This is one of those scenes that sticks in the memory. It was 1966 and an Oklahoma team I was covering had surprised Texas 18-9 and climbed back into the Top 10 for the first time in three seasons. The Sooners were ranked 10th and their opponent that week was top-ranked Notre Dame.
That particular Fighting Irish team had 13 guys who would go on to make All-Pro in the NFL and it would go down as one of the greatest teams in NCAA Division I-A history.
However, euphoria reigned in Oklahoma. The Sooners, who had disappeared from the college football landscape since Texas had beaten them 28-7 in a No. 2 (Texas) against No. 1 (Oklahoma) showdown in 1963, were unbeaten and feeling feisty. Early in the Note Dame game, OU ran a sweep and picked up an easy first down.
"We're back," shouted a fan who had wandered into the press box.
On the next play, Jim Lynch, the Irish All-American linebacker, took out both the lead blocker and the quarterback and caused and recovered a fumble. Notre Dame went on to win the game, 38-0.
In 1967, a year later, 400 miles to the south in Austin, Texas, football fans were yearning for a return to the glory days of the early '60s. An enterprising booster began printing bumper stickers for The University of Texas. "Year of the Horns" they read, but when the season was over, Texas was 6-4.
In 1999, when an under-manned Longhorns team was preparing to play Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game, head coach Mack Brown reflected on the season. Texas had risen to No. 7 nationally in a year that included overcoming a 17-point deficit to soundly defeat Bob Stoops' first Oklahoma team and upsetting the third-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers during the regular season.
However, a loss to arch-rival Texas A&M dropped Texas from the Top 10 and the chance of finishing among the nation's elite teams had diminished considerably.
"It's like moving into a nice neighborhood," Brown said. "We have visited the neighborhood, but now, we want to buy a house there."
Living in the neighborhood, in the elite world of college football, means hanging around at the top, flirting with an unbeaten season and being ready to handle the weird bounces that are unique to a game played with an oblong ball.
In other words, Brown is talking about eras of Texas football, not seasons.
Neither time nor space permits a tour through all of the previous 109 years on the gridiron for the Longhorns, but history during the last 40 or so years gives a great view of what Brown is talking about.
The Darrell Royal era at Texas began with a surprising trip to the Sugar Bowl in 1957. The program, which had seen great success under D.X. Bible in the 1940s and Blair Cherry and Ed Price in the early '50s, had suffered in the middle of the 1950s. However, as the old country song says, "The Class of '57 had its dreams."
Texas finished 6-3-1 and knocked off No. 4 Texas A&M in the final regular season game. By the time the Longhorns played No. 7 Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl, UT had risen to No. 11 nationally.
Royal, who had observed on his arrival that "A guy who inherits a 1-9 season (as the Longhorns were in 1956) does not inherit a warm bed,' knew that his team didn't have depth of talent needed to play at the level to which they had aspired. When Ole Miss crushed Texas 39-7, legend has it that Royal gave his bowl watch to a guy on the streets of New Orleans.
What Royal did, just as Brown has done, was go out and recruit good players. In 1959, his team was ranked in the Top 10 for seven weeks and finished at No. 4. By 1961, the Longhorns owned their first house in the really cool neighborhood.
That's when the oblong bounces came in. The 1961 team was ranked No. 1 for three weeks before a heart-breaking 6-0 loss to a TCU team that finished 3-5-2. In 1962 Texas was ranked No. 1 and had been in the top three all season when it was tied by a Rice team that finished the year 2-6-2.
Then, in 1963, the ball finally bounced right and the Longhorns won their first National Championship in school history. These 2002 Longhorn players have been told over and over again that a National Championship can hinge on one play. A loss and a tie in each of the two previous seasons had kept Texas from its first official national title ever. In 1963, though, No. 2 Texas moved to the top spot after beating top-ranked Oklahoma 28-7. The Horns went on to hold the top spot for seven weeks. Even then, the Horns held off a very good Baylor team by a score of 7-0 and came from behind for a miraculous 15-13 win against a Texas A&M team that finished 2-7-1 and won only one league game.
What is important about eras is that they are not like a game. There is no defined beginning or end. Often we can look back and say, "this was when it started and this was when it ended," but when you are living it, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Texas followed that National Championship by flirting with another in 1964. The Horns were ranked No. 1 when they lost to Arkansas (14-13) and they finished the season at 10-1 with a victory against National Champion Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
From 1961-64, Texas won one National Championship and missed out on three others by seven, one and two points, respectively. The Longhorns took a trip away from the neighborhood during three consecutive four-loss seasons in the middle 1960s (1965-67), but by 1968, Royal had his Longhorns back home. From 1968-72, UT finished third (1968), first (1969, '70), and third (1972).
The standard Brown and these Texas Longhorns are seeking is the kind of mark Royal established in his run in the 1960s. In the 10 years from 1961-70, UT won three National Championships (1963, '69, '70) and finished in the Top Five seven times.
When Brown was talking about purchasing a house, that's the kind of neighborhood he was looking to move to, with the big houses and the iron gates. The dream of winning it all is why you spend time on home improvement.
Re-establishing Texas as a formidable force in college football has not come easily, nor can it be pronounced — like the guy in the press box so long ago — until proven. During Fred Akers' first season in 1977, UT was a victory against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl away from a national title, but the Irish won, 38-10. Another opportunity seemed to slip away in 1983 when the No. second-ranked Longhorns lost to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, and later that night, top-ranked Nebraska lost as well. That's why last year's team fought so hard to finish in the Top 10 and achieved the lofty ranking of No. 5. The Longhorns had not finished a season in the Top 10 since 1983.
In 1999, and again in 2000, the UT got the security code and inside the gates. The 2001 team purchased the house and made the down payment and now it is up to those who will follow to keep up the payments. However, this is not about winning the prize for the "yard of the month." It is about a solid interior, where beautification projects enhance the value.
Brown's official theme for the preseason was "The Key is We" and the team chose their own particular slogan which publicly is known as FIT. As far as goals are concerned, that means "Finish in Tempe," which is where the National Championship game will be played in January.
Over and over again, Brown has made it clear that he isn't seeking "The Year of the Horns." He wants it where every year can be that, so that when people think, "we're back," they can say it and be right.