Bill Little commentary: A laboratory of dreams
Aug. 22, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It is one of those moments that "seems only yesterday," and yet it also seems ages ago.
Dressed in their "storm trooper" white uniforms (in contrast to one of the numerous choices of green hometown benefactor Nike provides Oregon), the young Texas Longhorns had just lost the 2000 Culligan Holiday Bowl game to the Ducks from the Pac 10. The 27-22 defeat had ended UT's season at 9-3, ending their quest to become only the third Longhorn team in 17 seasons to win at least 10 football games.
In that locker room, tucked in the tunnels of Qualcomm Stadium on a chilly night in San Diego, the Longhorns saw their growth potential, and made a promise to win games in 2001.
And that, as the old song says, turned out to be "the start of something big."
What then was a goal has now become a standard. The Longhorns have won at least 10 games every year since. When The Associated Press voters ranked UT No. 5 in their preseason poll, it marked the ninth time in the 10 seasons that have followed for UT to be picked in the nation's Top 10 in preseason voting.
And as the team walked off the practice field following its final major scrimmage of the preseason, it turned its focus toward the season opener against Rice in Reliant Stadium in Houston just two weeks away.
The evolving of the phenomenon of preseason practice is a reflection of enlightenment of both the coaching and the athletic medicine communities. Much has changed since a fateful fall practice almost 40 years ago when two schools in the old Southwest Conference – Texas and SMU – lost players to fatal heat strokes on the opening day of practice.
As practice for the season of 1962 began, the Longhorn community was stunned when a young sophomore offensive tackle named Reggie Grob collapsed of heat exhaustion. In that time, summer workouts were not even on the radar for teams. Summer meant summer – time off from school, either to work, stay home, or attend a summer session of classes and head to the lake.
Now, it is rare for teams not to have almost a full squad on campus, working several times a week under the strict supervision of trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. The Longhorns have worked through the 100-degree heat of August by making use of the climate-controlled practice facility fondly known as "The Bubble."
Where in 1962, salt tablets were advised and the intake of water was frowned upon, now there are water stations all over the practice field where players can grab a drink at any time from one of a small army of student trainers. And the last thing they would prescribe would be a salt tablet.
The greatest irony of the tragedy of 1962 is that the deaths occurred on the opening day of practice, which was – get this – September 1. The season that year began on September 22.
Fortunately, as the starting date has moved into the hottest window of the Texas summer, the overseers of the sport of football on the UT campus have adjusted. When Mack Brown first came to Texas in 1998, he and the staff believed that it was imperative to work his players hard in the heat. What they learned, as season openers seemed to be a bit lethargic, was that such work actually wore the players down. So with less work in the heat, and use of the indoor facility, the new approach has proved effective.
The physical side of the preseason is one-third of an equation. Part two is the mental preparation. That is where Brown and his staff are at their best. Using the modern technology of video, which provides a chronicle of every practice play (from different angles) every day, the Texas staff dutifully studies every single player after every practice. Did they make a good play? Did they take a lazy step? What can they teach them to make it different.
And finally, the drills of the game turn into the teaching of the plan. Fall practice is filled with more meetings than practices, where players review video, and coaches use the time to teach philosophy and technique.
Where players once practiced two and sometimes three times a day on the field, the Longhorns' philosophy today is much more cerebral in its approach. The repetitiveness of practice becomes a part of the teaching itself. If a player misses an assignment, he will likely hear both correction and encouragement.
"Great players make that play…come on…you are better than that!" may be followed by on the field instruction, or a simple, exhortation of, "Play the next play."
Most of all, in his sessions with his team, Mack Brown is part counselor and part taskmaster. His message to this 2010 Longhorn team is clear: "You can be as good as you choose to be. You have enough talent to win all the games. It is how you play that will determine how far you will go."
Coaches work every day to put the players in a place where they have a chance to succeed, whether it is judging who can play, or determining who is going to be challenged with the responsibility of helping the team win – in whatever role you can play.
In its own way, it is a laboratory, where mixtures and experiments give way to repetition, fine-tuning, and at last, a little hope and a lot of dreams.
The nation's fifth-ranked team sent its quarterback, its seniors and its head coach to meet with a collection of lucky fans who participated in a compliance-supervised drawing for autographs and pictures after the practice Saturday. Sunday will be their first day without an on-the-field workout since August 8. And Monday, they will begin to take their places in a lineup that will prepare for the season-opening game against Rice on Sept. 4 in Houston.
Five of the last six seasons, Texas has started the year ranked in the Top Five, and finished it there, as well. It has been the most consistently successful college football program in the country for the last 10 years.
In the last two seasons, Longhorn teams have won 25 games and lost 2. For history, and for the numbers on the walls of the team meeting room, all of that is noteworthy.
What is important, however, is Mack's challenge every day to work with enthusiasm, with the stated team commitment of, "every play, every day." At the level this team has chosen to play, and at the place where expectations place them, you cannot live in the past. Success in college football does not produce a birthright – it instead produces a target on your chest for those who want what you've got.
Such is the summer in the meeting rooms, on the practice field, in The Bubble – all part of the Laboratory of Dreams.