The comma, says the handbook on English composition, "is the most frequently used -- and misused -- mark of internal punctuation. In general, commas function...to indicate pauses and to separate elements...."
In the team meeting room at Moncrief-Neuhaus, George Wynn, the assistant athletics director for football operations, has decorated the walls with all of the championships Longhorns football teams have won.
And with each series -- the Big 12 South, the Big 12, and National Championship -- there is a comma after the year 2005.
The purpose of the comma is clear: It's not about what occurred last...it's about what happens next.
Saturday morning in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, "next" begins.
For the third time in modern Texas football history, the Longhorns enter the season riding an extended unbeaten string. In 1964, following the first National Championship season, it was 11 games. Ironically, in 1970, following the success of 1968 and the National Championship season of 1969, it was 20 -- the same as the 2006 team.
In both previous cases, just as it is now, it was more about an era than a season. The Darrell Royal run in the early 1960s was actually nine points away from four straight National Championships. The 1961 team was No. 1 when it lost to TCU, 6-0. The 1962 team was No. 1 when it was tied by Rice, 14-14, and the 1964 team lost only to Arkansas, 14-13.
During the era from 1968 through 1970, Texas won 30 straight games, with only two losses and a tie preventing three straight unbeaten seasons.
All of which brings us to the comma.
The Mack Brown era of Texas Football began in 1998. When his team won the Big 12 South in 1999 and played Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game, Brown reflected on the match up with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska and Florida State had been the teams of the 1990s, and Brown acknowledged that.
"They have been there," he said. "We are just visiting their neighborhood. What we want to do is buy a house there." Now, not only has Texas bought the house, the Longhorns have met the neighbors and are accepted at the block party. Since October 11, 2003, Texas is 31-2, with back-to-back Rose Bowl championships, and a national title.
One of the most misused phrases in college football is "defending National Champions." It is a cool thought, but it implies a responsibility that is not within a team's control. Auburn proved three years ago that you can win all of your games and still not get to play for the National Championship. Unlike other NCAA sports, the world of college football is subjective.
That is why Mack Brown appreciated his conversation with former Alabama coach Gene Stallings this summer. Stallings, whose Crimson Tide team won the National Championship in 1994, talked about his 1995 team.
"All people talked about was repeating," Stallings said. "We allowed ourselves to get caught up in the pressure. What we learned was, the 1995 team couldn't be last year's team. All it could do was be the best team it could be."
Caught partly in the web of trying to be something it wasn't, the Alabama team of 1995 went 8-3.
"That is why we came up with our theme for this year," Brown said. "'Just do what you do.' In the spring, we had the feeling that guys were trying to be somebody they weren't. All we needed was a team. A team where each guy played his role."
Eddie Phillips was the quarterback of the 1970 Longhorns team that inherited a 20-game winning streak and stretched it to 30 before it ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl game of 1971.
"Just like this team," Phillips said, "we put away our National Championship rings when the season started. But we used the momentum of the streak and the championship as we headed into the season."
Most of all, Phillips said, the team used the attitude of a champion.
Three games into the 1970 season, that attitude would be tested. Phillips had taken over in 1970 for James Street, who like Vince Young had quarterbacked his team to 20 straight victories before ending his career. In the third game of the season, nationally-ranked UCLA came into Austin. With only seconds remaining, Texas trailed, 17-13. That was when Eddie Phillips, 45 yards away from the Bruins goal line, hit Cotton Speyrer with a pass. Speyrer caught the ball at the 25, spun, and ran into the end zone with the winning touchdown. Twelve seconds remained in the game.
Call it attitude, call it swagger, call it winning.
"We expected to win when we walked on the field. We knew it. The other team knew it. That's a great thing. It's something that you earn. You can't teach it, you feel it. And we never gave up. I see the same things in this Texas team. It was part of being a Texas Longhorn back then. And when you have that, you sometimes take it for granted and don't appreciate it. But it is hard to get, and if you lose it, it is hard to get it back.
"These guys have gotten it back."
The victory in the BCS National Championship game created euphoria among Texas people that traversed the years, that took us back to those glorious moments of past championships, and yet left us with the joy of the present. That is the momentum Phillips was talking about.
The 2006 season opens Saturday, and the first of a new series of stadium improvements will be showcased. The new video scoreboard at the south end of the stadium dominates the landscape, a modern marvel of technology, which will chronicle the exploits of a new generation of Longhorns. At the end of this season, the north end, which has stood as it is (with a few minor alterations) since 1927, will be demolished. It will give way to phase one of the north end construction, which will eventually include stadium suites and an upper deck.
Construction on the field is following a similar pattern. With 14 starters returning, great depth and tremendous team speed, this 2006 version of Texas Football has a chance to be very special.
Part of the celebration of college football is its transitory nature. It is, in fact, its own "neighborhood," where friends move away and "new folks" come and bring new excitement and fun.
"Fun" is a major word for Mack Brown as he begins his ninth season at Texas. He wants his team and his coaches, and the Texas nation, to have fun.
The reasoning is simple: We are all part of one of the greatest eras in the history of Texas Football. Kids dressed in burnt orange, playing a game, have made us proud. The band, the cheerleaders, the support groups, the fans -- all have become part of the contagious happiness.
Throughout America, the burnt orange of Texas is the No. 1 seller in collegiate team sportswear. If you had done a summer survey of vacation spots and casual glimpses, you would have found kids from 1 to 100 sporting a jersey or a T-shirt or some symbol of the 2005 National Championship, or anything else bearing that familiar rust-looking color.
Now, the players have put away their rings, and they will use, as Eddie Phillips suggested, the momentum of the fan frenzy and the memory of success as they enter 2006.
"Just do what you do," they said.
Brown has asked his team members to find their niche. Each day, do something to help this team win. Remember the principles of last year's theme of "Take Dead Aim," but do it within yourself. Do what you can do.
Play with confidence, and believe in yourself.
In 1941, a fortune teller named Mrs. Hipple came up with an idea of burning red candles to reflect the spirit of a team, and it was credited with being a part of a victory over Texas A&M that started a unique Texas tradition.
Years later, when I talked with her about the 100 years of Texas Football, she talked about the fact that the secret of the red candles really was the spirit it created within one's self.
"Everybody," she said, "has an ego. That is part of self. You have to have confidence in yourself. That's healthy ego, not diseased conceit." The commas on the wall represent one final message.
A comma means that something is to follow. As the writers of the script, its message is simple. It doesn't mean you have to...it just means that you can.