Style versus substance.
In the pitched and heated recruiting battles between the Texas Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies over the 25 months since head coach Charlie Strong took over in Austin, the battle lines have long since been clear and distinct. In fact, it took Strong less than a month to clearly articulate his position on the matter.
"The university speaks for itself," said Strong on National Signing Day 2014. "We don't need gadgets. We're not going to be a gadget program."
The comment came in response to a question about Sumiln's infamous Swagcopter. At the time, the Texas A&M head coach laughed off the statement from Strong and noted that the approach was working for them. But now it's not and the mirth is gone from College Station.
Last Wednesday, the Longhorns were able to sign several high-profile in-state targets who were once considered Aggie leans or key targets -- four-star offensive tackle Jean Delance, four-star cornerback Eric Cuffee, four-star linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, and No. 1 safety Brandon Jones, as well as several defensive tackles targeted by A&M.
Another former Texas A&M commit, New Orleans tight end Irvin Smith, looked headed for Texas before Alabama came on strong late. Meanwhile, Central Texas product Mark Jackson didn't opt for Texas, either, but he bailed on A&M for Oklahoma days before he signed.
Make no mistake, Strong and his staff were able to sign those prospects in large part because of their collective ability to sell the Texas program and build relationships with those players and their families. No gadgets needed. Tight ends coach Jeff Traylor, for instance, emerged as a father figure of sorts for Jones after his father passed away of cancer and Strong was also able to win Jones over:
Brandon Jones: Why do you want to play for Coach Strong?https://t.co/mTQez2Vswe— Longhorn_FB (@Longhorn_FB) February 3, 2016
But the Longhorns also benefited tremendously from the instability in College Station created by the departure of former five-star quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray and the termination of offensive coordinator Jake Spavital in December.
So when Allen recently spoke with CBSSports.com about why he left Texas A&M, he shed light on the dysfunctional culture in Aggieland.
"I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny's era there -- the way that they let Johnny and [others] act there," said Allen. "They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny ... and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now.
"A lot of people were riding off that, ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday.'"
Certainly, Manziel's summer of partying in 2013 after winning the Heisman left little time for actual football work. Who was leading the type of summer 7-on-7 work that help propel the Longhorns to the national championship in 2005? Manziel definitely wasn't picking up his teammates at their houses to take them to summer workouts as Colt McCoy famously did in preparing successful teams during his tenure.
He wasn't even in College Station, actually. He was partying in Vegas with celebrities and getting kicked out of Texas frat parties. A year later, questions arose about discipline issues on the team when numerous players were getting arrested.
In his interview, Allen describes a program still reeling from the loss of Manziel -- struggling to develop the culture necessary to pull together as a cohesive unit once showing up and relying on Johnny's magic was no longer enough.
"When you don't have players like Johnny and [others] there anymore, you have to really come together as a team and scrap for wins," Allen said. "We had a lot of people who were talking about the same goal but weren't all committed and on the same page to get to that goal... Everyone wasn't in a straight line. Everyone was going this way, this way, this way."
As always with these types of leadership issues, the most culpable actor is at the top. In this case, Kevin Sumlin. Allen notably added that he thinks that once the right coaching hires get made and the vision coalesces into a more unified approach, the Aggies will get it turned around. But if Sumlin made a deal with the devil by allowing Manziel to do whatever he wanted and hasn't been able to fix the fallout over the last two seasons, do the former coordinators really deserve the blame?
Can their replacements really be the defining part of the answer, to act as the fulcrum upon which this all tilts back in the right direction?
Just as damningly, Allen's portrayal of Texas A&M shows a program run adrift, caught up in the glitz of the new Kyle Field and basking in the light of conference affiliation. For all the shiny new facilities and the SEC logos everywhere that give fans and players conference bragging rights, for all the DJs at practices and the fresh cuts at the barbershop, for all the rides in the Swagcopter, none of that instills discipline. None of it guarantees success. None of it forges players who ride for their head coach and pull in the same direction.
And so despite all the high-profile incidents last year that seemingly showed a Texas program in similar disarray, in the moments that mattered, in the Cotton Bowl and in Waco and on that crucial Friday when the Longhorns finally landed Sterlin Gilbert, the program has come together behind Strong. The young core of players like Malik Jefferson, Charles Omenihu, and DeShon Elliott are unquestionably pulling in the same direction. Now they have the help they need, both in the additions to the coaching staff and the coming additions to the locker room.
Last Wednesday, the parents spoke. The recruits spoke. And they let their belief in Charlie Strong ring out to every corner of the country, but not because he arrived at their house in a helicopter or sold them on the new players' lounge.
As the Aggies are finding out, front-running is easy and substance can't be bought. Meanwhile, Charlie Strong is trying to build something in Austin that can last.