"Finish It Together."
That was the version of "FIT" that the 2002 Longhorns chose as their epitaph. It will be etched in memory, just as it well might be on the SBC Cotton Bowl's Field Scovell Trophy.
There could have been one more.
All week, LSU had talked of playing "smash-mouth" football. Underlying innuendos throughout the week never questioned the Longhorns' ability. The ghosts of five consecutive losses in Dallas fed a different theme, which the visitors from the SEC hoped to exploit. The Tigers would attack UT straight on. Challenge them. Throw the first punch and see if they hit back.
In other words, they questioned their heart.
So you can add one more "FIT."
"Finish It Tough."
The 2003 SBC Cotton Bowl Classic came down to a playground battle between kids or maybe a billiards game of eight ball between pool sharks.
On the playground it comes down to who can outwit or out score the other.
In billiards, if you get the first shot, you better run the table because if you yield your turn, you may never get it back.
The remarkable thing about Longhorns football is the way history interacts with the present. On Wednesday, the UT defense withstood an assault of 95 plays — more than any team ever had run in the history of the Classic. When Texas had finished its 35-20 victory, one of the players talked about the philosophy.
"We knew we could bend but not break."
Bend, but not break. Every defensive player who ever played for the late Mike Campbell knows the phrase. There it was, almost 30 years from the day Campbell, Darrell Royal's respected defensive general, coached his last Cotton Bowl game.
The theme of the week for the seniors had come from Jerry Sisemore, whose story from the 1973 Classic spoke of the importance and the meaning of playing your final game.
Mack Brown and his staff used all of this to motivate and strategize. From the game plan to the adjustments, it was a brilliant effort by the coaching staff. Their job, as they have so often stated, is to put their kids in position to win. Both Greg Davis and Carl Reese, along with their respective staffs, did just that.
Most of all, on this bright morning in Dallas on the very first day of 2003, it was about young people playing a game for the fun of it. Even in the first quarter, when the offense ran only three plays, they eagerly awaited their turn. The defense, hit by a couple of power punches from the Tigers, stripped the ball and scored a touchdown.
For the second year in a row, UT trailed in a bowl game by double digits. The Longhorns came back to win back-to-back bowl games, which marked the first time Texas had accomplished the feat since they put together a remarkable string of six consecutive bowl triumphs in the 1960s.
The senior class finished with 40 victories, more than any group in Texas history. The back-to-back 11-2 records marked the first time the Longhorns had finished with consecutive 11-win seasons in school history.
All of that we know in logic. What we know in emotion is the reason for the hugs and the tears at the end of the game. In the private space of the locker room, grown men and young boys cried. They say it is "the old fool who cannot laugh and the young fool who cannot cry." On New Year's Day, there were no fools in the east dressing room at the Cotton Bowl. The demons of consecutive heart-breaking losses had been exorcised.
Even though ending a four-game losing string in the stadium was significant, the feeling of emotion wasn't about the story of the scoreboard.
They say teams adopt the personality of their coaches and this one is a mirror image of Brown. Caring and compassion exude from his program, but underneath that is a driving force of competitiveness. Winning is a passion, though not an obsession. Since the moment his father jerked him from a Little League game for not swinging at a third strike, he has been a fighter.
He understands that the joy of victory is great and the feeling of defeat is painful.
He keeps notes on each year, and after 19 seasons as a head coach, he isn't afraid or too proud to make adjustments in philosophy or approach. Bowl week was a great example. Three years ago, after the Horns lost to Texas A&M and Nebraska in their final regular season games, he felt he worked the players too hard in preparation for the Cotton Bowl. This year, Brown adjusted the practices accordingly this time.
Behind the doors of the staff meeting room, he laid out what he wanted from his offense and defense and renewed his commitment to run the football effectively so as to open the pass. Hard runs by sophomore Cedric Benson and true freshman Selvin Young set up senior QB Chris Simms' play-action passes and LSU's determination to stop the running game created one-on-one opportunities for junior WR Roy Williams, who was named the game's Outstanding Offensive Player in the game.
Defensively, seniors Cory Redding, Lee Jackson and Rob Babers provided big plays and leadership to shut down LSU after the Tigers' powerful opening foray.
Promptly at 2 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2003, it ended. The seniors had been true to their pledge: they would not take off their uniforms for the final time as losers. They had finished their work and Texas walked off the field victorious. It was particularly meaningful for Simms, who had stood with class through some tough breaks in games in the stadium. Though Williams walked away with the Outstanding Offensive Player trophy, this game and the way he played it, was a defining moment for Simms.
For the underclassmen, it was an accomplishment and a challenge.
The Big 12 Conference made a powerful statement on New Year's Day, when Oklahoma pounded Washington State in the Rose Bowl, along with UT convincingly defeating LSU in Dallas. Those two South Division Co-Champions have emerged as two of the national powers of the first decade of the 21st century. Each year, they meet in Dallas.
What is clear is that the road to championships, for both teams, leads through Dallas.
The 2003 Longhorns will have a different look from the previous Brown teams. What we know about the first day of the year, however, is that a wonderful group of players and coaches assembled for the very last time in the locker room after the game. The seniors led a prayer and the team sang "Texas Fight." When Brown realized that Redding missed the traditional victory closing because of TV interviews, they did the prayer and the song together again when he came in.
It was then that Brown talked about fight and toughness and finally about heart. Strength and conditioning coaches, trainers and doctors work really hard to get young people ready to play games. This year, particularly, overcoming injuries was a significant challenge. We saw Wednesday what a healthy Williams meant to this team.
Muscle building has become an art form and television shows regularly feature biceps and abs that are impressive.
However, the fact is the strongest and most powerful muscle in the human body doesn't flex on television, nor does it manifest itself in power lifting contests.
That's because it is inside.
They say that sport imitates life, and in life, learned physicians will tell us that the strongest muscle of all is the human heart.
That is what New Year's Day 2003 was all about.