Bill Little commentary: The Rose Bowl chronicles -- Final chapter
LOS ANGELES -- It was late now, and the tall young man quietly slipped out onto his hotel balcony, away from the cheers and the well wishers, his day finished on the grandest of stages.
Only hours before, more than 100 million people had been awed by his talent as they watched college football's showcase National Championship game. They had been touched by his commitment to team, his warmth, and they were inspired by his ability.
Now, on the balcony of his hotel room at the Century Plaza Hotel, Vince Young sat alone, in a conversation with God.
He remembered the little boy...he could still see him with his friends on the streets of his native Houston. He wondered about his buddies, many of who, he says, could have been right there with him. He thought of the women in his life...his mother, his grandmothers, and his girlfriend. They have been his anchor.
But in Vince Young's life, God has been his Captain.
Famous people have stayed at the hotel. Presidents. Actors. Athletes.
Each, in his own time, may well have sought the quiet of the balcony, just like the young man from Houston Madison.
Below, the buzz of the crowd that had packed the lobby was beginning to subside. A little after 12:30, stores inside the hotel had received a delivery of "Texas National Champions" apparel, and it was gone in 10 minutes. The fans in the lobby had stayed late, and they were after anything burnt orange that would honor the special moment.
Wednesday was what Californians call a "Postcard Day" in LA. The morning clouds had given way to bright sunshine, and as the Longhorn staff busses maneuvered toward the Rose Bowl, downtown Los Angeles was a picture-perfect foreground that included the rare sight of the snowcapped mountains beyond.
It is unusual, the natives say, to see the mountains, which are usually shrouded in clouds, fog or smog...or any combination thereof. But on this special sunny Wednesday, you could see all the way to the top of the snowcapped San Bernadino Mountains in the Sierra Nevada range just east of the City of Angels and its accompanying sister cities, including Pasadena.
It was prophetic that you could see the peak on this wonderful Wednesday, because the top was exactly where Texas was headed before the day would end.
And that is where our story begins.
The college football world had talked about this game all season. At a dinner in Dallas two nights before Texas beat Oklahoma in October, the veteran announcer Keith Jackson had talked about the dream match-up.
"If we get Texas and Southern Cal unbeaten," he said, "I may just start the telecast by saying `God, are you awake? This is the one we've been waiting for.'"
By the splendor of the day, it was obvious that Somebody really cool had created it. Folks had said it would be "A Game For the Ages." And they would not be wrong.
The venue itself, the Rose Bowl, spoke to the purity of college football. While other bowls have forged partnerships with well-meaning title sponsors, the venerable Rose Bowl has kept the game to the schools. There was a spiced-up pre-game to placate the BCS, but at halftime, the bands marched in the tradition of the college game.
And in that place, in that space, the college game wedged itself right into the heart of Americana on Wednesday night.
Early in December, when both Texas and Southern Cal finished their regular seasons unbeaten, the anticipation escalated to enormous proportions. Mack Brown had told his team to be careful of their comments, and stressed that USC had earned all of the praise the national press was heaping on them.
And then he gave his team a history lesson.
The city of Troy had withstood every challenge from the Greeks for 10 years, and it had proved impenetrable. Most of you know the rest of the story: the Greeks devised a wooden horse, hid soldiers inside, and graciously appeared to give it to the Trojans. They didn't brag, they didn't talk smack, they simply went in unannounced. Once inside the gates, they began their fight and took over the place.
Southern Cal's reign over college football had lasted for 34 straight victories. Networks and news media were poised to anoint the Trojans of 2005 as the greatest team in the history of the college game.
And so it was that Texas came to Los Angeles on December 28, and now, the Longhorns were aboard buses riding right into the gates of the city.
The pre-game was tastefully spectacular, capped by an appearance by a B-1 bomber, which had come out of Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene...just one more airplane headed from Texas to California. It was significant that the big jet flew over the Rose Bowl Stadium, and then blasted straight up, freezing the crowd of almost 95,000 with a deafening roar.
It was not the only thing that would shoot skyward from the stadium on that day.
In his pre-game speech, Mack Brown told his team that he had worked 33 years in coaching to finally get to make that talk, and now he didn't know what to say.
"So just go out and have fun," was all that he said.
The teams were everything No. 1 and No. 2 should have been. The offenses were relentless, the defenses stubborn. The two most powerful offenses in the country fought for yards and the defenses grudgingly surrendered them. Both teams punted only twice in the entire game.
A good tennis match didn't have as many serve-and-return moments. But when the Trojans answered a Texas field goal with a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, Southern Cal had a 12-point lead at 38-26.
Only six minutes and forty-two seconds remaining in the Rose Bowl Game for the 2005 National Championship.
As Vince Young trotted onto the field to take the ball at his own 31-yard line, Gene Chizik talked from the press box to Duane Akina on the Texas sideline, and then got middle linebacker Aaron Harris on the headset.
"Here is what we are going to do," said the ever-positive Chizik, who was in the process of extending his personal streaks (including Auburn) of unbeaten seasons to two in a row. "We're going to go score, and then we've got to have a stop. And it may have to come on fourth down."
Young carried or passed on every play, running the final 17 yards for the touchdown that cut the score to 38-33.
The clock showed four minutes and three seconds remaining.
With all of the praise that the extremely talented Reggie Bush had received, this game had validated the one thing about the USC offense which many seasoned observers already knew: the secret to their success was the equally talented Matt Leinart. And now, it was Leinart's moment to seize. The Trojans had scored all four times they had the ball in the second half.
Leinart's team was at its own 34. Mack Brown had three timeouts left. On the first play, LenDale White gained four yards. Leinart completed a pass for nine yards. USC had a first down at its own 47-yard line. On first down, White gained three yards to midfield.
Brown told an official that he would spend his first time out immediately after the Trojans ran their second down play, fully anticipating USC would keep the ball on the ground. Leinart, however, threw a screen pass that fell incomplete, stopping the clock.
The official glanced at Brown.
"I guess you don't want that time out now, do you?"
It was third down, and White powered over right tackle to the Texas 45. With two minutes and 13 seconds left, Texas called time out.
Now, the fourth down play Chizik had talked about had come.
On the USC sideline, Pete Carroll knew that a first down would allow USC to basically run out the clock. If he punted, he reasoned, he put the ball in Vince Young's hands. From anywhere on the field, that had proved lethal in that stadium for two years against both Michigan and USC, two of the premier programs in all of college football.
The Texas coaches gathered the defense around them.
They determined that White, who had been the workhorse for USC, would get the ball.
"We going to get LenDale White on this play," they said. "So let's bring everybody."
When the ball was snapped, it was the ultimate power battle in the line. Southern Cal had loaded the left side of their line, and Texas was in a power blitz. It was a jumbo package for the Trojans, with two tackles on the same side. Two linemen double-teamed Rod Wright, who still got good penetration. A tackle took on Brian Robison, who grabbed the 295 pounder by the shoulders and threw him to the side like a rag doll. Robison penetrated two yards in the backfield, and knocked down the fullback, who was to have been the lead blocker. White tripped over his own man as he tried to adjust, and Michael Huff and Drew Kelson came crashing through the gap. And as White tried to push forward, Aaron Harris came over the top of Wright and delivered the final blow. It was, after all, fourth down. Texas had won the chess game. They had completely vacated the secondary. They had a similar blitz package on the other side. If Leinart had faked the run and passed, it would have been a walk in for a touchdown. But if he had gotten the first down, the game would have been over, either way. White got a great spot, but when the chain stretched, he was still one yard shy.
Two minutes and nine seconds were all that remained.
A screen pass and an incompletion brought up third and 12. Quan Cosby caught Young's pass for seven yards, and a five-yard facemask penalty moved the ball to a first down at the 46. Brian Carter had two critical catches on the drive, including one that took the ball to the 13-yard line.
Young threw incomplete for Sweed, then ran for five. On third down, he found Sweed open in the end zone, but the ball slipped from his grasp. The play was known as Menu Two, and Sweed was one of four options for Young.
Just under 30 seconds remained. It was fourth and five at the USC 8. Texas called its second time out.
Throughout the year, Young had talked many times of his friendship with Davis, how the two had become close, talking together and watching film, studying football and learning about life, all at the same time.
Menu Four, another option play was discussed. Davis gave Young the choice.
"I like all of the Menu plays," he said, "but I like Menu Two the best."
In the huddle, the team awaited the decision.
History will wonder what was said in that huddle, when a band of brothers who had spent the summer heat and a full season preparing for that moment faced what could be the last play of a dream.
In the press box, Keith Jackson told America, "Fourth and five at the Trojan 8. This is for the National Championship."
David Thomas says the team said, "This is it. This is for all of it"
He looked quickly at his pass options, which were covered. Then, the man who had passed or run the ball for all but two plays for the Longhorns in the second half, tucked the ball and started to run.
The receivers knew to be ready, and immediately went into blocking mode. USC had come with a complete blitz. The charging corner back on the left side had a chance to turn Young inside, where all of the traffic was. Texas right tackle Justin Blalock hit him in the chest, knocking him completely off his feet.
Young ran for the corner, and walked into history.
It was 39-38.
Southern Cal, caught off guard when the Longhorns decided to go for two, spent their final time out. When Young followed his offensive line right up the middle for the two-point conversion, it was 41-38. Nineteen seconds were all that remained in the reign of USC. A kickoff and two plays later, it was over.
Glittering confetti rained on the field, The Eyes of Texas has never been sung louder or more passionately.
In the locker room, after all of the trophy presentations and the hugs and general mayhem, Mack Brown talked to his team for the final time in a locker room as part of the 2005 Championship season.
He did all of the usual things, congratulating them and again complimenting USC for its long accomplishment.
And then he said this: "Finally, this is the most important thing I want you to hear tonight. Remember that we love you. Be proud of what you have accomplished, and enjoy this moment. Let this be a great thing in life, but don't let it be the best thing that ever happens in your life. Go on from here, be great husbands and great dads, and make a difference."
The message was clear. The young men who had ascended the pinnacle of college football can say forever that in the year 2005, they were the best in America at what they did. But the beauty of mountain peaks is that when you have scaled one, there is another higher one, still just ahead.
Coaches throughout the country would call Brown the next day, proud for their colleague who had won it all, and had done it the right way. Media members, some of whom had questioned his ability but always genuinely liked the man, offered sincere congratulations. It was nice to see that the old baseball saying, "Nice guys don't win pennants," was wrong.
A truly nice guy, and a very good football coach, had won it all, and they were happy for him.
It was almost 11 o'clock when Brown finished his final interviews at the Rose Bowl, and headed back to his hotel. Vince Young would hug the women in his life, and finally, when he had quiet time in his hotel room, the tears would come.
They were a mixed bag, these tears. Some were of grateful happiness, others were for those who he grew up with who for whatever reason didn't find the same path he had found. In life, and in football, the essence of Vince Young is in trying to help people. He makes you better than you thought you could be. And with all of his talent, that is his greatest gift.
As the Longhorn buses pulled away for the final time, there was one last reminder of the theme that President Libby Evans Wright had chosen for the Rose Parade, and therefore the theme of the 2006 Rose Bowl, and the 2005 BCS National Championship game.
Part of the sign was missing, but there was just enough left to see the words that told the story of the evening, and as this game goes down as perhaps the greatest college game in history, the words that will always best describe it.
You could say, "Wow!" as some did.
You could say, "Amazing."
You could say, "Unbelievable."
You could say for the first time in 35 years, "The Texas Longhorns are the National Champions of College Football."
Or, you could go with your heart, and the theme, and say simply....