Bill Little commentary: Winning open date
Oct. 4, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
Mack Brown figured out a long time ago that a college football season’s duration and its intensity – at a place like Texas – is more like a pace lap than a race lap. And so far, 2009 breaks down into three distinct trips.
With a 4-0 record over their first games, the Longhorns have handled the beginning run. At one point, in fact, Mack had considered breaking this 12-game regular season into quarters. The games against ULM, Wyoming and Texas Tech actually constituted his first mini-season. But when the Longhorns were so impressive in their blowout of UTEP, he changed the plan with the players and put that game in the first segment.
It is rare for Texas to have an open date in mid-season, and it is always up for debate whether it is good or bad to take a break. On further review of this year, the coaching staff likes what it sees. If an open date comes too early, as it did after the second game of 2004, it really doesn’t offer some of the advantages a later break can. In that case, it is too soon after you just finished fall training to have video and experiences that will serve as a teaching mechanism based on what has happened so far. Practice, just for the sake of practice, isn’t as productive as practice for the sake of teaching. And nothing is a better teacher than experience.
You can debate for long hours the benefits of sustaining momentum by playing versus using the break to step back a bit, and it is probably different in different years. This time, it falls about as perfect as it can for the Longhorns.
First of all, it gives those players who are nicked and bruised a chance to heal. More important, however, is the opportunity to work with young players. Because all but one of the early games were lopsided enough to allow a lot of guys to play, the coaches and the older players can now communicate with them based, not on theory, but experience. They have a chance to understand “why” as they are learning “how.”
The coaching staff did that as the Longhorns worked Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before taking a full break that began Friday. The open date also gives the team a chance for a particular kind of bonding as they spend time together. Then, as many of them take advantage of an open weekend, they are challenged to remember their goal as they travel home to see friends. The strength and conditioning work the Longhorns did over the summer allowed them to sustain through the heat of the UTEP game. As the team members went their separate ways, they were charged with personal accountability to maintain the standards they have established.
All of that is critical when you look at the next two segments of Mack’s mini-seasons. The Longhorns are 1-0 in Big 12 competition. A year ago, Texas faced arguably their toughest mid-season run ever, when they had to play four straight teams which had been ranked in the top 10 in Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Not since the 1940s had anybody made it through such a gauntlet undefeated, and Texas came within a second of doing that. But it is that second that Texas realizes was the difference between it and its ultimate goal of playing for a national championship.
So beginning Saturday, Texas returns to Big 12 play and a treacherous four-game stretch. It begins with Colorado, a frustrated team with good players that began the year hoping for a 10-win season. Then, the Longhorns leave Austin for three straight weeks to play Oklahoma in Dallas, Missouri at Columbia and Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
The final piece of the season includes a rare late season non-conference game in Austin with Central Florida (moved to accommodate television’s request to play Texas Tech in September), then Texas is at Baylor before playing Kansas in Austin and Texas A&M in College Station.
It is, after all, much like those journeys pioneers used to make as they headed west. There was a point where they stopped and rested, to get ready for the hard journey ahead. Any way you slice it, that’s where Texas is right now. Admittedly, you do have to (as the cliché says) take them “one at a time.” But if you are driving to Dallas, you have to first get to Temple, and then to Waco, and so on.
So, now, the players will have used this weekend to watch games of opponents, visit with family, catch up on studies, and come back together on Sunday night in Austin.
And if you are wondering what happens next, the team will return to reality on Monday with a 5:45 a.m. practice. The early time is necessary, because a lot of the players have labs on Monday afternoon – which is normally a day off.
Mack has always made the point that the life of a team is 365 days long, and that it began for these Longhorns the day after the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl victory over Ohio State. You work as a college football player year-round to play 12 regular season games, and then hope for a couple more in post-season. A third of that regular season is successfully behind them.