Bill Little commentary: Believing you can
Oct. 1, 2010
Bil Little, Texas Media Relations
Eighty-six year old Darrell Royal paused for a moment as he pondered the question posed by a young journalist representing Fox Sports' dot.com Longhorn Digest.
"If you had one piece of advice for somebody who hadn't ever played in the game before, what would it be?"
You wondered if the man who, as a player and a coach, has been in just about as many Texas-Oklahoma games as anybody, was going to go back to one of his "Royalisms." Perhaps, "Dance with who brung you," or something to do with the fight that will happen at 2:30 in the afternoon on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Those who have been in the arena talk about "the tunnel." They marvel at the crowd split down the middle, orange-clad Longhorn fans to the north of the 50 yard line, and red-robed Sooners to the south.
It has been called a "heavyweight fight." A "border war." An experience like no other.
It is all of those things, and yet, here was Royal, shortly after Mack Brown had spoken at the Austin Longhorn Club, thinking back over eighty years of living. He had been a star for Oklahoma as a player in the 1940s, and one of the country's greatest football coaches at Texas from 1957 through 1976.
His teams had turned the tide against the Sooner dynasty of the 1950s when his Longhorns shocked Oklahoma, 15-14, in 1958. The victory started a string of 11 wins over the next 12 games for Texas. He had won three National Championships in those years, and created an offense called the Wishbone that the Sooners would eventually employ to swing the momentum back to north of the Red River.
He thought for a minute, as if the whirring in his mind was like the wheels in a slot machine, looking for the jackpot. And then he said this:
"Don't lose the game before you play it."
Mack Brown has always said that Royal had the ability to take complicated things and make them simple, and he had done it again. With all the preparation, the planning, the conditioning, the schemes and the tricks, games and life come down to one thing: you have to believe you can do it.
I stopped for a minute, waiting to see if there was more. And then I pulled out my pen and copied down the line.
The Texas-Oklahoma game this year provides one of the most intriguing matchups in recent series history. Oklahoma brings a 4-0 record into the game, and Texas is 3-1. The pundits have the game as darned near a tossup. The media is not sure. The coaches are puzzled. Oklahoma has shown prowess with playmakers on offense, and Texas' defense has been superb at times. More than any time in recent history, both teams are waiting for a hero.
And this, of all games, has a history of being a place where heroes are made.
You never know where they come from, and usually it is hard to even figure why. But year after year and decade after decade, out of that famous tunnel will come somebody who will become immortal because of what they did on the floor of the ancient stadium, nestled in the midst of the State Fair of Texas.
Starting 110 years ago, seven years before Oklahoma became a state, these two schools began playing football. The rivalry was strong from the beginning. In 1914, after Texas had lost two straight years to Oklahoma, a huge crowd of 7,500 people gathered at Gaston Field in Dallas (the Texas League baseball park) to see the game. Horseracing was not only the "Sport of Kings" back then, it was the sport of Dallas. The horse races had taken over the State Fair racegrounds.
The Longhorns were not only unbeaten through three games, they were unscored upon as well. But all that changed when the Oklahoma team ran the opening kickoff back for a 7-0 lead. In the days when betting at the game was common, many Oklahoma fans started waving money at the Texas supporters. They would be disappointed, and eventually, broke.
Louis Jordan, the popular Longhorn captain who was an honor student from Fredericksburg, gathered his teammates around him before the Sooners kicked off. Clyde Littlefield, the Longhorns' star player who would eventually become a great football and track coach at Texas, remembers that Jordan gave his teammates a pep talk--or something like that.
"He told us in no mincing words, with a few cuss words in German and some in English, that `nobody leaves this field until we beat the hell out of them'," Littlefield recalled. Eleven men started the game for Texas, and eleven finished it. Texas won, 32-7.
Since that day, stars have been born in this series.
Legends of college football have been matched against each other--no more so than Royal himself as a player for Oklahoma against Bobby Layne of Texas. Heisman winners, all-Americans, and all-conference players stand along side little known players whose contribution in this game transcended their careers--a moment in time when fate seems to feature someone who steps from the shadows into the bright sunlight on the stadium's floor.
The improvements and the addition of seats - which came because of the efforts of an unsung hero and Dallasite named Pete Schenkel - kept the stadium as a viable option for the two schools, and the contract with the State Fair will keep the game there through the 2015 season.
If history is any indication, on Saturday in Dallas, at least one player will surprise us all with a memorable performance. And the coolest thing about this game is, you don't know which team he will play for, or who it will be. It is, after all, a game where heroes are made.
What we do know is that Coach Royal is right. The biggest enemy in sport is self doubt. You have to believe you can before you can. This then, is a game that is first determined by attitude--the old fashioned, "it's you or me" kind of fight that makes this series what it is.
You will, in the final analysis, have to win the game on the field. You can't win the game before it's played. But in an arena where faith in yourself is a huge part of the puzzle, it is important that you make the other team beat you--and not beat yourself before you ever go down the tunnel. In other words, "Don't lose the game before it is played."