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

Michael Hardy:

“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.”

It is useful to compare College Station, TX and Madison, WI.

College Station, with about half the number of students, spends nearly 80% less than Madison