Oct. 18, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
In the world of boxing, they tell the story in mystical, hushed tones.
It was the 23rd of September in 1952.
Jersey Joe Walcott was the heavyweight champion of the world. He had once lost a bid for the championship after knocking down Joe Louis. He had twice beaten Ezzard Charles. Now, as the oldest heavyweight champion ever, he was fighting a young boxer named Rocky Marciano.
Taller, heavier and with a decided reach advantage, Walcott began pummeling Marciano. For the first time in the young boxer’s career, Walcott knocked Marciano down in the third round. Every punch that Walcott threw after that, Marciano stood there and took.
He just wouldn’t go away. Round after round, he kept fighting.
And finally, with 43 seconds left in the 13th round, with a punch that traveled only about six inches, Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
It took seven minutes for Walcott to wake up.
Four years later, Rocky Marciano would retire as the only undefeated champion in the history of the sport, winning 49 fights and never losing.
The Marciano story is important because it is a lesson in tenacity, a message of concentrating on what can be. It particularly applies to a college football team that is trying to find a way to win all of its games in an arena where there will be a bunch of punches tossed their way. The trick will be to sustain, and to answer, just as Texas has done through the first half of the 2008 season.
It is also a message about not letting success crowd out succeeding.
You could make a case that Texas’s victory over Oklahoma last Saturday was much like Marciano’s victory over Walcott. Now, the question is, “Where do we go from here?”
Saturday night in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the Longhorns will begin to see if they can answer that question. For only the 15th time in history, and the first since 1977, they will walk into their home stadium as the nation’s No. 1 team.
And waiting on the other side is Missouri, a team which last year challenged for the right to play for the National Championship, and a squad which could have been No. 1 themselves but for an upset loss last Saturday.
All week, the Longhorns have done their best to focus on Missouri – the first of three straight ranked teams Texas will play. By now, you can recite it as if you were a fourth grader: Missouri, Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech, then Baylor and a trip to Kansas before finishing the season on Thanksgiving night in Austin against Texas A&M.
Those six games are why Mack Brown came up with the idea of burying the past on Tuesday. With Ken Rucker playing the part of a funeral minister, the Longhorns buried – literally – the first half of their season.
They dug a hole at the practice field and placed in it a game ball from the Oklahoma game. Included as well were clippings and a tee shirt reflecting all of the nice things that had been said as the Longhorns ascended from the outskirts of town to the pinnacle of college football in those six weeks.
Now, a new six-game season begins Saturday.
Each player and coach on the team was asked to write down three things they could do to improve their play. And as they buried the Sooners and the rest of the opening schedule, they noted the birth of a tiger in their midst.
Every day, the tiger grew. Replacing stuffed animals with a larger one, it got bigger.
By Friday, it was darned near full-grown with saber teeth.
“When I was at North Carolina we used to bury the turtle after we played Maryland,” Brown said. “We felt like now, with all of the hype, we needed to do something light that would also make the point that we needed to move forward.”
Texas has played 32 regular season games ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team, dating back to 1941. Of the 14 games played in Austin, the Longhorns have won seven straight. The only losses came in 1961 to TCU (6-0) and in 1964 to Arkansas (14-13).
The Longhorns’ longest regular season run as No. 1 came in 1963, and serves as the perfect model for this year’s team to follow. That season, Texas became No. 1 after it took its No. 2 ranking to Dallas and unseated the top-ranked Sooners, just as this year’s team did last Saturday.
From that point, Texas won six straight games, earning its first national title as the regular season ended.
Ironically, the next champion – the 1969 team – never played as a No. 1 team in Austin. The ‘Horns were elevated to the top spot when Michigan stunned Ohio State late in the season. Texas hammered Texas A&M in College Station and then beat Arkansas, 15-14, in Fayetteville, to claim the championship.
The 1970 team played three of its four games as No. 1 in Austin, closing the regular season with the Coaches Poll National Championship. And in 2005, of course, Texas rode second to USC all the way to the BCS National Championship game in the Rose Bowl.
While the community around them has been abuzz, the football team itself has basically remained unmoved by the No. 1 ranking. That, in large part, comes from the fact that there have already been four No. 1 teams this season, and from the fact that the high-octane offense of Missouri has drawn their complete attention.
One of the surprise phone calls to Mack Brown this week came from comedian Bill Cosby, who had met Mack when Cosby was speaking on campus a few years ago. The Longhorns had presented Cosby with some Texas gear, and Cosby professed as to how he regularly donned such and watched the Longhorns’ games.
Cosby told Mack to please ask the players to do something for him.
“Tell them I would just like them to win one game a week for the next six games,” he said.
Sounds simple enough.
Rocky Marciano proved a long time ago that you can do that.