Friday afternoon was, one more time, about all that is right in the college football family that is the Texas Longhorns. Once again, for players faced with a decision of whether to give up their final year of college and enter the world of professional football, real values won out over perceived value.
When Rodrique Wright spoke to the media in a press conference announcing that he would not be submitting his name to the NFL as an entrant into their professional draft this spring, he talked about why so many—in fact almost all—of Mack Brown's players have stayed in school to finish their eligibility before moving on to the next level.
"I just thought about faces that I would never see again," he said. "And I thought about being by myself in some cold city waiting for the next game."
Michael Huff, a fifth-year-senior-to-be, also addressed the media, and he talked about the mindset of the Texas family.
"It starts with bringing in the right people," said Huff, who will need only 12 hours next year to finish his degree.
When he came to Texas, Brown realized that his most important criteria in recruiting was going to be "evaluation"…selecting the kind of player who would fit at Texas. And of all the factors he considers, none is more important than "character."
When Wright met with Brown on Thursday to talk about his decision, the conversation took a different turn. Instead of football, Brown talked about something else.
"He talked about life more than he did my football career," said Wright. "He wanted to know how much I needed to complete my degree, and what my interests in life were beyond football. He's a hard guy to say 'no' to. He's like a father figure to all of us."
In the years since Ricky Williams decided to come back for his senior season in 1998, a basketful of great players at Texas have come to the same space where Wright and Huff sat, and decided the same thing: that it is worth it to them to stay in school. And in all cases, the Longhorns who stayed have improved their NFL and future stock.
Brown's approach with his players is persuasive primarily because he doesn't try to persuade.
Given that there is a whole bunch of money involved, he tries to provide his seniors-to-be with all the information they need to make an informed decision. By the time Wright stepped to the microphones on the ninth floor of Belmont Hall on Friday, he knew from official sources about where he might go in the draft. He knew how much money that would translate to, and he knew of insurance protection that could be provided in case of injury if he chose to stay in college.
He talked to former teammates who were playing in the league, who faced the same decision he was facing in their time. He knew about Marcus Tubbs and Roy Williams, because he had seen them walk the walk.
Brown's conversations with his players in these times are frank. "If you and your family have to have the money now," he has told players for years, "then you need to go. If you can wait a year, then consider the advantages that another year in college will bring."
Roy Williams talked about the maturity he gained in his senior season. Ricky Williams tucked a Heisman Trophy away in his. Derrick Johnson and Cedric Benson provided Wright an up close glimpse of personal accolades that might await.
Most of all, however, when you cut through all of the logic and emotion, you wind up squarely on just that, logic and emotion.
What has kept them coming back is a unique family. A family that right now is riding an incredible high after their victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. As with all of those who choose to return, they hope, and expect, to win big next year. They have seen Pasadena and they have smelled the Roses, and the fact that the National Championship game will be played there next year is not lost on any of the Longhorns.
That remains to be seen. What we know is, to a person, those who have chosen to stay have been rewarded, and they have relished that.
In some cases, it has truly turned into financial gain. Brown's incredible success with players who have stayed in school and gone on to excel in the NFL is exemplary. For those guys, the waiting was well worth it. But even more than that is the immeasurable intangible of the bond of friendship, of the learning and the growing that is the college experience.
That's why Rod Wright couldn't walk away from those friends, and from those moments. They have, as we have said before, laughed together, cried together, celebrated together. And in the final analysis, what has mattered to this team has never been what other people thought (although they certainly do respect and appreciate folks' opinions).
What matters to them is that they are cared about by their coaches, and they care about each other.
That is the unique bond of this team, of this family, and it is what Texas football is truly all about right now.