Bill Little commentary: A stable of horses
It was an interesting question, and provided even more interesting insight.
"Name," said the guys at the newspaper, "the best five offensive lines in UT history."
If you want history, you go to the "Bible," and in the case of Texas Longhorn football, the "bible" is "Here Come The Texas Longhorns," written by former Austin American Sports Editor Lou Maysel.
Maysel wrote the first edition of the book in 1970, and followed in 1978 with a second book covering 1970-77. The book has long been out of print, so if you have a copy and you have any interest in the history of Texas football, hang on to it.
All of that is said to make the point of this commentary. In other words, in journalism jargon, I just wrote you a long lead.
Maysel's book chronicles each year of Longhorn football, starting at the beginning. And at the first of each chapter, he lists the scores, and the members of the team by position. In a quick glance you can tell who the ends, the tackles, the guards, the centers, the quarterbacks, etc., etc., were for any given season.
And that is where our story begins.
To choose the "best" of any unit such an offensive line, you can look at Maysel's book and see who played the respective positions. But you cannot tell who the starters were. And what you learn quickly is, great Longhorn teams of the past were made up of very good players. Lots of them.
The years of solid recruiting by the current Texas staff have finally brought the Longhorns of 2005 to a place where history may view them as it does some of the best teams in the past.
The operative word here is "MAY," because as Coach Royal once said, "Potential just means you haven't done it yet."
But where once Brown and his staff carefully watched practices and poured over video tapes of them to determine how to get the best 11 players on the field offensively and defensively, now they are looking for the best 15, en route to looking for the best 22.
That is why there is no depth chart, and why when you look at the teams of the past, you can't really tell who started, because the names on most of the excellent teams on the yearly charts in Maysel's book were all good players.
Arguably the best team in the first half century of Texas football was the 1941 team. Orban "Spec" Sanders was a reserve halfback on that team, and he was the 10th player picked in the NFL Draft-chosen ahead of many of the players on that great team.
Almost 30 years after he quit coaching, Darrell Royal will say that perhaps his very best team was the 1961 Texas team. The "starters" didn't log enough playing time to letter until the seventh game of the ten game season. Many folks thought the third team offense, which included a future all-American running back in Tommy Ford, was every bit as good as the first.
That was the team whose offensive line triggered a lot of the "best" conversation, because most of the guys listed in Maysel's book were all-star quality players.
It's worth repeating: Great teams are made up of lots of very good players.
When you have outstanding depth, the "starting lineup" is that in name only, so that printed game program producers and network television can have something to display.
When Texas won its first National Championship in 1963, reserve quarterback Tommy Wade was the guy who engineered the drive that saved the season against Texas A&M. In 1969, the starting running backs were Ted Koy and Jim Bertelsen. But it was Billy Dale, one of a stable of backs in the Wishbone, who scored the touchdown that gave Texas a come-from-behind win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl game.
And in the window of time from 1969 through 1972, the offensive line would produce a series of offensive linemen, among them Bob McKay, Bobby Wuensch and Jerry Sisemore.
The world of recruiting has changed immensely since the time when D. X. Bible recruited more than 100 freshmen who wound up as seniors in 1941. In today's world where schools have only 85 scholarships for the whole team, and can sign only a maximum of 25 in any single season, coaches have to put a priority on evaluation of players.
Brown and his staff look at intangibles such as character and academic adaptability as well as playing ability. A team is like a mosaic; the pieces must all fit together.
Fall practice has seen the defense training all linebackers to play every linebacking position, and double training players at other positions as well. The purpose, obviously, is to get the best players involved.
On the offensive side of the ball, depth is good in the offensive line, at receiver and at running back. Some of those running backs are young, but again, as Coach Royal has said, "If a dog will bite, he'll bite you as a pup."
The staff also has a goal of putting players out of that "very good" pool on special teams, since that is such a critical part of most games. Depth there is also important, as the Longhorns were reminded of after losing a couple of key personnel at the end of last season. Texas had been good on special teams last year until injuries took a toll, and that has been a point of emphasis for improvement this year.
In the perfect world, you want a team of interchangeable parts. To win all the games, you want to avoid injuries, but the game of football isn't played in the perfect world. Injuries will happen. The key is to replace a good player with a good player, and who starts, or who doesn't start isn't the answer.
It's who wins.