"Texas is a state of mind...That I find me in most all the time"
Monty Holmes, Michael Huffman
(A Texas State Of Mind)
A light morning breeze, cooler than you would expect on a late August day, whisped across the field as the last receiver reached for the last pass before the two blasts of the air horn signaled the end of pre-season football practice, 2003.
Mack Brown was pleased with what he saw. A friend, visiting from North Carolina, smiled a knowing smile. This, he said, is what his North Carolina teams looked like at the end.
For five years, Brown has been in the construction business. Now, as he enters his sixth year as the head coach at Texas and his 20th as a head coach in college football, he has successfully remodeled the house. If you know anything about remodeling a house, you will understand. If you stay at home, you may close off a couple of rooms to reconstruct and paint, but you keep right on living in the house. You keep working every day to make it better. Quality of life doesn't suffer because of remodeling, it just isn't quite what it can be until the tarps come down and the project is approved. With Texas football, Brown and his 'Horns have kept making it better and better. That is why, when longtime football observers talk about Mack Brown, they speak in reverence about the kind of football talent he had assembled in his last years in North Carolina. Chiseled, fast, strong. Those were the guys that Brown wanted to find again when he came to Texas. Now, he is closer than ever before.
When Brown came to Texas in 1998, the program was coming off arguably its worst season in over 40 years. At 4-7 and with fan interest disgruntled at best and apathetic at worst, Brown promised the seniors of 1998 that he was not going to wait to win. He told them that he owed it to them to try to win now, and he did. And the season of 1998 was like a storybook. Ricky Williams won the Heisman. In what may have been the most significant regular season in-conference win for a Big 12 South Division team, Texas knocked off Nebraska at home to end the Cornhuskers' 47-game streak in Lincoln.
And when the year ended with a 9-3 record and an overwhelming victory over Southeastern Conference foe Mississippi State in the Cotton Bowl, they threw a party and a parade for Ricky, Mack and the team.
Only a pair of early season losses on the road at highly-ranked UCLA and Kansas State prevented a first-year run at the Top 10, but by season's end, Brown had UT listed as arguably one of the nation's top teams.
By 1999, the veterans who had made the 1998 year so meaningful were gone, but Brown and his staff still constructed a team that was good enough to win the first of three Big 12 South Division Titles which would follow over the next four years.
It was at the championship game in San Antonio that Brown first began talking about "the neighborhood" in relation to the nation's Top 10 football teams.
"We have visited the neighborhood," Brown said, "and now, we'd like to buy a house there."
After a school-record five straight nine-win seasons, two straight 11-2 seasons and Top 10 rankings, the 'Horns are back home. Texas is one of only a few schools that are riding a string of two-straight 11-win campaigns and join Miami as the only NCAA institutions with nine (or more) wins in each of the last five seasons. Texas 22 victories over the last two years rank third nationally during that stretch.
When he came, Brown asked the fans to "Come early, be loud, stay late and wear orange with pride."
Today, all the home games are sold out, Texas sports events are decidedly marked with the presence of the color of Burnt Orange.
As pre-season camp ended Friday, Brown and the staff assessed it as the best they had been a part of, and his leaner, meaner football team took a brief break before turning its attention to the first game against New Mexico State.
In the window of time since that December night in 1997 when Brown and his wife flew into Austin and into the hearts of Texas football, Brown and his Longhorns have constructed the best period of UT football since the Darrell Royal era. A program that hadn't had back-to-back Top 10 finishes since 1977 and 1978 has finished fifth and sixth nationally over the last two seasons.
But as good as the team has been, nobody in the Longhorn football family is satisfied. In the last two years, the 'Horns have won back-to-back bowl games, and finished 11-2 both seasons. The eleven is an important number, but Brown and the team are more focused on the twin twos. Last year, the 'Horns led both Oklahoma and Texas Tech, the only teams to defeat them, going into the fourth quarter. The season before, Texas had a chance in the fourth quarter against both Oklahoma and in the rematch with Colorado in the Big 12 Championship game, but came up short.
So "Finish" became a theme. So, too, did "Family."
There is an electricity in the coaching staff, with enthusiasm brimming from coaches. Practices are spirited, and the enthusiasm is contagious.
A fellow called the other day from another part of the country, and he asked about the special place that football occupies in Texas. It was an easy question to answer, and yet is a hard thing to explain. What is it about this game that causes small towns to stop on Friday nights, and crowds to fill college stadiums on Saturdays?
Sociologists could tell you it is part of the fiber, the toughness of the Old West, the attraction of physical combat, positioned between the rules of a game. For some, it is the "thing" to do, the place to be on game day. For others, it is about family, others will speak of tradition.
For a university, it is the single biggest opportunity to weld alumni support in a showcase on a stage that is unachievable any other place. Already, network television will likely tabbed the Longhorns' first six games for showing. Before this year is over, the number of viewers who actually know something about The University of Texas because of a football telecast will reach close to one billion. Nothing that a university can do, and no amount of money, can put it into that many people's homes. An athletic department is a university's "Window to the World," and in the early years of the 21st Century, Mack Brown and his staff have re-opened that window for Texas.
Brown has said that football is the ultimate "team" game, and perhaps it is so. It is true that with each snap of the ball, eleven guys go against eleven guys. On any given play, one person's mistake can cause failure, and perfect execution translates to success.
It is the anticipation of success that has Texas fans buzzing, and Longhorn players eagerly anticipating. The schedule is formidable, and the challenge is significant. But for Texas, the rewards can be extensive. But it is important not to get caught in what might be. It is a time to enjoy what is.
In the season of 2003, we will have a chance to see exceeding talent dressed in Burnt Orange and White. That is what Brown means when he talks about having fun. Seeing Roy Williams and B. J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas and Chance Mock and Cedric Benson and a newly invigorated line, not to mention all of the talent which will be on the field offensively...watching Derrick Johnson and Nathan Vasher and Dakarai Pearson and Marcus Tubbs and Kalen Thornton and all of the defenders deliver hits and big plays - that will be the joy of the 2003 season.
For it is those people, and those memories, that will stay with you long after the final play of the 2003 season.
The pride, the tradition, the anticipation, the joy, the fun - all of that is part of Texas football. It is a space reserved for Saturdays (or Sunday, depending on television) in the fall. And in the heat of the day, or the cool of the morning or the evening, it is destination of the mind.
As the song says, a Texas state of mind.