Bill Little commentary: The Eyes of Texas
He had asked to see their eyes, and that was the hardest part of all.
At the end of a long, cold day in Kansas, Mack Brown gathered his football team around him in the cramped quarters of the visitors' locker room at Bill Snyder Family Stadium at Kansas State University.
Minutes before, Brown and his team had faced the reality of a 45-42 loss to the Wildcats, dodged thousands of jubilant students who charged the field at the end of the game, and then returned to walk the length of the stadium to be there when the Longhorn Band played "The Eyes of Texas."
After prudently getting the team off the field for safety reasons after the game, Brown felt it was important to have them return to the band when things calmed down. After all, they had done it after so many victories, and they were going to respect their traditions, even in a tough time.
Now, players were standing on benches, getting anywhere that they could so that they could see their coach, and he could see them.
Colt McCoy stood near the door, close to his Dad, Brad, the high school coach who had come to the middle of Kansas to see his son. He had no way of knowing it would be in the makeshift training room tucked in the back corner of the room, where a plastic tarp shielded it from the lockers.
Jevan Snead, who had fought so hard in Colt's place, fixed his dejected eyes on his coach. Michael Griffin hugged his brother, Marcus. Linemen, linebackers, receivers, kickers, backs, all formed a mosaic portrait as Brown spoke.
It is the nature of sport that others may dwell on defeat. Those who are champions have to look forward to the future. The dream of a chance to repeat as National Champions, slim though it had been since the second game of the season, was gone. But as Brown spoke and defensive end Brian Robison followed, it was clear there was still much for which to play.
The testimony to what the Longhorns program has become was still resonating among the happy Kansans. Folks called it the biggest win in school history. For Texas, it was the first loss in an opponents' stadium since 2002, when UT lost at Texas Tech. Four years ago, the Longhorns were then hoping to win out to get a BCS Bowl bid. Saturday, they were hoping to repeat as National Champions.
They had fought so hard, these Longhorns of 2006. For ten straight weeks they had withstood every challenge. A grueling schedule with no off-week, tough breaks, injuries, a loss to No. 1 Ohio State -- they had come from behind, battled through all of it, and Brown knew that. He knew, from the minute that the Big 12 Conference's contract with ABC allowed the network to take a mid-November game in Kansas to a night game that this would be a tough hurdle. He had hoped they could make it through one more game, and then get a deserved weekend off before the final 12th regular season game.
Ironically, the day had been bright. It would have been a perfect afternoon for a college football game. But by 7 p.m., the temperature was in the 30s. The day had been full of distractions, with scores of other BCS contenders' games filling the television sports, which was about all there was to do in a hotel in Junction City, Kan.
All of that, however, seemed conquerable as the Longhorns took the opening kickoff and marched the length of the field. McCoy hit four of four passes as he piloted Texas to the K-State goal.
Then, it seemed, fate decided this would not be the Longhorns' night. On fourth down, McCoy scored, but a hammer helmet-to-helmet collision delivered a scary, painful injury that ended his night.
After an examination, doctors determined that it would be unsafe for McCoy to return to the game, and the trainers and equipment staff hid his helmet to keep him from trying to sneak his way back in.
Buoyed by the loss of the Texas quarterback, as well as quick success on the ensuing drive, Kansas State surged -- a phenomenon which the Longhorns always expect from an opponent. But this time, something was different.
Years ago, when Texas was about to play North Carolina State in the championship game of the National Invitation Basketball Tournament, I received a call in my hotel room from a guy in Kentucky. He said he was studying biorhythms, and he wanted some information on our team.
"But," he said, "I have already done that on N.C. State, and I can tell you that they are in a down cycle. They will be a step slow, and they won't react as they usually do." He was right. N.C. State seemed off of their game, and Texas won easily.
"Biorhythm," says Wikipedia, "is a hypothetical cyclic pattern for alterations in physiology, emotions, and/or intellect. `Bio' pertains to life and `rhythm' pertains to the flow with regular movement.
Saturday night, I couldn't help but think of that call and wondering about the part of the physical cycle of "biorhythms."
Brown has always preached to his team that whatever happens, you just have to keep playing, and they did. They played very, very hard in a tough, physical, and emotional, game.
Down 21 points midway through the third quarter, they fought back. In the end, a 51-yard field goal would be all that stood between them and overtime. Even in their delirium of victory, some respectful K-State fans took time to congratulate Texas on its comeback.
In the locker room, Brown was trying to put some sense in all of it. He said to the team, and to the media, that they just ran out of time.
A local newspaper bannered the loss in huge headlines that said "CAT-ASTROPHE," perhaps an unfortunate effort to play on the Wildcats' win. The loss was certainly sad. The chance for a rematch with Ohio State had become a possibility, but certainly not a sure thing even if Texas had won out. But Katrina was a catastrophe. The tidal waves in the Pacific were a catastrophe.
Only two years ago, Texas was lobbying for votes and hoping for computer rankings just to get into a BCS game. Now, without campaigning, that opportunity remains out there, and the Longhorns still control their destiny. They need to beat Texas A&M in the seniors' final game in Austin on the day after Thanksgiving, and then defeat Nebraska in a rematch in the Big 12 Championship game in Kansas City. The winner of that Championship game earns a berth in the BCS Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on January 1.
As Brown talked to the media, he congratulated Kansas State, acknowledged the Longhorns' effort and mistakes, and offered no excuses. That is the nature of the game and the fact of the night. You put it behind you, and move on. There will be time in practice and in the film room to try and correct the things that went wrong. There is much remaining ahead in this 2006 season.
What Saturday night should have said to the nation is a fact that the Longhorns have known all along. Because of some early losses in non-conference play, pundits have disrespected the Big 12. The league is strong, and treacherous on the road -- which makes Texas' remarkable road victory string over the last four years all the more impressive. Dominant teams like Texas in the Big 12 and Southern Cal in the Pac-10 (which lost a rare road game to Oregon State in similar circumstances earlier this year) have made this winning stuff look easy. It is not.
Most of all, what Saturday reminded us about these Texas Longhorns is that they have pride, an unbending will to win, and a collective amazing heart. And if you have heart, you always have a chance.
In the end, the game was really unusual, because some of the greatest plays were made by players and units that also made some of the critical mistakes.
That may not be about "biorhythms."
But it is darned sure about being human.