WACO, Texas -- David McWilliams called it "The Waco-Bruceville-Eddy" triangle, and for 25 years, Longhorn teams seemed to get lost in it.
That was one of the urban legends of Texas football Mack Brown encountered when he first came to Texas. Ever since the second half of the Texas-Baylor game in 1974, any time a Longhorn team ventured to Waco, history seemed to repeat itself.
Nine of the 12 trips Texas took to Waco from 1974 through the season of 1997 ended in frustration for the Longhorns. Good teams, not-so-good teams, good records and average records, it didn't seem to matter.
It had begun innocently enough, when the 1974 Texas team was on its way to what should have been a seventh straight Southwest Conference championship and Cotton Bowl bid. On a dank, misty day at what was then called Baylor Stadium, Texas had rolled to a 24-7 halftime lead.
Ghosts of dreams were there that day, trying desperately to recall a time long before when Baylor had been a force in the Southwest Conference. The Bears hadn't won in Waco against the Longhorns since back-to-back victories in 1954 and 1956, the former when the Bears were good and the latter when the Longhorns (who were in the midst of what would be a 1-9 season) were not.
Texas was still riding the glory of the 1960s when it made the trip to Waco that day in 1974. Darrell Royal's Longhorns, dating back to 1961, had won nine league championships in 13 seasons, and they appeared headed to another, with only Baylor and Texas A&M standing in the way.
Grant Teaff was in his third year as the Bears' coach, and he would challenge his team when they played the Longhorns with such unorthodox antics as eating a live worm. But when the Bears came from behind to win, 34-24, they finished their Southwest Conference season with a 6-1 record. When Texas disposed of Texas A&M on a frigid Thanksgiving morning in Austin, Baylor had claimed its first Southwest Conference championship in 50 years, the mystic magic of "The Triangle" was beginning to take form.
Including that game, Texas won only twice in Waco during the next 20 years.
That including a 38-14 stunner to a Baylor team that finished 3-8 in 1978. And finally, the cruelest blow of all came in John Mackovic's final season of 1997, when a Baylor team that finished 2-9 all but finished Mackovic's career with a 23-21 victory.
It was into that mess that Brown walked when he took over the Texas job in 1998. And one of the first orders of business was to restore order to the business. To get the UT program back where it needed to be, it needed to have confidence on the road in places such as Waco.
With most myths, there are usually facts that unveil the real truth of situations. And what Brown and his teams would learn was, there really wasn't a "triangle" effect at all. Most of the time, good players win games. In Teaff's time at Waco, when he compiled a 128-105-8 record, 74 of his players were drafted by the NFL, and you know the names of many of them. The list includes names like Bill Glass, Mike Singletary, Walter Abercrombie, Cedric Mack, Gerald McNeil, Alfred Anderson, Ron Francis, Cody Carlson, Thomas Everett, Ray Crockett, James Francis and Santana Dotson.
When Mack Brown came to Texas, the Southwest Conference had been gone for a couple of years, but it still was important to dominate the state of Texas on the field and in recruiting. Thus, he established "the State Championship," as one of his team goals. The checklist would include Big 12 foes Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, and would also include former SWC brothers such as Houston, Rice, and this year TCU.
And in Brown's ten seasons at Texas, his Longhorns are 34-4 against their in-state opponents. That includes a 9-0 mark with the Bears, 7-2 against both Texas A&M and Texas Tech, 7-0 against Rice, 3-0 versus Houston and 1-0 against TCU.
The dissolving of "the Triangle" began with a 62-0 blasting of the Bears in 1999, and in the years since the scores have been 49-10 in 2001, 56-0 in 2003 and 62-0 in 2005.
A lot has changed over the years, starting with the 1999 game. First, the Big 12 schedule moved the game from the end of the season. For many of those years from 1974 through the mid-1990s, the trip to Waco came in mid- to late November, usually in a window that made it Baylor's final game of the year, while Texas still had at least Texas A&M to play. That allowed Teaff to marshal his forces for one final surge, either toward a good finish or toward one shining moment in an otherwise mediocre year.
But more significant is the fact that Texas under Brown has become the winningest football program in America over his 10 seasons here. With this year's mantra of "Attitude is Everything," the image of going to Waco "hoping" to win has been replaced by one of "practice winning every day." They know the importance of respect of opponents, but they also understand the significance of treating games with healthy concern, not paralyzing fear.
All of that leads us to 2007, a season when absolutely nothing is certain in college football. Mack has made it clear that there are no "upsets" in the game anymore, and any team can beat another if it plays better on a given day. That's not news to anybody who has watched the games of 2007. App State takes down Michigan in The Big House, Stanford is a 40-point underdog and knocks off USC in the Coliseum.
I am reminded, then, of a line I heard more than 40 years ago from the legendary Jess Neely, whose Rice Owls always had a habit of playing well against Texas. It was 1965, and Rice had just stunned Texas, 20-17. Only a week before, Texas had been ranked No. 1 in the country.
An exuberant Owl fan who was reporting for a Houston paper bounced up to Neely and exclaimed, "Coach! Coach! How do you explain this? The experts had you 24-point underdogs, and you won!"
Neely looked at the reporter with those steel eyes underneath his ever-present hat.
"Who are the ex-purts?" he said in his unmistakable Southern drawl. "Are you an ex-purt?" To which the reporter shook his head in absolute fear.
"There are no ex-purts when young boys get together and play," said Neely.
So it was then, and so it is now. Whatever happens in Waco Saturday, it is in the hands of those who will play the game, not the mystic forces of a time that is past.