Bill Little commentary: The roller coaster ride
It was a game made for television, but no one could have truly envisioned the plots and subplots that surrounded the Texas-Central Florida game Saturday.
On the one hand, you had a rising power in the largest university in the state of Florida, opening a new stadium on their 47,000-student campus. George O'Leary, the head coach of the Knights of Central Florida, is a good, tough football coach who had earned the coveted head coaching job at Notre Dame after a successful career which included a final stop at Georgia Tech. But a snafu regarding his academic accomplishments in his resume, perhaps an inadvertent mistake from a researcher in some sports information office along the way, was deemed embarrassing to the Golden Domers, and the job offer from the Fighting Irish was rescinded, and O'Leary briefly left college football over the incident. He returned to college several years ago, taking over what he believed was an extremely promising situation.
Now, two weeks after stunning ACC power North Carolina State in Raleigh, here was O'Leary, bringing his Knights into a national showcase game against a top 10 power in Texas. He had called Central Florida a "sleeping giant," and that may well be true.
In the economics of college football scheduling, the landscape is changing. Where once big schools such as Texas could "buy" a game by paying an opponent a minimum fee such as $250,000, no longer is that the case. Realizing they were in a seller's market, the small schools kept upping the price, and the now popular "2-for-1" scheduling became a factor.
Where once Minnesota would never visit a team like Florida Atlantic, or a Texas wouldn't travel, even to open a new 45,000-seat stadium, to a Central Florida, that's no longer the case.
Butch Worley, the Texas Senior Associate AD who handles scheduling had put out a form letter looking for an Austin opponent on a one time basis, such as he got with Arkansas State and TCU. Central Florida was interested, but ESPN soon entered the equation.
The Big 12's primary television package is with ABC, which while it is now controlled by ESPN, doesn't include games on their cable channels. The league's cable package is with Fox Southwest. So the only way ESPN can have the rating-drawing Longhorns on their cable channels is if they get them on the road in a conference where they do own the rights - such as Conference USA.
So the opening of Bright House Networks Stadium was pitched to the UT administrators as a reason to look at a "2-for-1." The Longhorns will get two games in Austin with Central Florida, in 2009 and 2011, in return for their visit.
But the old saying is, "If it look's like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...it's a duck," can be applied to another word in the world of college football.
If it looks like a trap, smells like a trap, and snaps like a trap...it's a trap. And from the beginning, the Longhorns' trip to Orlando began to seem like a trap.
It began as the Longhorns arrived at Bergstrom International Airport for their 9:30 a.m. departure for Orlando. A tiny light flickered and then quit responding on the 757 they were about to board. It was a mandatory precaution; the flight could not take off without the part being replaced. One had to be flown in from Houston, and by the time it was installed, the Texas players had waited for three hours at the airport.
Instead of arriving at 1 p.m. and going through an hour walk-through at Bright House Networks Stadium, the Longhorns' plane touched down at 4 p.m. In the immense success the Longhorns have had on the road (losing only three road games on opponents' fields in this century), they have followed a proven schedule. They arrive, go work out, go to the hotel, have a voluntary chapel, and a team meal at 5 p.m. A trip to the movies and meetings follow.
Players and coaches are taught to adapt to "sudden change" on the football field, and the staff quickly adjusted the plans. They would still go to the new stadium for a quick walk-through, and then ride 40 minutes to their hotel. But as the police escort cleared the way for the Longhorn busses to enter the highway to Orlando, the first bus lost its transmission. Again, sudden change, and the players on bus one, which included the offense and Coach Brown, piled on to busses two and three.
They did get to the stadium, walked in, met for less than five minutes at mid-field, and then took off for the Marriott World Center. Dinner was pushed back an hour, and the movie trip was cancelled to give the players a chance to relax from what had been an unusual day of travel.
Brown knew George O'Leary when he coached against him in the ACC, and he had seen the films of the Knights' win over North Carolina State. He knew they had a fine running back, and great power backs usually are effective late in the game, when the other team begins to tire. He knew, and he told his team, this was no vacation trip to Disney World in Florida.
Coaching a football team is a lot like being a parent. When you turn them loose, they will do things that thrill you, things that frustrate you, and things that perplex you. Raising kids comes with its ups and downs, just like the roller coaster at Disney World. In fact, that was one of the messages Brown's staff sent to the team: "We will prevail in spite of the road trip roller coaster."
The first half of the game was as weird as the trip.
"Strangest thing I have ever seen. I have never seen us play better," said former Longhorn Keith Moreland, who has seen a lot of football and baseball since his playing days at Texas in the early 1970s. "And all we have to show for it is a 20-10 lead."
Moreland was right. In the first half, Texas had 16 first downs to 6 for UCF. They had kept the ball for two thirds of the game, with time of possession showing UT with 20:48 and UCF with only 9:12. They had throttled the nation's number one rusher, Kevin Smith, allowing him only 36 yards in 12 carries.
But the other phrase Texas had hammered, and had been hammering since its opening game, was "finish." And that, the Longhorns didn't get done.
It is always important to understand that games are viewed through the eyes of the respective opponents. In the eyes of Texas, they didn't finish off UCF when they could. But the 45,000 (minus the loyal 4,000 or so UT burnt orange contingent) fans and the Knights of Central Florida saw it that they valiantly fought off the visiting aggressors as they tried to make the christening of their new home even more historic.
The surreal scenario was even more complicated by the weather. First, it was the oppressive heat. Then, as the game started, there was a brief, welcome cloud cover. But right after UCF had converted a 3rd-and-18 by a foot in the midst of a drive that gave them a 7-3 lead, lightening in the area stopped the game. Thirty minutes after it had started, the game was delayed.
Later, the sun came out, and then a heavy rain hit the stadium. All the while, Texas was getting field goals, but not touchdowns, and the Knights were never "finished."
Brown always tells his teams to expect things to go against them on the road. Breaks, from bounces to calls, usually seem to favor home teams. And so it seemed for much of Saturday.
But despite everything that seemed to go against Texas, including all of those things and some critical injuries, the team never quit. There have been times in Texas football, and certainly occasions in other programs, where a team could have wilted. The big running back was pounding, and key guys were limping. And when UCF scored on a fourth-down play when the quarterback got in by inches, the Knights had the lead in the fourth quarter of the game, 24-23.
And that is when, if you are a parent, you take pride in your kids. Texas answered with a drive to one of Ryan Bailey's five field goals to take the lead back, 26-24.
As Brown said after the game, there were a lot of things to fix after Texas held on for a 35-32 victory. As the season plays out, we will learn more about Central Florida, but at this time it really does appear that O'Leary has awakened a sleeping giant.
For the Longhorns, this has been a hard three games. The pundits gave their opponents no respect, but what Texas found was three tough, well-coached, physical football teams. Brown has said his team is a "work in progress," and Saturday was a strong testimony to that. There were flashes of excellence, and moments where live and on video tape, it obviously could have been done better.
The fact is, however, that the seniors on this football team have a combined record of 37-4 over their last 41 football games, and this team is 3-0 on this season, and as much as we have come to expect victory, you should never have to apologize for being 3-0. From the outset, they knew that the trip to Orlando was not going to be a pleasure outing. They understood about the heat, they are taught to expect surprises like the flight delays, that you can't do anything about injuries, and they know that they will get their opponents' best shot.
Adversity has its way of bringing folks closer together, and this has been the most unusual autumn is recent history in that regard. On this road trip, the staff operated one coach shy because of Ken Rucker's cancer surgery - but he was in the office every day when the team was in Austin. Defensive co-coordinator Duane Akina's wife was hospitalized for much of last week, but he's still prepared two game plans and worked hard with a new secondary. The travel was strange and the game was hard Saturday.
All of that is true. The fact is, the team that played and won Saturday was not a great team that day, but it played with a great heart, and that is the core of any of the things Mack and the team would want to fix as they strive to get better each week.
And that's a good thing.
If you don't have that, you've no place to begin.