Country Revival

Country Revival

How the straight-talking, coyote-shooting, tobacco-chewing John Sharp has led a bonanza at Texas A&M.

Photographs by Jeff Wilson

They don’t make Texans like John Sharp anymore. The 67-year-old chancellor of the Texas A&M University System drives around College Station in a beat-up King Ranch Edition Ford F-150, often with animal traps in the bed, a .44 caliber hunting rifle leaning against the passenger seat, and a plug of tobacco under his lip. Calling his expletive-laced conversation salty would be an insult to salt. He owns a 1,600-acre ranch thirty minutes from campus, where he raises two hundred head of Corriente cattle and several dozen goats, the investment value of which he will expound on at length to anyone willing to listen. (“The future is goats,” he likes to say.)

Even when Sharp stays at the official chancellor’s residence on campus, he’s surrounded by animals. Peacocks, guinea fowl, chickens, and turkeys roam the lawn, while ducks and swans swim in the pond out back. On a recent morning, Sharp received a call from the house’s caretaker, who told him a coyote was harassing his chickens, so Sharp walked into the backyard with a pistol and shot the offending predator.

“This is not nearly as pretty a house as McRaven’s got, but it is a whole lot more fun,” Sharp said earlier this year while giving me a tour of the property. “He ain’t got no critters.”

The McRaven in question is retired admiral William McRaven, the man who masterminded the 2011 SEAL Team Six raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and who has served since 2015 as chancellor of the University of Texas System. As the chancellors of Texas’s two largest university systems, Sharp and McRaven are both partners and rivals. Though they sometimes work together to seek more money from the Legislature, they also compete—for students, faculty, research funding, and that indefinable thing
called prestige.

"This campus is growing faster than any other campus in Texas . . . . we have become the school of choice. This is where kids want to go."

But while UT has been mired in internecine squabbles for much of the past decade, first over rogue regent Wallace Hall and more recently over McRaven’s stalled attempt to build a new research campus in Houston, A&M has been quietly moving forward on the biggest expansion in the system’s history. Since Sharp became chancellor, in 2011, enrollment across the system has grown from 122,000 to 148,000; the College Station campus alone has added a staggering 10,000 students. To keep up with that growth, the system launched a $4 billion capital campaign for its College Station campus in 2015 and is in the middle of a $5.4 billion construction boom.

“This campus is growing faster than any other campus in Texas,” Sharp said as he drove me around College Station in his pickup, pointing out construction site after construction site. “Without being too arrogant, we have become the school of choice. This is where kids want to go.”

Despite its long rivalry with UT, A&M is increasingly setting its sights beyond Texas, a reorientation symbolized by the university’s attention-grabbing move of its athletics teams to the Southeastern Conference, in 2011. “I think that was a shot in the arm in a lot of ways,” said Porter S. Garner III, the president and CEO of A&M’s powerful Association of Former Students. “Culturally, it got us out of what was primarily an in-state focus. Now we’re traveling through ten states through the SEC. On a national scale, it brought much more interest and focus on A&M. I can’t tell you how many people from other schools come here for the first time, more than likely for a football game, and say, ‘I had no idea.’ ”

A&M is asserting itself beyond the gridiron as well. In 2013, Sharp established the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, a $150 million fund devoted to luring world-class researchers to A&M campuses. The Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, which offers yearlong visiting fellowships to rock-star academics, has since 2010 brought in two Nobel Laureates and fourteen members of the National Academy of Sciences. Some of the fellows have elected to stay on at A&M as full-time faculty.

One of Sharp’s most high-profile coups was recruiting Michael K. Young to become president of Texas A&M University, the system’s flagship, in 2015. Young, then serving as president of the University of Washington, recalls Sharp flying up to Seattle for lunch. At the end of the meal, Sharp said that Young had to return the favor. “He said, ‘Well, I’ve flown up here, now you have to fly down and have lunch with me in College Station,’ ” Young recalled. “I said I wasn’t going to come, and he said, ‘No, I flew all the way up here. Now you have to come.’ So it started with guilt.”

Once Young set foot on campus, though, he quickly sensed something special about A&M. “I’ve been at great universities,” he told me in his wood-paneled office in College Station. “I taught for many years at Columbia. I’ve taught at Yale. I was president of the University of Washington. All world-class universities. But I’ve never seen anything like what goes on here.”

Which raises the question: Just what the hell is going on at Texas A&M? And how much does a coyote-shooting, tobacco-chewing good ol’ boy named John Sharp have to do with it?

Sharp as a student at A&M.
Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University

Sharp grew up in rural South Texas, in the farming community of Placedo, about fifteen miles outside Victoria. The area was so poor that, in the era of segregation, it couldn’t afford separate high schools for its white and black students. “We weren’t any more or less racist than anywhere else. We just ran out of oil money and couldn’t afford two schools,” Sharp recalled. “But as a result of that, everyone got to know each other. Everyone at my school ate at the same place, went to the same bathroom, drank from the same water fountain, played for the same teams.”

He entered A&M in 1968 and joined the Corps of Cadets, where he met Rick Perry, who was in the same squadron; another classmate was future land commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro. Even in this ambitious bunch, Sharp stood out. He was elected class president his sophomore year and, eventually, student body president. (“I’ve never seen anything rougher than student-body politics at A&M,” he would later say.)

In 1973, a year after graduating from A&M with a degree in political science, Sharp took a job in Austin as an analyst for the Legislative Budget Board, a state agency that tracks spending, where he was first initiated into the arcana of budgeting. After five years he returned home to Victoria County, got married, and started a real estate business. When the local state representative left the Legislature to campaign for Congress, Sharp successfully ran to fill his seat, the beginning of what would be almost a decade representing Victoria as a conservative Democrat. (Yes, there used to be such a creature.)

In 1990, Sharp was elected comptroller, the state’s top accountant and tax collector. He soon received national acclaim for his gimlet-eyed audits of the state budget, which turned up billions of dollars in unexpected savings. In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced an audit of the federal bureaucracy that was patterned after Sharp’s, even flying the Texas comptroller to the White House for a photo op. Sharp was later invited to give a talk about budget-cutting to the British Parliament.

He was well regarded back home too, winning bipartisan praise for his eight years as comptroller. But his promising political career was scuttled by the growing strength of the Texas Republican Party. He won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1998 but lost to his old classmate Perry by two percentage points in a legendarily nasty race. He ran for lieutenant governor again in 2002, against David Dewhurst, and lost by six points. Disheartened, he retired from politics, spending the next decade in the private sector as a principal in Ryan LLC, a tax-consulting firm.

Sharp flirted with running for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s vacated U.S. Senate seat in 2012, but he knew that any Democrat would have a difficult time beating the Republican nominee, who turned out to be Ted Cruz. Sharp still wanted to serve the public but seemed unlikely to win a statewide election. So when then-governor Perry and the A&M Board of Regents offered him the chancellorship in 2011, Sharp, despite having never worked in academia, accepted without hesitation.

“This has been the most liberating experience of my life,” Sharp told me. “After I left politics, I made enough money so that I don’t have to have this job. So I can truly do what Sam Houston said, which is do right and hell with the consequences.”

Rick Perry, left, shakes hands with Sharp on Tuesday, September 10, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas.
LM Otero/AP Photo

If anyone thought Sharp would treat the chancellor’s office as a political sinecure, they quickly learned better. Eight years as the state’s chief accountant had given him an eagle eye for waste, and he found plenty of it at A&M. After learning that the flagship campus was losing $1 million a year on its student dining program, he decided to outsource it to a private company, along with landscaping, maintenance, and custodial services. University employees worried about losing their jobs rose up in rebellion, and hundreds of people came to public meetings and staged protests against privatization on campus. “It was pretty brutal,” Sharp said. “What I said to myself was, ‘I don’t care what they do—they can’t be as hard on me as the sophomores were when I was a freshman in the Corps.’ ”

“He thought it would be done in short order, and I had to tell him, ‘Well, there’s this council and that council to go through,’ ” said Garner, the Association of Former Students president. “He had to jump through hoops, and that wasn’t something John wanted to do. He wants to get it done.”

Sharp knew that language in the proposed contract required the vendor to retain all current employees along with their salary and benefits packages. So he persevered and eventually awarded the contract to Compass Group, a North Carolina–based food service and support company. Compass paid A&M $45 million up front for the contract, which system officials estimated would net $270 million in revenue and cost savings over the first decade. The vast majority of employees stayed on and were even given a modest raise.

“We knew the gains they were going to make were going to come from efficiencies, not layoffs,” Sharp explained. “Compass buys food and equipment for facilities across the country, and when you buy in that bulk, you’re going to get a ten to twenty percent discount. It’s the Walmart effect.”

“This has been the most liberating experience of my life,” Sharp told me. “I can truly do what Sam Houston said, which is do right and hell with the consequences.”

Sharp turned again to the private sector to help build new facilities for the system’s eleven universities. Rather than doing the construction itself, the system began leasing land it owned to private developers, who would pay the university an up-front fee and then spend their own money to erect and manage the building. At the end of the contracts, which typically span thirty years, ownership of the facilities reverts to A&M.

The impetus for these public-private partnerships (commonly known as P3s) came from Phillip Ray, A&M’s vice chancellor for business affairs. Ray said he tried in vain for years to persuade R. Bowen Loftin, the former president of A&M’s flagship campus, to pursue more such projects. Less than thirty days after Ray transferred to Sharp’s office, he said he got the go-ahead. “John doesn’t worry about popularity. Now, everybody wants to be liked, but you have to make the right decision and let things work out.” (Loftin departed A&M in 2014 to become chancellor of the University of Missouri, a position he resigned from in 2015. He disputed elements of Ray’s account, describing himself as a supporter of public-private partnerships. He launched at least two projects and attributes the lack of progress on one to the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis.)

Under Sharp’s leadership, the system has green-lighted dozens of P3s across the state, from the Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Galveston and the recreation center at Texas A&M–Texarkana to the 3,400-bed Park West development in College Station, which will become one of the largest student dormitories in the country when it opens this fall. The P3s have accounted for $1.3 billion of the $5.4 billion in construction projects undertaken system-wide since 2012. Critics worry that the P3 approach allows private corporations to profit off public resources, but Sharp contends that it’s a commonsense way to shift expenses onto a third party while turning the university’s extensive land holdings into a reliable revenue stream for the system. “One of the advantages of being a land-grant university is you have a lot of land,” he says.

In May, Sharp announced plans to build a senior living community for retired alumni (coupled with a day-care center for the children of system employees) on an unused piece of land in College Station. The university will provide shuttles to football games and other campus activities, allowing aging Aggies to stay connected to their alma mater—to which he hopes they will give generously in their wills, of course.

Sharp likes to brag about Texas A&M’s rock-bottom overhead; under his watch administrative costs at the College Station campus have fallen from 4 percent to 3.6 percent of the budget, the lowest of any four-year university in the state. Sharp accomplished this by instituting an across-the-board hiring freeze, with limited exceptions. He started with his own office, which at around 300 employees was already half the size of the UT System’s. Sharp has whittled that down to 260, primarily through attrition. “[The staff] complains about being overworked, but we just don’t have a lot of administrators,” Sharp said. “Our money goes into classrooms and research.”

All of this runs counter to the trend at many universities, where there was an influx of vice presidents and assistant deans during the nineties and early aughts. “That was the first thing I saw when I started going over the budget,” Sharp said. “And it’s just because, hey, administrators hire administrators. If you’re going to be an administrator, you want to supervise a lot of people. It’s like rules and regulations—where do those come from? They come from bureaucrats who want to justify their jobs.”

Next he took on the system’s burdensome contracts. Sharp discovered that contractors had grown accustomed to cost overruns happening during construction, which drove up the price. That practice came to an abrupt end. The new rule? “You’re gonna build it for what you bid.”

Shortly after being sworn in as chancellor, Sharp began work on easily the most ambitious building project of his tenure, a half-billion-dollar refurbishment of Kyle Field, parts of which date back to 1927. The reconstruction would involve rebuilding the stadium virtually from the ground up, adding 20,133 seats in the process, for a total capacity of 102,733—2,614 more than UT’s Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium.

Some university officials doubted the wisdom of adding so many seats, including former athletic director Eric Hyman, who, after conducting his own research, concluded that they would have trouble filling the stands. As usual, Sharp got his way. In May 2013, the Board of Regents voted to approve the project.

Overseeing the Kyle Field rebuild was Ray, the vice chancellor of business affairs, who has become Sharp’s consigliere and enforcer. For two years, construction crews worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, taking off only Christmas Day. When the stadium flooded during a heavy rainstorm, Ray insisted that the crew build enormous gutters so that the work could continue. Sharp credits Ray with bringing the project in on time and under budget, with no football games needing to be moved. (There were contingency plans to play games at NRG Stadium, in Houston, if Kyle Field was out of commission.) “He’s the damnedest employee I ever had,” Sharp said admiringly. “He’s just brutal.”

When the stadium was finally finished, in 2015, all 104,215 tickets, including standing-room only, to the first football game, against Ball State, sold out in eighteen minutes. As he does with every system asset, Sharp plans to wring every last dollar out of the new Kyle Field, which now has the largest seating capacity of any stadium in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States. He started with its wireless setup. One of the biggest complaints about the old stadium was the slow internet connection, so the new stadium was one of the first to install the state-of-the-art Corning ONE Wi-Fi network.

To recoup the cost of the network, A&M charged AT&T and Verizon several million each to give their customers access to the network. T-Mobile resisted paying at first, but recently caved and ponied up $3.5 million. Sprint was the last holdout, but Sharp seemed confident that it too would pay, and at press time, the two sides were close to a deal. And if a deal couldn’t be reached? “We’ll cut their ass off,” Sharp said. “It’s not good PR when you’re sitting there with a hundred thousand people and only the Sprint people can’t use their phones.”

What has John Sharp been doing with the money from all those cost savings and new revenue streams? He’s glad you asked.

The system includes eleven institutions and seven state agencies, with a physical presence in 250 of Texas’s 254 counties, and research expenditures just under $1 billion. That seems big, but it’s actually dwarfed by the UT System’s fourteen institutions and its $2.6 billion of research. And the principal reason UT is so much bigger is because of its six stand-alone medical institutions and UT-Austin’s new Dell Medical School.

So when Sharp first surveyed his maroon-and-white empire in 2011, he fixated on A&M’s Health Science Center, which was founded in 1999 and has eight locations around the state but has lagged well behind UT’s medical schools in the rankings. Sharp was surprised to learn that the president of the Health Science Center reported directly to him rather than one of the university presidents. “Shit, most chancellors before me probably didn’t even know,” he said.

What has John Sharp been doing with the money from all those cost savings and new revenue streams? He’s glad you asked.

In 2013, Sharp transferred control of the center to Texas A&M’s flagship university, where it’s now overseen by President Young. In 2016, he helped Young recruit prominent pediatrics researcher Carrie Byington from the University of Utah to become the vice chancellor of health services. “She’s a bucking bull,” he said, by way of a compliment. “She’s special.”

The Health Science Center faces significant challenges. For instance, it lacks enough teaching hospitals for its students. But Sharp sees major room for growth, for both the center and the system. The National Science Foundation ranks Texas A&M–College Station sixteenth in the country for total research and development expenditures. Most of the top fifteen universities have well-established medical schools that account for a large chunk of their research. If A&M is going to crack the top fifteen, it will need the Health Science Center to boost its research. “That’s where our potential is,” Sharp said.

Under Sharp, A&M is also doubling down on its traditional strength in engineering. In 2013, he and dean of engineering Katherine Banks—another one of his bucking bulls—announced the 25 by 25 initiative, which aims to increase engineering enrollment at Texas A&M–College Station from 12,000 to 25,000 students by 2025, primarily through increased admissions and retention of existing engineering majors.

Before the program was reworked, only 55 percent of freshmen accepted into A&M’s engineering program were graduating with an engineering degree. Banks discovered that many were arriving in College Station without the necessary mathematical background to keep up in college-level engineering courses, so she implemented new admission requirements. To get high school graduates up to speed, she also helped launch the Texas A&M–Chevron Engineering Academies at five community colleges across the state. Students graduating from those colleges are accepted into Texas A&M’s engineering school, where they earn their degree.

To leverage its engineering expertise, A&M partnered last year with Houston Methodist Hospital to create EnMed, a program in which students will take classes in engineering design and entrepreneurship alongside more traditional medical classes. The goal, Sharp said, is to graduate MDs with the expertise to design the next generation of medical devices. The first full class of fifty students will start the program in 2019.

Sharp and his dog, Guapo, on a walk at the ranch.

Meanwhile, Sharp decided that, after 135 years, it was finally time for A&M to open a law school. Why keep losing good students to UT, SMU, and Baylor when he could keep them under the Aggie umbrella? Rather than starting a new school from scratch, which would have been expensive and time-consuming, Sharp went shopping. After considering South Texas College of Law, in Houston, and St. Mary’s School of Law, in San Antonio, A&M ended up purchasing in 2013 Texas Wesleyan University’s law school, in Fort Worth, for $73 million and renaming it the Texas A&M University School of Law. Earlier this year, it cracked the top one hundred law schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the first time and was ranked seventh in intellectual property law.

But the most ambitious of Sharp’s academic initiatives involves high-tech research. Earlier this year, Sharp drove me around a two-thousand-acre expanse of lightly wooded, lightly developed land off Texas Highway 47, ten miles northwest of the main College Station campus. Construction cranes dotted the landscape, and everywhere I looked crews were pouring concrete. This will be the home of the RELLIS Education and Research Campus.

Named after a mnemonic some Aggies use to remember the university’s six core values—Respect, Excellence, Leadership, Loyalty, Integrity, and Selfless Service—the $300 million campus will host the university’s most cutting-edge technical research, including robotics, advanced manufacturing, smart power grid technology, and autonomous vehicles. Kubota, Siemens, and 3M have already signed partnerships with A&M to conduct research there.

“That land was really not attractive and was not being used appropriately,” said Banks. “For the chancellor to step back and say, ‘This is two thousand acres that we could be using to develop the workforce, to connect with other universities in the system, to develop research ideas, and to have a test bed for development’—that’s transformational. I think in twenty-five years we will look back on that campus and see it as a turning point for the region and the system.”

Sharp has had to sustain all this growth at a time when government spending has been shrinking. During this year’s legislative session, Sharp and the entire A&M System were blindsided when the state Senate, under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, introduced a draft budget that slashed appropriations to the state’s public universities. Under one version of the Senate budget, the Texas A&M System would have lost $187 million even though enrollment had increased substantially since the 2015 legislative session.

Sharp viewed the budget proposal as a slap in the face. He had worked tirelessly since becoming chancellor to eliminate wasteful spending, boost revenue, and keep tuition low, all while educating more Texans than ever before. “In the Senate bill, we get punished for growth,” he fumed in April, shortly after the budget passed the Senate. “They tell us to grow, they write the formulas to encourage us to grow, we grow, and then they punish us for growing.” (Senate leaders had defended their spending plan by pointing out that they had to close a budget deficit, so cuts in some areas were necessary.)

Sharp placed some of the blame for the proposed cuts on the UT System, which he believes has given Texas higher education a bad name because of what he considers undisciplined spending. He points to the UT System’s new administration building. “If you have $102 million, do you build a new building in downtown Austin to put your administrators in or use it to recruit Nobel Laureates and National Academy members? That was a pretty easy one for us—you use it to enhance your faculty.”

Sharp played his trump card: A&M’s network of more than 400,000 fanatically loyal alumni.

(A UT spokesperson responded that the new administration building will save the system millions through “revenue from leased space in the new building, maintenance savings on the old buildings, and revenue from the sale and lease of current property.”)

Sharp also brings up Chancellor McRaven’s decision in 2015 to purchase a large plot of land in Houston without first informing the state’s political leadership. “What a clusterfuck,” Sharp said, shaking his head incredulously. He says that when state leaders find out about a $215 million purchase at the last minute, it’s going to cause a furor. (The political uproar over the Houston land purchase led McRaven to reluctantly abandon his plan for a new research campus in March, a move that for the moment has tempered state leaders’ criticisms of the UT chancellor.)

In response to the Senate budget, Sharp and his team went to DEFCON 1. The chancellor got on the phone, working his political connections in Austin. A&M’s team of lobbyists went to work on state lawmakers. And Sharp played his trump card: A&M’s network of more than 400,000 fanatically loyal alumni, led by Garner.

“There have been previous chancellors that have not wanted the alumni association involved in the legislative agenda,” Garner said. “Now we’re more involved than we’ve ever been. John sees the power of the Aggie network.” Sharp seemed bemused by the idea of a Texas elected official pissing off the combined alumni bases of A&M and UT. “If I were a politician, I would not be spending my time enraging eight or nine hundred thousand alumni.”

In the end, state lawmakers felt the same way. The final budget bill that eventually landed on Governor Greg Abbott’s desk in late May reduced total appropriations to the Texas A&M System by only $10 million, a vast improvement over the threatened $187 million. The flagship university even got a modest revenue boost thanks to its growth over the past two years. And bills opposed by A&M that would have frozen tuition and eliminated tuition set-asides for need-based financial aid failed to pass. Still, many people at A&M and across Texas’s higher-education community remain disturbed about what the Legislature’s actions this past session might mean for the future of the state’s colleges and universities.

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University

Sharp’s approach to higher education has its critics. Some have questioned whether A&M is growing too fast. Loftin, the former flagship university president, worries about the consequences of adding 10,000 students to the College Station campus in under a decade. “The real challenge for any institution that is growing rapidly is to make sure you don’t diminish or harm the academic experience that students come to universities to obtain,” he said. “We need to make sure that our students are getting a great benefit from being on campus, that they’re meeting each other, working together—those are things that can’t be lost.”

As a cautionary tale, Loftin pointed to Arizona State University, which has grown from 58,000 students to nearly 100,000 during the past thirteen years and has a relatively high student-faculty ratio of 23 to 1. “A very large fraction of those students never come to campus ever,” he said, a reference to ASU’s embrace of online education. (A&M’s student-faculty ratio has hovered around 20 to 1 since 2010; UT’s is currently 18 to 1.)

Sharp acknowledges the dangers of such rapid growth but said A&M has managed to skirt them. “The biggest challenge is, how do you grow that fast and keep the spirit, the cohesiveness,” he told me. “And that’s pretty much been answered, because the kids are the same as when I was there. Full of spirit, love the place, keeping the traditions intact. I would never have believed that was possible when I graduated [in 1972, when enrollment was about 16,000 students].” Even so, A&M has decided to slow enrollment growth in College Station, at least for a time, to allow the campus infrastructure to catch up to the needs of 60,000 students.

“If you’re an Aggie and if you’re in trouble, somebody springs to your defense.”

The system has also been part of several national political controversies during Sharp’s tenure as chancellor. In early 2016, a group of mostly black high school students from Dallas’s Uplift Hampton Preparatory school were touring the College Station campus when they were accosted by a white female A&M undergraduate, who asked their opinion of her Confederate flag earrings. Several white bystanders began to heckle the high schoolers, allegedly telling them to “go back where you came from” and using the n-word.

The A&M Student Senate passed a resolution condemning the incident, and thousands of A&M students sent handwritten apology notes to the high school. Sharp, Young, and the student body president made a trip to Uplift Hampton Preparatory school to apologize in person. In the end, Sharp said, some of the high schoolers decided to attend A&M.

Last December, College Station was again roiled by racial tensions when alumnus Preston Wiginton rented a room in the student center and invited Richard Spencer, the white supremacist credited with coining the term “alt-right,” to give a talk. Rather than barring Spencer from speaking, Sharp and Young decided to support a counter-event at Kyle Field called “Aggies United,” which drew several thousand people to listen to a parade of speakers, including Sharp, who told the story of how a Hispanic soldier saved his father’s life during the Battle of Leyte Gulf during the Second World War.

L’affaire Spencer didn’t result in any violence, but in March, A&M changed its campus speaker policy; now, only faculty members or registered student organizations can invite outside speakers. But given the two high-profile incidents last year, I asked Sharp if he thought A&M had a race problem.

“I don’t,” he replied. “I think if you’re an Aggie, that’s all ninety-nine percent of the kids think about. Doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, whatever—if you’re an Aggie and if you’re in trouble, somebody springs to your defense.”

Political controversy of another sort also erupted in March, when Perry, now the Secretary of Energy, unexpectedly weighed in on campus politics, claiming in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle that A&M’s Student Government Association had rigged the election for student body president to favor an openly gay candidate. Perry hadn’t told anyone at A&M he was writing the op-ed, even his old friend Sharp. “We thought it was a joke,” Sharp said. “I was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ That was not one of his high points—it made Dancing With the Stars look good.”

While Sharp has presided over historic growth in the system’s enrollment, research, faculty hiring, and construction budgets, the biggest change he’s overseen, according to many on campus, is an attitude shift. Garner, who has led the Association of Former Students for seventeen years, senses a new confidence across the A&M System.

“In the past, we always had to wait and see what the University of Texas was gonna do—at the Legislature, on the academic front, on the athletic front, wherever. And John bypassed all that. He said, ‘This is Texas A&M, we can do better than this.’ And he just instilled in many people a mind-set that we’re going to be the best. Let’s don’t worry about what anybody else is doing, let’s worry about what’s best for Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System. And I think all boats have risen.”

Young, the Texas A&M president, said that his university is finally learning how to define itself as something other than UT’s rival. “Sometimes football rivalries tend to shape how you think about yourself,” he observed. “And it’s frequently the case that you have a rivalry between the land-grant school and the flagship school. But I think over the past few years, A&M has really put itself on the map in terms of being a major research institution and a school of choice. Reputations take a while to catch up to that. Even internally, I don’t think we always recognize that we have moved so much into that space.”

Despite A&M’s success in the SEC, the question keeps popping up: When will it play UT again? The two teams haven’t faced off on a football field since 2011, A&M’s final year in the Big 12, when the Longhorns defeated A&M at Kyle Field, 27–25. The Aggies’ fiercest rival is now Louisiana State University, the only team in the SEC West they have yet to beat since joining the conference. “I know a lot of people would like to see A&M play UT again,” Sharp said. “Not the kids here necessarily, but a lot of the older alumni still ask about it.”

The problem, he explained, is A&M’s punishing conference schedule. “The players just get the shit beat out of them in those games because of the big SEC defenses. They need a full week to recover—some of them don’t even practice until Tuesday or Wednesday.” For the four nonconference games each season, the team would rather play cream puffs like Nicholls State or the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, two of the softer teams on this fall’s schedule.

Still, Sharp won’t rule out the possibility of a rematch sometime in the future. “I’d like to put the UT–A&M game back together. I know the governor wants to put it back together. UT wants to put it back together.”

He thought about it for a minute, and a grin spread across his face.

“Man, can you imagine how much money we could make off that game?”

Michael Hardy is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly.

read more: