour before tipoff for the Aggies' season-opening basketball game against Lamar, an overmatched squad from Beaumont taking on the challenge of the national champions. A student in a Gumby costume and sporting a No. 12 jersey -- emblematic of the 12th-man tradition so ingrained at the school -- and his buddy hunker down in the front row, right where the yell leader will bark out the orders that will dictate their actions for the next few hours. Gradually, the faithful fill in behind. As the horn sounds and the clock resets to 20 minutes, they rise. There will be no more sitting until the end. There will be songs and chants and interlocked arms, pass-backs and hump-its, the strange interplay between fan and yell leader that make Texas A&M unique, odd, impressive.
It's one of the most foreboding atmospheres in college sports. And it's appreciated.
"The culture here plays a big part in keeping the crowd in it and keeping the players hyped up," Carter said. "The fan support we have here with the culture and tradition really brings out the true atmosphere."
From humble beginnings
All schools have traditions. Many have many. But Texas A&M has layers. Many of the old standbys associated with or co-opted by others started or were perfected in College Station. They interlock and overlap and, as is the local quip, "If it's done twice, it's a tradition." Yell practice. Kiss the date after the touchdown. Bonfires. Massive marching band. Check.
The sprawling, 5,200-acre campus is more than a romantic throwback to the traditions adopted when land grant colleges began sprouting before and after the Civil War. While no longer a men's agricultural and manufacturing school with compulsory military education, Texas A&M is defined by the ubiquitous Corps of Cadets and the notion of the "12th man," a homage to former student E. King Gill, who in 1922 left the stands to dress and stand ready to play if his injury-depleted football team needed him.
That legend has come to define the rabid, maroon-swathed Aggies fan base that never, ever takes a seat, symbolically ready if called. Football jerseys in school bookstores bear the No. 12. The student section at Kyle Field, which holds 30,000 -- roughly the entire enrollment of Texas Tech -- bears the moniker. Even male students who serve as the practice team for Blair's Aggies bear the label on their jerseys.
"It's all about the 12th man here," Carter said. "The students are so supportive at all the athletic events. It's just nice to have that from people you're in class with.">
Some of the traditions are decidedly "goofy," Ivey admitted. That might make them even more beloved. One of three seniors and two juniors elected by the student body each year as yell leaders, Ivey and his partners are charged with executing a bizarre pantomime of hand signals to choreograph the actions of the crowd. It is definitely not cheering, they insist.
"Oh, there's a pretty big difference," fellow yell leader Nelson Ingram said. "You're not going to see us yell 'Defense!' or anything like that. We have yells the entire student body gets into."
This assortment of yells, some designed specifically to prick rival schools such as Texas, some to hark back to the school's agrarian roots -- such as "Farmers Fight" -- are a source of delight for Aggies and derision for opponents. The white janitor uniforms worn by yell leaders have the same effect.
The tradition started in 1907, when a group of freshmen were sent onto the football field -- commandeering the now-iconic uniforms on the way -- to entertain the cadets' dates from Texas Woman's University during a lackluster Aggies performance. It was a hit.
Around 14,000 students voted for the current yell leaders this year in the election, an extremely political event on campus that was among the first successful electoral exercises for Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Non-Corps of Cadets members often run, but hardly any are elected, said associate vice president of communications Sherylon Carroll.
Even the school mascot is in the corps. Reveille VIII, as her engraved brass collar boasts, is the "first lady of Texas A&M" and carries corresponding power around these parts. She became something of a national sensation during the Aggies' run to the women's NCAA basketball title last season, accompanying the team to the Final Four.
The Reveille tradition began 80 years ago when a group of cadets struck a black-and-white dog driving back from nearby Navasota and, upon bringing it to campus, found it was stirred to loud barking at the sound of morning Reveille.
Designated a "five-diamond" cadet general, this eighth incarnation of the school's collie mascot is, by tradition, the highest-ranking member of the Corps of Cadets, and in so, afforded special privileges. Any cadet unlucky -- or would that be privileged? -- enough to have the 5-year-old collie lie in his bunk would be required by code to sleep on the floor until she moves. That's why Tucker Burns, one of two members of the E-2 Company of sophomores dubbed assistant mascot corporal, made sure to claim a top bunk in their dorm room.
"She rules the house," said Burns, who is entrusted with the security and comfort of the collie. "But she's a regal lady."
Traditions of his own
Blair clearly enjoys the military culture of Texas A&M and values hard discipline for a young soul in search of himself or herself, just as he was in 1969. Tired of school, he left to pursue a career in marketing before being drafted into the Army but enlisted in the Marines.
"I get it, but I did not have to go to Nam," said Blair, who served as a clerk. "I went to Okinawa because the Third Marine Division got pulled back two weeks before I got overseas, in December of '69.
"I'm not no war hero. I'm not Audie Murphy or John Wayne. I was a pretty peaceful Marine that ended up being a sergeant going out in 18 months and seven days. They were giving early cuts, and I sprinted back to Texas Tech to finish my last year."
Blair also gets his place at Texas A&M. This being Texas, he knows football will rule the sporting landscape as long as the stars at night are big and bright. Although his program lacks for little, from opulent practice facilities to a locker room beauty salon with a bar sign bearing images of his players, he knows he will have to hustle to earn patronage even from a devout fan base. Luckily, his sense of promotion might be as keen as his basketball acumen, a compliment for a coach with 596 career wins and 25 winning seasons out of 26 as a head coach.
Blair appears on local radio stations to implore fans to come out to Reed Arena, gives away scores of tickets, tosses candy into the stands before games. Joining the Rotary Club 23 years ago, he said, was one of the "smartest moves I ever made," as an entry point into the grassroots in any community where he works. He counts nearly all 160 members of his current club as season-ticket holders, which has helped to greatly increase attendance at the 12,989-seat Reed Arena. Not bad for a program that had 1,802 in attendance for his first game at Texas A&M nine years ago, "and we might have lied about that number some," he said.
Nearly 6,000 attended the Aggies' season-opening win against Lamar on Saturday, even as the game tipped off during the football team's four-overtime loss at Kansas State. Blair threw his customary handfuls of candy to the crowd before the game and stood as the faithful remained to sing and sway, arms locked afterward.
"I remember when we first got to the NCAA tournament, I said, 'God, that's great,' but we were averaging about 3,000 fans about seven years ago," Blair said, "and we were right about 28th to 32nd in the country but we were only seventh in the Big 12, and everyone was so excited. Now we're third."
With success comes greater expectation. Blair welcomes it, comparing this title defense to a Miss America reign, and the student body clearly liked the feeling of a national title. As beloved as the football team is, its last national crown was in 1939.
"I feel like there is a buzz on campus," Ingram said. "Normally, when a team does so well, they lose some key leadership, and there's a drop-off. I don't think the students are expecting a drop-off; they're expecting us to come back and win the Big 12 for sure. The [three-point loss] against [top-ranked] Baylor last year was probably one of the best I have ever seen. I have never seen Reed Arena so packed."
A record crowd of 13,162 attended that game, the largest figure in the Big 12 last season. Blair would love to replicate that atmosphere Tuesday, when the sixth-ranked Aggies host ninth-ranked Louisville in a 4 p.m. ET game that's part of ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. That will be a challenge. The Corps of Cadets is scheduled to march into the arena before the game, but those pesky classes are going to cut into Blair's gate.
But he has a plan. And its name is Reveille VIII.
"We got a talking dog," Blair said, laughing. "Rule is, if Reveille barks in class, classes are dismissed. I might have to take her around myself."
Sounds like another tradition is about to be born at Texas A&M.