Aug. 11, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
As Mack Brown has been sending text messages to UT coaching colleagues at the Olympics in Beijing, the days of practice in preparation for the upcoming football season have been flying off the calendar.
Perhaps that's why the comment from Longhorns swimming coach Eddie Reese, who is the head coach of the United States Men's swimming team, seemed to fit well in a pre-season that is the closest thing to anticipating Christmas morning that the Texas football program has had in a long time -- a season where you know to expect something special...you just don't know what.
And in a year that will bring perhaps the toughest schedule in modern history -- with five ranked opponents and nine teams which played in bowl games last year, Reese's comment after the jump-out-of-your-chair U.S. victory in the 4X100 Freestyle Relay viewed Sunday night in Austin seemed to have extra meaning.
"The toughest ones to win are always the best ones to win," he said.
The hottest Austin summer in 80 years has produced the hardest work for a Longhorns team loaded with talent. And the beginning of two-a-day practices on Saturday, coupled with the fan interest in the open practices last week, served to stoke the fires of excitement that is tinged in equal parts of wonder, and wondering.
What seems to be driving all of this is the pervasive factor of "spirit," which has come radiating from the coaches, the players and the staff. For this football team, you've heard the expression that, "It's a great time to be a Longhorn." Well, this one should read: "It's a fun time to be a Longhorn."
Football, by its nature, is a hard game. Summer heat and long practice hours can make it harder. But after more than a week of practice, nothing has emerged to sway the team and the coaches from their intended direction.
Each practice, Brown reminds the players that the video cameras which tower above workouts both at Denius Fields and inside the "Bubble" practice facility are watching. Each day in staff meetings, coaches go over the performance of every player.
The goal is clearly to put the best players on the field, and that will be judged by the way they have practiced. The bonds between the coaches and their players are strong, but Brown has made it clear that there can be a stern delineation between liking the person, and respecting his work enough to put him on the field when the game hangs in the balance.
More than any other team in recent history, this Longhorns team brings the combination of leadership from some established veterans and the flash of talented youth who will be unveiled when the season opens. Practices have reflected that. From the beginning, the coaching staff divided the practices so that older players could serve as mentors for their younger colleagues, and the team concept of togetherness has been strapped together by a coaching staff which also is very positive blend of Texas veterans and new ideas from new people. It is not a team fraught with household names, but it is a team of talented players.
Perhaps the most significant part of the team could be best reflected by another Olympic coach, basketball wagon master Mike Krzyzewski.
"They do think they're good players," he said of the USA team laden with NBA stars. "But we have a saying back home that when you're good, you play for the name on the front of your jersey instead of the name on the back."
The 2008 schedule begins with the very dangerous Florida Atlantic, where the veteran Howard Schnellenberger has returned to the Miami area where his teams won a National Championship in the mid-1980s. After 10 years at Louisville and a year at Oklahoma, Schnellenberger stepped away from football after the 1995 season. But he returned to the game at Florida Atlantic in 1998, where he began building a college football team from scratch. Last season, his Owls finished 8-5, with a victory over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.
The season's second game is at UTEP, where Mike Price has been the architect of rejuvenation for the Miners, and a late-night (9 p. m. Central) television audience will watch what has been billed as the most important game in the history of the Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso.
And by late on September 20, the Longhorns will have played former Southwest Conference foes Arkansas (the 13th) and Rice (the 20th). It is interesting to note, when you hear discussions of "the good old days" from Longhorn fans, that this team will have played a third of its regular schedule by the time most Longhorn teams were just getting ready to start through the first 80 years of UT football.
Without question, much of the excitement of this 11th season of the Mack Brown era draws its spirit from the roots of success. When the Longhorns were ranked eighth in the pre-season poll of 1996, it was their first top 10 pre-season ranking in 12 years. Now, folks describe the Longhorns as "under the radar," even though most polls have them ranked 10th nationally. We do have a gift for getting used to success.
Another factor certainly comes from the completion of the North End, a metamorphosis which will transform Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium into the largest football stadium in Texas, and should produce a tremendous sound chamber for a sea of burnt orange, making a tough road experience even tougher.
It certainly always helps to win your bowl game, because that gives the off-season a jump-start of hope.
All of that matters.
But for the Longhorns of 2008, what seems to be the most intriguing quotient is its ability to believe in each other, and to be supportive of each other. That is a rarity in sports, and it serves you well when, as Eddie said, you set about the task of winning when it seems the toughest, so that it can matter the most.