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How to win a scholarship football title in Texas, explained by the only team that’s done it since Vince Young

Texas A&M-Commerce won 2017’s Division II national title by following a familiar script, but also by not sticking to it.

A&M-Commerce Athletics

The most joked-on moment of the 2018 offseason happened in February, at a council meeting for the Texas A&M University System.

Between breakfast and lunch, chancellor John Sharp called two coaches on stage. One was Colby Carthel, a 41-year-old who’d just led the system’s Division II program in Commerce to the first national tournament title in school history. The other was Jimbo Fisher, the new hire in College Station whose $75 million contract is the richest guarantee in the sport’s history.

Sharp gave Carthel a replica of the DII playoffs trophy he’d won two months earlier. Then Sharp gave Fisher a replica as well, with a date yet to be filled in.

The real and the fake
A&M-Commerce Marketing & Communications, Texas A&M University System

Everyone chuckled, but it was a reminder that College Station was playing an unusual game of catch-up.

The little school an hour and a half from Dallas had won the 11-school system’s first title in decades, and the state’s highest in more than a decade.

“You owe me a thank you, because A&M tried to hire me,” Carthel teased a laughing Fisher that morning. “They just couldn’t afford my buyout.”

Carthel’s salary was $122,000. Fisher’s is $144,231 per week.

On some level, comparing the big boys to A&M-Commerce or nearby Mary Hardin-Baylor, the 2016 champ of non-scholarship DIII’s tourney, is silly. They play the same sport — as Fisher told Carthel, “ball is ball” — but with far different resources, pressure, and competition.

Even so, the success of Carthel’s Lions carries lessons for blue-bloods.

On a drive into Commerce from Dallas, there’s little indication this place is the home of a champion.

You could miss the school while driving northeast along Route 24. You pass the university’s horse stable before you hit campus, after you pass towns like Royse City and Greenville. There are no Texas A&M-Commerce bars, where you’d find Lions memorabilia all over the walls.

“There’s not much to do,” safety Alex Shillow says. “I’m not gonna lie to you. We have a handful of food places. Not many of them are eye-catching.”

Shillow’s favorite spot is Luigi’s, where I ate good chicken parm. QB Luis Perez’s is Tokyo Express, which sounds like part of a chain, but isn’t.

The stadium looks like something out of Friday Nights Lights — not enclosed on either end, with a McDonald’s behind one end zone. In 2012, the 1-9 season before Carthel’s staff showed up, an announced 924 people attended one game.

In 2017, A&M-Commerce announced record attendance north of 10,000 for the national semifinal against Harding. A couple thousand tailgated in a little parking lot on campus.

In 2005, Vince Young’s Longhorns wrote the book on bringing a title to Texas in the 21st century. In some ways, A&M-Commerce followed the manuscript.

Both won by recruiting their home state voraciously. Playing in a high school football mecca means you don’t have to go outside your borders, whether you’re in the Big 12 or the Lone Star Conference. All but 13 players on UT’s championship roster were Texas high schoolers. A&M-Commerce opted not to sign any high schoolers who weren’t from Texas.

Carthel says he made his first exception in the 2018 class, when he offered a player who’d impressed at a Commerce camp.

“Then I find out he’s from Louisiana,” Carthel says. “Well, I’m gonna stick to my word.”

Both won with singular talents at quarterback. No one will ever be Young, but Perez — a former bowler who didn’t play high school football and found his way to Commerce after an injury-marred JUCO career — won the Harlan Hill Trophy as DII’s player of the year, throwing for 5,000 yards and 46 touchdowns.

The Lions built a truly Texan powerhouse offense out of spare parts.

In 2015, the year before Perez took over, they were 53rd in Division II in total attempts, throwing 33 times per game. When Perez made clear he was really good, the Lions kicked their approach into overdrive, and by 2017, they were throwing more than any team in Division I or II except Washington State, whose offense has deep roots in Texas. Perez chucked more than 40 passes seven times.

Coordinator Matt Storm’s offense ran up 6.4 yards per play by filling the air with footballs, just like a Big 12 team.

“There were some weeks where he was like, ‘Hey, Luis, they have a very good D line, you’ve gotta get the ball out quick,’” Perez says. “There’s other weeks where he’d be like, ‘Hey, the DBs are not their strong points, so our receivers are better, and we can stretch the ball down the field.’”

The only game A&M-Commerce lost in 2017 was a 47-42 barnburner against Midwestern State. The team cleared 50 points four times and 30 all but twice. They had a 59-6 win against William Jewell, 52-3 on homecoming weekend against Western New Mexico, and 52-0 against UT Permian Basin. And they put up 31 or more points in four straight playoff games.

It sounds like a Big 12 team’s dream season.

A&M-Commerce Athletics

Building a roster on 36 scholarships, per DII rules, requires attention to detail and players who’ve taken unusual routes.

Perez is just one example.

Another is kicker Kristov Martinez, who came to the United States as a child and lives here under the DACA program. Martinez hadn’t heard of American football until high school, left another college after being told he was too small at 5’6, 130 pounds to play for its just-launched soccer program, and could become the Lone Star’s all-time leading scorer.

The roster is sprinkled with former Division I players who’ve been eligible to play immediately. That’s the result of cultivation, which starts when high schoolers come to Commerce for satellite camps, with dozens of Division I staffs represented at skills clinics.

“Heck, every [Division I coach’s] hand I shake, they tell me, ‘Great camp.’ I say, ‘Thanks. Send me a transfer.’ Just trying to build a relationship,” Carthel says. “It’s like a garage sale. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Just because a guy doesn’t work out at Auburn doesn’t mean he can’t be a fantastic player for us.”

Key members of the championship team came from Power 5 schools, including defensive lineman Michael Onuoha (Oklahoma) and right tackle Poet Thomas (Texas Tech).

“I feel that all of our stories that we each have personally, it’s finally hitting us that we’ve gone through so much in life that, at one point, we didn’t see that we were gonna be here, and now we’re national champions,” Martinez says.

A&M-Commerce is a case study for big schools on how to be happy in the moment.

The Lions won the Division II title by beating West Florida, 37-27, in a game played at a mostly empty MLS stadium in Kansas City.

“Our locker room, when we win a national championship or a big game, I promise you, there was as much joy and jubilation as there was in Alabama’s when they beat Georgia there at the end,” Carthel says. “The kids felt the same. The coaches felt the same. And you go about business the next day the same. It’s just: there’s 80,000 more people in the stands at their game.”

After the playoff win, a group of residents of the 9,000-person town pooled money to buy Carthel a rifle and put a national championship engraving on it. (He’s trying to get the firing pin taken out, so he can display the gun in his office.)

“Nick Saban, he may make about eight more million than I do, or whatever he makes,” Carthel says, “but I guarantee he didn’t get a new Big Boy Lever-Action Henry rifle for winning that national championship.”

There are things about Commerce that will never be true in College Station and Austin. Some of that’s because the team was so bad for so long. Commerce doesn’t have a rabid booster culture that will start to chase a head coach the week he gets hired. Public pressure doesn’t get so loud that a coach’s boss will basically fire him in public a year ahead of time.

“This is not Division I. So already, the culture’s different,” says Ray Keck, the university president at the time of the championship, who stepped down earlier in August. “Yes, A&M is famous for being all over the coach no matter what. I think football here, for me, it’s important, but it doesn’t drive the lives of everybody on the campus.”

At a system meeting not long after Keck took his job, he wondered about some expenditure on the Aggies.

Gene Stallings, a former coach in College Station, asked Keck, “Have 85,000 people ever come out to watch you teach Spanish literature?”

A smaller scale means less pressure for ADs and presidents to meddle with coaches and players.

“I wanna be present,” Keck says. “I’ve gone into the locker room. I’ve gone to their team meetings. I have hosted ‘em, all the time. But I do know some university presidents that try to call the plays. In fact, I have a friend, a university president, who tries to.”

Carthel calls the space he’s been given to build his team “paramount.”

It’s easy to say, but if this place can burst with pride at a DII championship and be comfortable with what it has, shouldn’t fans and administrators at big, famous schools with sprawling campuses be able to slow down a little and enjoy every season?

A&M-Commerce Athletics

Perez signed with the Rams about a half-decade after trading his bowling shoes for football spikes.

When he was outside Commerce, he’d often have the same exchange:

“Oh, do you play football?”

“Yeah.”

“Who do you play for?”

“Texas A&M”

“Oh!”

“Commerce.”

But Commerce itself “is such a football town that not a lot of people know of,” Perez said. “Shoot, you walk down the street, and everyone knows who you are.”

“It’s really blown up,” Carthel says. “A lot of people negatively recruit against us because of the small town, but I think it’s one of our greatest strengths. Our guys are fortunate enough, when they go to Walmart, everybody in Walmart knows who they are.”