Bill Little commentary: 4th-and-inches
As he came to the line of scrimmage and surveyed the Nebraska defense in the first ever Big 12 Championship game in the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, James Brown stood at the edge of history.
Or maybe, better said, he was right smack in the middle of it.
To understand the moment, it helps to understand the situation.
Our story begins long before that December afternoon in America's midlands.
Less than three years before, there was no league championship game, because there was no league. Texas was the lynchpin of the Southwest Conference, and Nebraska had become the dominant team in the Big 8. But, the college football world had been undergoing a metamorphosis that had actually been evolving since the summer of 1984, when a lawsuit against the NCAA concerning television rights and who owned them was settled in favor of the institutions, thus creating open season in the television market.
When the decision came down, ESPN, a new player in the sports arena whose coverage had been limited to delayed telecasts, quickly began seizing properties that brought nation-wide exposure to programs, such as Florida State and Miami, which heretofore had limited reach.
The College Football Association emerged as the steward of the television rights for the large conferences and independent universities, and that worked until the University of Notre Dame signed an exclusive contract with NBC, thus breaking the CFA's control of college football weekend air time. Still, the CFA continued with a good coalition of conferences, so the issue was manageable.
But the restlessness, and the positioning, was a flowing stream that was not going to be denied. The dominoes began to fall in the late 1980s, and shortly after Penn State elected to join the Big Ten Conference, the musical chairs were activated.
In Austin, DeLoss Dodds was in his first decade as Texas' athletics director.
Since coming to Texas in 1981, he had watched the defection of high school recruits from Texas to other, now more high profile schools around the country. Attendance at league games at Houston, Rice, SMU, TCU and Baylor had diminished tremendously, despite relative success on the field. Part of all of that, Dodds had seen, came from the turmoil caused by recruiting scandals in the Southwest Conference. But he also knew the most important figure of all: As television began to become such a powerful force financially and exposure-wise, the area covered by teams in the Southwest Conference had only seven per cent of America's TV sets. The Big Ten had 30 per cent, even without Penn State. The Southeastern Conference had 23 per cent. And the Big 8, which had even lost its regional TV package, had seven per cent.
As the dollars and the exposure opportunities began to be distributed, it was clear that the SWC and the Big 8 were in trouble.
"It usually takes a crisis to cause change," Dodds would say later, and the crisis came in the summer of 1990, when Arkansas announced it was leaving the SWC for the SEC.
Rumors flew that Texas and Texas A&M were right behind the Razorbacks. But there were also other ideas.
While the old guard of the SWC entertained the notion of raiding its neighbor to the north, the Big 8, the new age folks were imagining what it would be like for Texas and A&M to play Alabama and Tennessee, and there was even a small but powerful group that wanted to see the Longhorns as part of the Pac 10.
But before the flame could burn in either direction, west toward the Pac 10 or east toward the SEC, politics entered the picture. Thos ideas were squashed at the highest levels in the Capitol.
The folks in the Southwest Conference office made overtures to the Big 8 to form a television alliance, where the two leagues would remain intact, but negotiate a television package together. There was talk of a merger combining all of the schools, with a playoff game between the two league champs.
Dodds, however, looked beyond the money. The Southwest Conference, an institution in college athletics for over 75 years, was dying a slow death, with attendance and recruiting problems part of the issue in the major sports of football and men's basketball.
In the Big 8, things were not a lot better. Despite the fact that both Oklahoma and Kansas had Final Four basketball caliber programs and Missouri had a nationally respected hoops program, football was still the main attraction for television, and fact was, not many folks were being attracted.
In Texas, three cities ranked among the nation's top 10 in population-Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, and the television markets in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth were in the top 10 television markets in the country. Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis (which was on the far eastern edge) were the only cities in the Big 8 with any significant media markets at all. While the SWC had what was called a "regional" TV package that aired its league games over stations in the area, the Big 8 had not been able to generate one at all.
So when Dodds and Oklahoma athletics director Donnie Duncan got together to survey the landscape, they saw a far different future than those who wanted to hang on to what was.
In early 1994, the house of cards fell. The Southeastern Conference, which had added South Carolina along with Arkansas when Texas and Texas A&M chose not to leave the SWC, signed a five-year, $85 million contract with CBS. The network also signed one with the Big East for $50 million, effectively ending the CFA. The final crisis was at hand.
In the space of less than two months, the league which had begun as the Southwest Athletic Conference in 1915 was dismantled. Television negotiations pairing the Big 8 and SWC were virtually an afterthought for the networks, who were after new material. They found it when the Big 8 agreed to a reorganization that included Texas and Texas A&M, and-with significant encouragement from Gov. Anne Richards and Lt. Governor Bob Bullock-their respective alma maters of Baylor and Texas Tech.
Left behind were TCU, SMU, Rice, and Houston.
Texas agreed to join the merger on February 25, 1994, and on March 10 the league negotiated a television package worth $97.5 million, the most lucrative in college football history at the time, surpassing the one the SEC had cut just a month before.
The league began play two years later, electing to split into two divisions. That is how James Brown came to stand with his team on the field of the TWA Dome, with less than three minutes remaining and Texas nursing an improbable lead of 30-27.
Since the league's formation, the South Division had been viewed as simply cannon fodder for the powerful North Division. There was open resentment among some media, fans and officials in the old Big 8 toward the interlopers from the four Texas schools. So it was with a degree of irony that Texas and Nebraska, two of the winningest programs in college football, would be the first representatives of the divisions to meet to decide the first-ever championship.
Nebraska, which along with Florida State would be the most dominant team in college football in the 1990s, was 10-1 and within striking distance of playing for a National Championship. All the No. 3 ranked Cornhuskers had to do was eliminate the Longhorns, which were 21 point underdogs after winning the South Division with a 7-4 overall record.
James Brown had been a significant figure in Longhorn football. He had emerged as a hero when he got his first start and beat Oklahoma, 17-10 as a red-shirt freshman in 1994.
In 1995, he had piloted Texas to the final Southwest Conference championship, a 10-1-1 record, helping the Longhorns earn an appearance in the Bowl Alliance in the Sugar Bowl.
The Monday before the Nebraska game, Brown had walked into a press conference in Austin and stunned the media. Badgered by a reporter about the fact that Texas was a 21-point underdog, and "how do you feel about that?" Brown finally responded, "I don't know…we might win by 21 points."
In less than five minutes, it was on the national wire.
"Brown predicts Texas victory."
The TWA Dome was packed, with a decided Nebraska flavor for that game which would decide the first-ever Big 12 championship. But, the Longhorns had put the Cornhuskers on their heels immediately with an 11 play, 80 yard drive for a touchdown to open the game. Texas had led, 20-17 at half, but when Nebraska took its first lead of the game at 24-23 in the third quarter and then made it 27-23 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, things looked bleak for Texas.
But four plays later, Brown hit receiver Wane McGarity for a 66-yard touchdown pass and Texas was back in front, 30-27.
Nebraska's ensuing drive stalled at the Longhorn 43, and with 4:41 remaining in the game, Texas got the ball at its own 6. A penalty on the first play pushed the ball back to the 3.
Five plays later, Texas had moved the ball to their own 28.
It was fourth down, with inches to go.
Mackovic called time out, and summoned Brown to the sidelines.
"Steelers roll left," he said. "Look to run."
Mackovic had used his weapons well in the game. He had taken Ricky Williams, who would win the Heisman Trophy two years later, and used him primarily as a decoy. Priest Holmes, who had been the third back after coming off of knee surgery earlier in his career, had been the work horse, finishing the game with 120 yards.
Everybody had seen the pictures of Holmes as he perfected a leap over the middle of the line for short yardage. He had scored four touchdowns that way against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl alone. Nebraska geared to stop Holmes.
And now, there was James Brown, right where you left him at the start of this story.
"Look to run," Mackovic had said. But as the Longhorns broke the huddle, Brown pointed at his tight end Derek Lewis and said, "Be ready."
"For what?" Lewis said, looking back as he moved to his position.
"I might just decide to throw it."
When Brown took the snap and headed to his left, he saw a Nebraska linebacker coming to fill the gap. And he also saw something else. There, all alone, seven yards behind the closest defender, stood Derek Lewis.
Seventy-thousand fans, and a national television audience collectively gasped as Brown suddenly stopped, squared and flipped the ball to Lewis, who caught it at the Texas 35, turned and headed toward the goal. Sixty one yards later, he was caught from behind at the Cornhusker 11. Holmes scored his third touchdown of the game to ice it at 37-27 with 1:53 left.