Larger than life: Commentary by Bill Little
It was a conversation on a Southwest Airlines flight, and at the time, I had no idea who the silver-haired lady in seat next to me was. Turns out she was the newly elected State Treasurer named Ann Richards, and I was simply the Sports Information Director at The University of Texas.
In the 30 minutes from Dallas to Austin, we talked about little Texas home towns, places like Bug Tussle and Winters, and the conversation got around to college athletics. She didn't offer an opinion about draw plays or zone defenses, but she did allow as to how she thought coaching was one of the toughest jobs that existed.
When the television screen flashed that Ann Richards had died, it brought back a flood of memories, not only of her, but of others who walked as giants in the political arena, and yet took time to show interest in college athletics.
Lyndon Johnson would be the first. The former President followed Texas football closely after he left the White House, and became great friends with Darrell Royal.
"I'm not a football fan," Johnson once said, "but I am a fan of people, and Darrell Royal is the rarest of people."
Barbara Jordan, the late U. S. Congresswoman, was teaching in the LBJ School of Public Affairs when she became involved in Texas women's basketball. In her wheelchair, she sat by Jody Conradt's bench. For her, Jody was her Darrell.
Ann Richards was there, too. And when her good friend Bud Shrake suggested it, they began taking in the men's games as well. Press row at the men's games was a little tighter because of media coverage, but I kidded Bud that I would credential him as one of the nation's great sports writers, and he could bring his friend, the Governor, along.
They were sitting at press row the night the ground troops went in during Desert Storm. I remember walking around the court at the Erwin Center to tell the Governor of the State of Texas.
She looked up, flashed those steel blue eyes with a look of shock and at the same time resolve, and said, "we need to pray for them."
But while Bud's sports writing background drew him to want to see Dexter Cambridge and the Longhorn men, Ann's heart was clearly at courtside for the women's games, right beside Barbara and Jody's bench.
It was a perfect amalgamation of the times. Women's sports were opening doors for little girls everywhere, and Ann Richards, whether you agreed with her politics or not, was showing women everywhere that there was no "glass ceiling" on dreams. If Jody Conradt's Lady Longhorns could win all the games and a National Championship, and Ann could flash Texas across national and state politics and win election as the governor of one of the most powerful states in the Union, they were sharing a new and exciting world for women.
Ann's passing, coming just days after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, also brings a memory of George W. Bush, the man who followed her in the Governor's Mansion on Colorado Street. He, too, sat courtside at Longhorn basketball games, dressed in a casual jacket, looking exceedingly human.
Mack Brown and the Longhorn football team saw that same man in February, when as President, Bush invited the National Champions to the White House. There, the leader of the free world took time away from a troubled planet to spend over an hour visiting with kids…just as he had time after time in the Longhorn weight room when he was Governor.
What we saw with President Bush in Washington, and what matters so as we reflect on the lives of President Johnson, Congresswoman Jordan and Governor Richards, is that the titles do not overshadow the person.
It is easy in life to turn people into "things," and forget that inside the shell of a teacher, a coach, or a politician, is a real person, who feels the burden of the office, the gravity of the decisions, and the responsibility of the office they chose to accept.
They served our country and our state because they thought they could make a difference, a difference in the lives of people. Agree with them or not, that's why they served. Bush's favorite painting, which hangs in the Oval Office, is entitled "A Charge to Keep," from the old church song, "A Charge to Keep I Have."
Sport was important to them because it offers its participants a chance to excel, to rise above, and to matter.
That will be my abiding memory of Ann Richards. Her support of kids, her love of people, and her faith in the human spirit.