Bill Little commentary: And so, it begins
It may be the ultimate cliché to say "the more things change, the more they remain the same. But sometimes, that really fits. Sunday was reporting day for the Texas Longhorns...because the calendar says so.
In a formula devised by the NCAA and administered by the Big 12 office that is way too complicated for a normal human to understand, teams can start practice under several different scenarios. It could be based on number of days before the start of school, or the number of days before the first game, or it may have to do with the lunar eclipse or the reentry of the space shuttle.
Whatever the plan, on August 7, the "Rites of Fall" began with the official gathering of the team that will be the Longhorns of 2005.
The system was smooth, with the players checking into the dorm for the next three weeks of intense preparation. There was a time when the day was considerably different.
This summer, for the first time, the NCAA allowed recruits who had signed national letters to arrive early and attend summer school. In early June, Mack Brown and his staff had greeted the freshmen, met with their parents, and handled the very important transition for young men leaving home for the first time.
It has been an interesting evolution to this space.
For a number of years after freshmen were declared eligible to participate on the varsity in 1972, the freshmen reported earlier than the varsity. Coaches had several days of unique time with the new guys, helping them acclimate to the environment of big-time college football, and working with them individually on the playing field.
Then, a couple of years ago, the rule changed so that everybody reported at the same time. That meant the freshmen were thrown in with the experienced players immediately, and coaches had to juggle teaching the ropes to the young players with regrouping the varsity players--most of whom at that time had been away from the campus for the summer.
But in a move designed to help freshmen as they begin their college educations, the rule changed this year to allow them to take classes in summer school. Returning players had already been taking summer school courses, and most teams had a large percentage of their players on their campuses for the summer anyway.
With summer school not completely finished at Texas, the experiment has drawn rave reviews from the Texas staff.
"It has meant extra work for Brian Davis and our academic staff, as well as the training and strength and conditioning staff, but it has really been good from what we have seen so far," said Brown, who estimated that all but a handful of players had been in Austin for the summer.
Most estimates put the percentage of Longhorns who worked out regularly at 95 percent of the team, and change has given the players a chance to work out together most of the summer. It is particularly positive when it comes to conditioning in the Texas heat.
All of that is what has changed.
What has remained the same is the excitement, and the ratcheting up of intensity.
Just as in the past, the loads of possessions filled the carts which carried them from the parking lot to the Jester Center wing which will be home to the entire team until fall practice ends. The batteries of tests which used to be done in a short window now have mostly been accomplished by the day the players report, and the equipment is pretty well ready to go.
As Mack Brown walked to the front of the team room in the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Complex, he stood--as Longhorn coaches have for most of the last half century--in front of group of young men with dreams. He talked about the same goals and hopes that have become part of the fiber of Texas football.
Behind him on the chalk board was a simple sign which read: "You have to be consistently good to become great."
Brown talked about the No. 2 nationally ranking, how it was a statement of respect from the nation's coaches. He spoke of the good-to-great message of the sign. Once, when he first came to Texas, he had talked about "the neighborhood." When the Longhorns took on Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game in 1999, he said Texas was visiting "the neighborhood," and that the goal was to buy a house there.
As he looked around the room Sunday night, he addressed a team whose veterans have won at least 10 games every year they have been Longhorns. They have been very good. Last January 1 in Pasadena, with the Rose Bowl win over Michigan, for the first time in a very long time, in that moment, Texas achieved "great."
Jeff Madden talked to the team about what they had accomplished in the summer...about the sleds they pushed, and pulled, of the sand pits in which they ran in the blistering heat. All of that, he said, was to prepare for Monday night's beginning of the Austin Autumn of Texas football.
Brown told the team they should never forget the Rose Bowl, or what it meant. But he stressed it should be a memory, and a drive to further excellence. On the wall of the team room, the years of championship teams are recognized.
The Big 12 South. The Big 12. The National Championship.
That, most of all, is what hasn't changed in all these years. Sunday night, and the days that will follow, are about the future. In the next days, the portrait of this team will begin to evolve. Until the moment comes, they won't know how the ball will bounce in those critical few plays which determine the final outcome of their dream. But now is the time for the chemistry--that critical factor that is the last piece of the equation--to begin to manifest itself.
The message from Mack Brown and his staff, and from the players in the room, wasn't about what has been.
It was about what can be.
It was, after all, a beginning.