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Email Exchange: John Lopez, Houston Chronicle

Houston Chronicle columnist John Lopez is one of my favorite Texas sports writers for a number of reasons, chief among them his willingness and desire to interact with his readers. When I asked him if he'd be interested in spending last Friday exchanging emails for publication on Burnt Orange Nation, he was more than happy to spend the day chatting away. What follows is our discussion about fan interaction, Dennis Franchione, and Texas A&M football in general. Many thanks to John for taking the time to participate. You can read John's Chronicle blog online at Lopez At Large.

Peter Bean, Burnt Orange Nation: You're a busy man these days, John. You write your regular gigs for the Houston Chronicle print edition. You're one of the smart columnists that maintains a regular blog. And you're on the radio every day in Houston from noon to 3:00 p.m. on AM 790: The Sports Animal.

Here's what I want to ask you: You could just as easily write your copy for the print edition and no one would say a word. But between the print column, the blog, and the sports radio show, you're pretty much as involved with your local sports fans as any columnist could hope to be. What I want to know is: 1) Why? And 2) Why aren't all your colleagues doing the same thing?

John Lopez, Houston Chronicle: Because I may not be smart, but I'm not stupid. I feel you HAVE to engage your audience to be effective, not preach to them. In fact, I don't even like calling it an audience.

I've always approached my columns not as if I'm standing on a soap box, but sitting on a bar stool (which I've occasionally been known to do). My thoughts are not the end-all. They are the first volley in what should be a back-and-forth discussion.

If you disagree with me in letters, emails, etc., I can tell you why I think you're wrong in the paper. Readers, bloggers and listeners should have the same opportunity to tell me they think I'm an idiot.

I'm not, by the way. But that's just my opinion.

I used to be amazed at how much fans knew, how plugged-in they were and the insight they offered. I'm not surprised anymore. Most writers will tell you they don't read blogs, forums, fan sites, etc. It's as if those things are beneath them. I'll tell you straight-up, I read them every day. I mean, how are you going to know the pulse of an audience if you never bother to take it? Plus, the information can be very useful and on more than one occasion, an opinion I've read on a site has swayed mine.

And more than anything, a column, blog and radio show needs to be engaging. The key thing, then, is to engage.

Peter Bean, Burnt Orange Nation: You're a smart man, John. And I think you've hit on the head the important point: engagement.

That's a perfect segueway into something I hope you'll be able to help me understand. What's the mood among the Aggie faithful this year? Heartbreaking loss to Texas Tech. Heartbreaking loss to Oklahoma. Heartbreaking loss to Nebraska. Those are three pretty good football teams, but they're also the only good teams the Aggies have faced this year outside of Missouri.

How frustrating has this season been for Aggie fans? And how much are folks blaming Coach Fran?

John Lopez: Fran is not a popular man among those who post on forums, call radio shows and send me notes. But you've hit on a very important thing in our age of information. Don't base EVERYTHING on the squeaky wheels.

If people like a column I write, they generally don't send me a note. I only get feedback when someone feels strongly the other way or if they have a passion, deep love, for what I wrote.
The same is true with any coaching situation and you have to be aware of that. The noise-makers are those who feel strongly that Fran has failed to do the job. In many ways, he has. The program is headed in the right direction in terms of recruits he's landed, offensive and defensive success and building an elite program again.

But there has been not one signature win. Aggies have gone home angry a lot after so-called big games. And what do you do when you're angry? You vent.

I try to remember that noise-makers are not always decision-makers. I think Fran is unpopular right now with the younger, instant-gratification crowd. But he won't get fired, because we have yet to hear from anyone with the stroke to get him fired. And believe me, I've spoken to some. That speaks as loudly as anything on a blog.

Peter Bean: That's interesting, because as fun as it is to tease Fran, I don't think he's a bad football coach. And it's not as though the Aggies aren't fielding a competitive football team. Graham Harrell beat the Aggies on a last second bomb. Oklahoma was totally neutralized in the second half in College Station. Ditto for Nebraska.

If we grant that Coach Fran isn't going anywhere after this season (I've seen his contract; that's too big a buyout anyway), where does that leave him in terms of areas to improve? What's he doing not doing very well that he can improve upon?

John Lopez: Longhorns fans like to compare Fran to John Mackovic. Actually, Aggies do, too.
I think the more appropriate comparison in terms of in-game demeanor is David McWilliams. Yes, I know McWilliams was and is a Texas boy.

But I'm talking about in-game. McWilliams always looked confused or overwhelmed. He probably wasn't, but he looked laid-back, looking around, as if he really wasn't in control. And he similarly had a lot of close, tough losses and big decisions backfire.

That's Fran. That's where he needs to improve. Aggies want to see an R.C. Slocum, Mack Brown, Bob Stoops kind of look in the eyes of their coach. That kind of fire.

Will that translate into wins? Who knows. But they want to know that their coach is fighting for them. And then win a big game or two to turn the corner.

I dunno. He looks pretty fired up to me.

Peter Bean: It's interesting to hear you say that, because I think that's such an overrated quality in coaches. You don't see Bill Bellichek storming about on the sidelines like a lunatic. Nor Greg Schiano, and he's doing just fine. I just don't understand the widely held perception that a coach has to be demonstrative and bombastic to be a good coach.

With that said, I suppose you're right: when the going gets tough, it probably helps to at least -look- like you're out there gunning.

Let's close the book on Fran, though, and turn to the players. I get this feeling that Stephen McGee has a pretty moderate ceiling, and he's hit it. Am I wrong?

John Lopez: You're right about the value of being demonstrative. It matters mostly only to those in the court of public opinion, but they all have keyboards and screen names and eventually all that clicking adds up.

You're right on McGee, too. Coaches love him because he doesn't make mistakes, or not very often. I feel Colt McCoy has much the same qualities, but obviously a much more superior supporting cast. Neither one will WIN a game on their own, but neither most often will lose it, either.

Head to head, I'd have to give the edge to Colt, only because he's got so many more weapons with which to work and probably is slightly more elusive. McGee is a better runner, as in the option. Colt has a better pocket presence, sliding out of trouble and making a play with his arm.

Truth be told, the most talented quarterback on the A&M campus is redshirting -- Jerrod Johnson out of Humble. I've watched him up close. He's legit in every way.

Peter Bean: Well, that brings up two questions, then. First, can Jerrod Johnson win the job next season or does McGee have it locked up for two more seasons?  Second, how talented is Michael Goodson? Without watching the Aggies -too- closely, I can say that he looks pretty special.

John Lopez: Jerrod could well be he most gifted quarterback the Aggies have signed since Kevin Murray. He stands 6-7, has a great arm and is one of those runners who gobbles up big yardage with just one or two strides.

That said, McGee gives A&M coaches the comfort of having a guy who won't kill you. I completely disagree. I'll take the occasional mistake early if you're building the program around a great playmaker ... you may recall a similarly constructed quarterback named Vince. Johnson is a better passer at this stage.

As for Goodson, he is indeed electric, like you said. I still say he must become a better runner between the tackles. Even with Jorvorskie there, Goodson needs to get bigger and stronger.

Peter Bean: I think I agree with you on playing the guy with the bigger upside, but it's probably a moot point: coaches that are on a perceived hot seat almost always go with the safer guy. They don't look two years down the road because they're afraid they might not be there two years down the road.

Let's wrap this up with your game thoughts.  Can the Aggies come to Austin and win this game? How much do you think the chances of an Aggie victory improve if it's Jevan Snead under center? Oh, and one more thing, do you think you might have Javorskie Lane give Henry Melton some pointers while he's in town? Our big boy could learn a thing or two from A&M's.

John Lopez: I think your second question is the answer to your first one. The only way the Ags have a chance in my view is if Jevan Snead is the quarterback. He's capable, but not nearly ready. I watched a tape of the spring game -- just bits and pieces, really -- and I could have told you right then that McCoy was head and shoulders better. Snead has talent, but thrown into the fire, he is sure to make mistakes. So long as they're not big ones, Texas still could win.

With McCoy, Texas wins by 14-20 points, if not more. Without him, I think the A&M pass rush has improved enough to force Snead into a mistake and then, who knows.

Throw in the A&M run game, which I believe will actually gain yards on Texas via the option -- not up the gut -- and ball control could keep it close. Martellus Bennett will be a big part of the Aggie gameplan, I believe. Long, time-consuming drives is the only chance they've got.

I'm thinking McCoy will play, though, the Aggies will give up field position all day if they can't gobble up yards on the option and Texas will capitalize. I'm thinking 35-17, Texas.

Peter Bean: I hope you're right, John. Longhorn nation is pretty bummed out about the upset loss in Manhattan. In any case, thanks for taking the time to chat throughout the day.  It's been both instructive and a lot of fun.

John Lopez: I've enjoyed it a lot, Peter. Let's do it again sometime.