One in a row.
That was the message former Longhorns great Chris Gilbert left for the Texas seniors on Thursday night as they shared their Senior Dinner with Mack and Sally Brown.
Gilbert, the College Football Hall of Famer who was the first back in NCAA history to gain 1,000 yards in each of his eligible collegiate seasons, was the guest speaker for the evening. His talk had several key points, but they all revolved around one word — leadership.
The dinner included four- and five-year seniors who already have helped carve the best era in UT football in nearly 20 years. Beau Baker, Lee Jackson, Miguel McKay and Beau Trahan all were members of Brown's first recruiting class in 1998.
However, as Chris Gilbert spoke about the era of Texas football of which he was a part — the record-setting stretch of the latter 1960s — the focus of the evening turned to the Class of 1999.
That group, represented at the dinner by Rod Babers, Robbie Doane, Derrick Dockery, Cory Redding, Chris Simms, Chad Stevens and Matt Trissel, have very quietly built an incredible legacy.
In the years since 1972 when freshmen became eligible for the varsity, the best record for a four-year class at UT was 37-9-2 posted by the Class of 1981 for the four-year period from 1981-84. The most wins ever by a Texas four-year group is 38, set by the l998 class (38-15).
Through three seasons, the Class of '99 is 29-10. Despite the tough finish to their freshman season, when the Longhorns dropped their final three games, this group not only has a chance to win more games than any class in school history but to establish the best four-year mark ever.
That is critical when we starting talking about the success of eras of Texas football. Obviously, the recruiting classes prior to 1972 played only three years of varsity ball, so comparing the 30-2-1 varsity marks of the frosh of 1960 and '67 with today's challenges is like comparing Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. Sure, Bonds played more games, but fact is, he hit more home runs. If you play more games, you darn sure want to win more games.
That is the challenge and Gilbert wanted to give them a road map. His tremendous success with his life, both and off the field, is a shining example of something to achieve. As he talked with the 26 seniors (including transfers and walk-ons), he told them to embrace the next four months of their lives. Enjoy, have fun, but most of all, lead.
By definition, he said, seniors are expected to lead. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity. Where James Street had told the freshmen to push the upperclassmen, Gilbert said for the seniors to lead the freshmen. The juxtaposition — the unique placement of the two speakers to the two groups — was a perfect call for Brown and it fit the personalities of the two stars of the Wishbone era at UT. For when Street was pushing the seniors, one of the leaders was Gilbert, a team captain and All-American.
There are two overriding themes of this young season for Texas. One of them is about the commitment of transitioning from being a super star to being a team member and the other is about being positive. Street said it to the freshmen. For something good to happen, you have to believe that it will.
Gilbert's message to the seniors was that in a lot of ways, it was up to them to believe it will happen but to make it happen. It wasn't about pressure, it was about opportunity. What Gilbert saw as he looked into the eyes of the young men gathered waiting for dinner was an attentive determination to seize their moment.
He talked about life after football, the season to come and the past. Gilbert told the seniors about the leadership of guys like Freddie Steinmark, who got out of a hospital bed to stand on one leg on the sidelines at the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame in a show of unity for his teammates. He talked about the 30-game winning streak that he was a part of starting and challenged them to do the same. It may have surprised some of them when he said they had already started.
"You have a chance to do something very special," Gilbert said. "You had a wonderful team last year. One of my greatest thrills as a player was being on the front end of that 30-game winning streak."
That was Gilbert's point. In 1968, Texas tied its first game and lost the next. Then he and his teammates reeled off nine consecutive victories. He finished his senior year and watched as the Longhorn teams went on to win 21 more in a row.
For the record, the streak Gilbert told the seniors they had started is at one, the thrilling, come-from-behind victory against Washington in the Holiday Bowl. However, as Street and Gilbert learned together in the third game of 1968 (and the message which Gilbert left the seniors) was you have to start somewhere.