Bill Little commentary: Seniors of 2005 -- Together we can
The long shadows stretched like giant fingers across the water of the lake as the sun settled gently in the milk-blue summer sky. It was, of course, a "Burnt Orange" sun, as well it should have been that August day in 2001.
Mack and Sally Brown were hosting a dinner for the incoming Longhorn freshmen. After devouring the steaks from a rare catering appearance by the folks from Ruth's Chris Steak House, the newcomers listened to a speech by College Football Hall of Famer Chris Gilbert, and adjourned to watch a highlights film of their respective high school days.
There were 21 signees among that group. Their success on the field has been remarkable, their retention rate outstanding. Of the 21, eleven will play their last home game Saturday. Two, Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson, finished last year. Junior College transfer Alfio Randall finished in 2003.
Aaron Ross actually entered school two years later, and plays Saturday as a junior. Three suffered injuries or illnesses that ended their careers, two transferred (including Kendall Briles, who went to Houston after his Dad got the head coaching job there) and one became academically ineligible early in his career.
Counting Ross and the three medical exceptions, that means that 18 of the 21 finished their college football eligibility at Texas.
Five years and three months later, they, along with five others who earned scholarships along the way and four "four year" seniors, will play their last home game at Texas. Also honored are ten senior walk-ons, bringing the total of seniors participating in Senior Day to 31, the largest in Mack Brown's eight-year tenure at Texas.
Saturday, those scholarship five-year seniors have a chance at history. Currently tied with last year's five-year class with 52 victories, a win Saturday would give them 53, the most in the history of Longhorn football, with three games to go. A victory would also make this bunch the first in school history to string together 10-win seasons five years in a row.
The record, for the record, entering Saturday's game is 52-8. The 2000-2004 group posted a mark of 52-11.
A win Saturday would also clinch a share (and the right to play for the championship) of the Big 12 South Division. That would mark the fifth time in the 10 years of the league the Longhorns have won outright, or tied for, the South title. It would be Texas' fourth Big 12 Championship game, equaling the league record held by Oklahoma.
All of that gave reason to look back to that August day on Lake Austin, and to the boat house the Browns had converted into a home theater.
The entering scholarship freshmen who were there that night, and are here today, have carved an extensive personal and team legacy. Offensively, the five-year players include receiver Brian Carter, tackle Will Allen, guard Mike Garcia, tackle Jonathan Scott, tackle Will Winston, and quarterback Matt Nordgren. Defensively, the list includes cornerback Cedric Griffin, safety Michael Huff, linebacker Eric Hall, linebacker Braden Johnson, and end Kaelen Jakes.
Together, they have created an enduring trend of success.
When Brown came to Texas, he knew it would take time to rebuild the talent pool and get the Longhorns back into the mix for national contention. He did it steadily, and he did it successfully. Last year's five year group went 9-3 in 2000, 11-2 in 2001 and 2002, 10-3 in 2003 and 11-1 last year. A victory Saturday over Kansas would give this group a 10-0 record.
When Gilbert rose to speak from the poolside tables beside the lake in 2001, he brought both the wisdom of age and the experience of excellence. He had been a part of the beginning of the Wishbone Era at Texas, when the Longhorns reeled off 30 straight victories beginning with nine of them in Gilbert's senior season.
Last Saturday's victory over Baylor was the Longhorns' 16th straight, making the current run the longest in school history behind only the 1968-70 streak.
At the front door of the Browns' home, there was a chalkboard with a message for the freshmen with the words "Welcome to the Longhorn Family" written on it.
Gilbert began by talking about what the young men could expect to face as Longhorns at The University of Texas.
"I want to give you several points to think about," he said. "The first deals with making decisions. You are going to have to make more decisions on your own than many of you have ever madein your lives. Guard against poor decisions. Ask for help. Asking questions isn't a sign of ignorance. It is a sign of intelligence. That's the way successful people learn."
He talked about playing at Texas, and the message he left then is magnified by the stretch run which the players are going through in their final season.
"Be ready to play every game expecting your opponents' best shot," he said. "You can watch all the film on them and you won't understand how hard they will play. You are everybody's rival, and they will look entirely different against you than they did on film."
A year later, when the group including Thomas, Harris, Wright and Dibbles met at a pavilion near the Browns' new home on Lake Travis, the speaker was James Street, who quarterbacked the Longhorns to the National Championship in 1969. Street, like Gilbert, talked about the challenges, but he also talked about dreams.
"All of life is an attitude," Street said. "It is your choice. You can decide to be the best you can be, but you have to work at it.
"The point I am making," said Street to the freshmen of 2002, "is that there are lot of teams out there with a lot of individuals who are great athletes, but they don't win National Championships. It takes a team, and it starts right here. I came to The University of Texas from Longview, and I wasn't good enough to beat anybody. But I had a whole bunch of other people with me and we believed in each other.
"That's how you win National Championships. You go out and push the guys in front of you and then you pull for them when you are not in there. Work your tail off, and when your chance comes, go play, and expect good things to happen."
What both Gilbert and Street, and all of the Longhorns whom they represented, asked of the young men who came to Texas to play football was that they restore the glory. That they bring the Longhorns back to the pinnacle of college football.
Whether they remember the speeches really doesn't matter, because they have gone out and done what they told them to do. They have performed at the highest level, with integrity and class.
As I looked back on the piece we had on our football website after that evening the freshmen spent eating stakes and relaxing as their first fall practices began, one thing in particular struck me. It was almost the last paragraph of the story and it read like this:
"With the gathering of the newcomers, the theme was about bonding as a group. Following the meal, they adjourned to the TV room, and there they watched a highlight tape of themselves. Five plays each, the video drew cheers and hoots, and big hits and great plays were celebrated.
"What was noticed most was the feeling of camaraderie. Rather than being competitive-hoping their plays looked the best-thee was a distinct feeling of pride n their teammates.
"They wound up cheering each other."
It was, after all, the beginning of something very special. And Saturday, we salute their accomplishments.