It didn't take long for seniors Cory Redding and Derrick Dockery to slide into position flanking Mack Brown as the members of the Longhorn Band who made the trip to North Carolina played "The Eyes of Texas." After all, Brown's return to North Carolina had been dubbed "The Mack Bowl" by the Carolina media and the players were well aware of the "Sack Mack" T-shirts a few fans were sporting.
However, just as quickly as the two big guys hoisted Brown on their shoulders, he opted to get down quicker than a frog jumping out of a hot frying pan. Their coach was having no part of the tribute that the players wanted to give him after the 52-21 victory against his former team.
Now, don't for a minute think the Longhorns' fifth-year coach didn't appreciate the support of his players. This return to the school he had coached for 10 years and then left to come to Texas had been talked about for five years since he took the UT job in December 1997.
From the beginning of this season, this game had all of the markings of an ambush. North Carolina had a good football team and there is nothing more dangerous than a road game played at night against a worthy opponent. All of the planning coaches do cannot make up for a day in a hotel while waiting for a late kickoff. Darrell Royal found that out at the 1974 Gator Bowl and again at Boston College in 1976.
Countless times, the Longhorns have seen it at Texas Tech and Brown's most recent venture into the twilight zone had happened to his 2000 Longhorns team at Stanford. This was a set-up, plain and simple. Saturday night got even more complicated when Tropical Storm Hanna entered the picture, bringing a forecast of heavy rain. Every coach will tell you, weather is an equalizer. Royal said as he worried about the rain from his home in Austin on Saturday night, "that ball gets slipperier than a pumpkin seed in the rain."
It was important to Brown to win Saturday but not because he wanted to flaunt a victory in the face of his old school. There were too many friends, too many hugs, too many great mini-reunions in the 36 hours he spent in Chapel Hill this past weekend. What was important for his Texas players was to see the respect and genuine love folks in Carolina had for their coach. In a world of folks with false faces, it was clear that Brown was then as he is now, straight-forward and caring. While the media wanted to make it about Brown coming back, this game was about a North Carolina team that had a chance to play Texas.
A split national television audience watched, and when the lights came on, Texas rose to the occasion. This game wasn't just about Brown and Texas. It had more subplots than a Russian novel.
In tennis, it is serve and volley. In basketball, it is a firm move to post up. In baseball, it is answering runs scored in a frame with runs scored in your bat. Fighters always answer the bell. In football, especially in this particular game, it was about responding to the challenge and the Longhorns came through with flying colors.
The national commentators set the game up from the beginning. It was a chance for senior QB Chris Simms to answer critics. This was his first real test since last year's Big 12 Championship game. Simms responded with four touchdown passes, 298 yards through the air and splendid game management.
Sophomore RB Cedric Benson felt he had something to prove as well, coming off of an opening game where North Texas virtually shut down the UT running game. Benson, who was injured in that Big 12 Championship game, also entered the game with an agenda to prove he was the same guy who played so very well as a true freshman a year ago. With 208 yards rushing on 31 carries, he also answered the questions.
So did the offensive line, which tired of listening for two weeks about how poorly they played against North Texas.
Most of all, it was a game about answering challenges with highlight-reel exceptional plays. Texas jumped out to a 24-0 lead, but North Carolina narrowed the gap to 10 points on two separate occasions. Whenever that happened, somebody stepped up to stem the tide.
Each time the Tar Heels closed, Simms and company pulled away. When it was 24-14, true freshman Selvin Young reeled off a 38-yard kickoff return, Simms hit Roy Williams and Chad Stevens, and just like that, it was 31-14.
The fun part of the game, and the part Brown took pride in for both teams, was the fact that nobody quit. Despite being down at one point 24-0, North Carolina brought the battle to Texas.
"I have to really hand it to them," Brown said after the game. "I have never seen a team down 31-14 fight like they did. They did not give up."
For their efforts, they garnered a 31-21 deficit, and the lead was back to 10 points. But Simms, who played his second superb game, drove a stake in the Heels when he hit Roy Williams on a 58-yard scoring play that made it 38-21.
Brown then turned to the running game and Benson was the main factor in the drive that extended the lead to 45-21. Young then scored the final points of the evening with a 30-yard run.
When it was over, Brown returned to a familiar setting. The dressing room that now houses the visiting team was the home dressing room for Brown for nine of the 10 years he was at UNC.
In that space, his team celebrated a significant win. It was a big game on the road, a challenge met successfully. When the players gave Brown the game ball for he and his wife Sally, he simply said, "I'd cry, but I'm too happy to cry."
Certainly, there was relief and appropriate closure that his return to Chapel Hill was over. Most of all, what he saw Saturday was a good football team that made some correctable mistakes. Receivers dropped balls and so did defenders. That really was the only effect of the early rain bands of Hanna, who delayed her appearance in the area long enough for the game to be played.
A lot of the misses were the result of good, solid play by Carolina. Its defenders were around the ball and arrived with authority to break up some of the passes.
Late in the night, when the media interviews were over and most of the well-wishers were gone, Brown donned a dry shirt and headed back to the field to tape the opening of Longhorn Sports Center.
As he walked into Kenan Memorial Stadium for the last time as a competitor, Brown had to have a feeling of relief, but it was overwhelmed by immense pride. He had been a part of the two largest crowds in stadium history, first when his Tar Heels team played Florida State in 1997, and then Saturday night, when he was on the opposite sideline. The North Carolina stop ironically is the first of four games this season where Brown will play teams where he's coached in his 30 years in the business. He also was the head coach at Tulane and served as an assistant at Oklahoma and Iowa State.
When you deal with Brown, it doesn't take long to understand that he is not going to allow something to be about him. This one was for the kids, for it was a game of many spectacular plays by a number of different Longhorns. It was, after all, a victory for Texas. In their private moments, he and Sally can reflect on the good things about North Carolina and the many, many good people who welcomed him back. There will be time for that, but not at 5:30 in the morning, which is about the time he got to his house on Sunday.
His locker room speech was not about having beaten North Carolina. It was about celebrating a good victory on the road and seeing the correctable errors that can make the difference in a season filled with challenges but one also with significant potential.
That's why Brown and his staff were in the office Sunday and Texas will work hard next week and the rest of the season.
It is not about what was. It is about what can be.