The last time freshmen and varsity players reported on the same day at NCAA Division I schools, Mack Brown was coaching wide receivers as an assistant at Memphis State.
A year later, the NCAA instituted a new rule allowing freshmen to report early. That season, Brown was on the field coaching in the season opener in Austin in what is now known as Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
For Iowa State.
During the 25-year period from 1978 until this year, the rules allowed newcomers to come to campus as much as a week early to get acclimated to college life. Thursday afternoon for the Texas Longhorns, all of that changed. With teams starting earlier and earlier, the Rules committee decided it was important to protect the number of practice dates allowed, and has chosen to permit schools to bring all players in at the same time.
As far as Mack Brown is concerned, it's not necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing.
"We are really looking at how we can nurture the freshmen at the same time we are getting in full swing in practice," Brown said. "We will be in shorts early, but that still means that we have freshmen defensive backs lining up against Roy and B. J. and Sloan. We have to make sure they are comfortable, so they don't get discouraged the first day."
One of the ways Brown will do that is with increased emphasis on the "Big Brother" system he has had in place for a number of years. Each newcomer is assigned to an upperclassman, whose job it is to watch after him. They will eat with them, answer questions, and basically just become their new best friend.
Brown and his staff have also been very careful to keep the camaraderie that is so important for classes to embrace. In earlier times, the new guys had several days on campus to bond together before the varsity arrived.
To help that, the staff kept in place the first meeting with the freshmen and their parents when they checked into the dorm. The newcomers gathered for a meal and a meeting on Wednesday afternoon, before the whole team meeting that night. Wednesday night's activities were changed a bit so that the freshmen attended the opening team gathering, and then actually introduced themselves in breakdown meetings with the offense and defense.
In between, Brown made sure to keep traditions, such as the learning and singing of "Texas Fight" and "The Eyes of Texas." Choir directors for that process were the graduate assistants, a couple of veterans of the chorus, Beau Trahan and Major Applewhite.
"There will be some positives in the new approach," said Brown. "Under the old system, I felt like the freshmen got tired running against air. This way, they will be learning our system immediately. Fundamentals are so important. We want to stress blocking and tackling as much as possible. Football is a contact game. It's like our friend Joe Jamail says, 'You can't learn to swim without a getting in the water.'"
The strongest characteristic of the Longhorns is the togetherness of the team, and Brown is counting heavily on that as the team begins practice Thursday afternoon. The new format will call for some mandatory days in shorts, and there will be fewer two-a-day practices. Still, the Austin heat will be a factor to watch.
"We told the guys to look out for the freshmen, because they will want so badly to show us what they can do that they may not be as cautious about the heat," Brown said. "We want the upperclassmen to watch out for them, don't let them over do it and make sure they take plenty of water. You've got to look out for each other."
New trainer Kenny Boyd will be keeping a careful eye on the whole team, taking advantage of a new pavilion which has been constructed at the Denius Practice Fields for breaks. Boyd, who came from the University of Colorado this summer, says personal experience will keep him wary of the weather.
"Coming from where I am (Colorado), I'll probably be hooked up to IVs myself," he joked. "Seriously, though, we have all learned the hard way that you can't be too careful when it comes to the heat."
Brown knows that the newly constructed "bubble," an air-conditioned full size playing field in the northwest corner of the practice area is available. And in its first season, the staff is exploring new ways to use it.
"We have checked with the Houston Texans (who have a facility identical to the Longhorns) and found that they felt it was important to work outside as much as possible for conditioning. As we approach the game, we will likely move inside a week to 10 days before it. But this is Austin, and it is going to be hot on game days for awhile, and we want our guys to be accustomed to it."
The practices are scripted and reviewed daily, so if the staff feels a change is needed, it can be employed immediately. The freshmen probably will get some extra work after the varsity finishes the daily practice. The structure of the practice may be adjusted, but the spirit won't.
What will remain will be a commitment to three things. First, the health of the players. Second, the continued growth of the feeling of togetherness that only comes from the word "team," and finally, a strong emphasis on getting better each day.
"That is the challenge each of you have," Brown told the team in their first meeting. "As players and coaches, we need to wake up each day thinking, 'What am I going to do today to make myself better?' Take one thing, and do it better than you did yesterday. That's how you improve as a player and as a person, and that translates to a better team."