March 2, 2009
Jonathan Mann, Texas Media Relations
Ever since head coach Mack Brown arrived at Texas, Longhorns players have been getting a lesson in the use of proper dining etiquette. The Fine Dining Program has become an annual tradition and a mainstay in the UT football program.
"I think it's very important that the program exists," said Mary Ellen Oliver, who has been conducting the presentation for 12 years. "I think [it's important] for them to know how easy it is to learn to do etiquette properly."
All newcomers since last year's event were on hand to take in the program, along with numerous coaches and their wives. Player reception to the manners lesson is always positive and active, according to Oliver.
"I have seen them react well to it and they've usually all been very interested," Oliver said. "I love the questions they ask. They always ask wonderful questions and that lets me know they're paying attention."
The presentation covered a wide array of general rules to follow at a formal dinner, including the proper use of silverware and napkins, and the importance of respecting one's host. Oliver has seen a high level of appreciation from players' parents over the years.
"I've been told that the parents are so interested in these extra things that coach Brown believes in providing," Oliver said. "They're really thrilled for them to have this. It's not that people don't teach their children - I think they do. But families don't eat together the way they used to in formal settings because everybody's lives are a lot more hectic than they used to be."
Oliver credits the coaching staff for showing genuine interest in making sure the players fully grasp the importance of knowing proper etiquette.
"Coach Brown always loves to give me pointers as well, so that's always helpful," Oliver said. "I think the most important thing that I see is the fact the coaches and their spouses are here, and that they actually help me tremendously because that's someone at the table that knows some of the answers, as well, and they can talk informally about those things."
Oliver told her audience a story about the team attending a formal dinner at the Rose Bowl a few years ago. The players impressed their hosts and other guests as they stood to respect the ladies who were part of the Rose Bowl Court leaving their table.
"When they do travel, even if it's not a bowl game, people notice because everybody knows who the Texas Longhorns are," Oliver said. "They always present themselves, but when they do something like standing up at the tables when the girls come, that's something that people really notice and talk about."
Former players such as Vince Young and Brian Orakpo have vocal about how much they appreciated the lessons and have remembered what they were taught to this day.
"In December, I got to go on the national awards circuit," said Orakpo, who last year won the Nagurski Trophy, the Lombardi Award and Hendricks Award and was a finalist for the Lott Trophy and was a unanimous All-American. "I attended more banquets and dinners than I can count with people like Keith Jackson, Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Ronnie Lott, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and on and on.
"There were also other people who are really important in cities like Charlotte, Houston, Newport Beach, New Haven, which isn't that far from New York. The last thing you want to do is something to embarrass yourself in front of people like that, but I didn't even have to think twice. I was ready."
Stories like that resonated with today's crop of Oliver's students, who understand the reputation and standards that are now expected of them as representatives of UT.
"I think it speaks to the great tradition that we have here at The University of Texas, and the great coaching staff and people that are around this program," said defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, who admitted to being surprised about most of what he learned from Oliver's presentation.
"It's good because not many people go through what we're doing right now," said Aaron Williams, who, like many of his fellow program participants, is finishing up his first year on the 40 acres. "That's why people are surprised when they see that The University of Texas has such good manners and so many good players. That's what we're respected for, and we take pride in that."
As pointed out by Brown, many of the lessons learned through the Fine Dining program will apply to numerous life situations. The players know that their new knowledge will be beneficial in the long run.
"It's good because you don't only have to do it when you're with the football team," Williams said. "It's also good to do it when you're at your girlfriend's house and you're having a family dinner, or when you're in an interview with a boss or a company that you want to be with. To have these manners and know what to do is a plus."
Although Oliver has tweaked her presentation over the years to accommodate things like cell phones and text messaging, the basic message has remained constant.
"I was basically trying to put everybody at ease with the use of proper etiquette," Oliver said, "To not only speak to what they do at the table, but for instance holding the doors open and the different fine points like that."
While the program was chock-full of information, Randall knows it won't be long before he finds himself using all of the tips and pointers.
"I think I'll remember quite a bit of it," he said. "I'm going to try to use a little bit every day."