Bill Little commentary: A view from the past
Nov. 20, 2009
It has become an annual crossing - the induction of the Longhorn Hall of Honor and Senior Day at the final home game of the season. And it probably had never fit better than it will Saturday night, when two of the greatest Longhorn quarterbacks of all-time will each share a portion of the stage.
Much has been said and written about Colt McCoy's final game in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium; how he stands on the edge of history as the winningest starting quarterback in NCAA college football history.
But in the shadow of Colt's great moment, James Brown will be back to claim his own piece of history. And it is fitting that James will be here on Senior Day to be inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor. Because 12 years ago he went out in style on another Senior Day near the end of a bittersweet season in 1997.
As James and the other inductees are celebrated in ceremonies for both the Longhorn Men's and Women's Halls of Honor, distant memories abound. It has been 60 years since Dan Watson played baseball at Texas, and almost 50 since Dr. James Willerson swam in the pool at old Gregory Gym, to mention a couple. That is part of the nostalgia of the weekend about the past; the juxtaposition with the emotion of the current seniors like McCoy, Jordan Shipley, Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, Roddrick Muckelroy - the list goes on and on, including all those who will run on to the field for the final time and greet their relatives.
Mack Brown has done a great job of emphasizing that there is still much work to do for these seniors, who have a regular season finale against Texas A&M in just five days on Thanksgiving night in College Station, as well as hopes for a Big 12 Championship game and a bowl game to follow.
It wasn't like that for James Brown, who remains one of the heroic figures of Longhorn football. From the moment he filled in for an injured Shea Morenz and led Texas to victory over Oklahoma in 1994, James Brown established himself as a leader. When the 1994 season seemed to be hanging on the brink in a game at Waco against Baylor at the end of that season, James Brown threw five touchdown passes.
He proved not only his ability, but his heart in 1995, when he played on a badly sprained ankle and led the Longhorns to a 16-6 victory over Texas A&M in College Station - a game that not only snapped the Aggies long home winning streak - it won for Texas the final championship in the history of the Southwest Conference.
And then, in 1996, who could forget his brilliant play in the Longhorns' win over Nebraska in the first Big 12 Championship game?
When the 1997 season started, James Brown had already become the only Longhorn quarterback in modern history to lead his team to three league championships. And there were high hopes for a fourth. But when Brown was injured in the season opener and Texas lost without him the next week to UCLA, all of dreams began to wash away.
All that was left, in the end, for James Brown, was Senior Day, ironically as we look back this weekend, against Kansas. There was no television of the game, just radio reports of a Jayhawks team which was 5-5, and hoped for a bowl bid. Texas was 3-6, with games with Kansas and Texas A&M remaining.
Senior Days can be like that. In that moment, you find yourself playing for your school, and for your team.
That is what James Brown did that day in 1997.
When it was over, Texas had won, 45-31. James had joined with junior running back Ricky Williams for one final, glorious moment in the stadium where he had created so many thrills. While Williams rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, Brown had completed 27-of-34 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown.
It was the 25th, and last victory, of his career as a Texas starter, although Brown and Williams fought gamely in an 27-16 season-ending loss to 9-2 Texas A&M.
The day after that Kansas game in 1997, construction began on the major renovation to the stadium's east side. Much had changed in Texas football since that time. What has not changed is James Brown.
His love of the game of football continued through several runs at playing in Europe, and in the arena league. NFL teams looked at him at other positions, but never seriously as a quarterback. He returned to Austin and got his college degree, and now is back in the game - as an assistant coach under the re-established football program at Lamar University in his home town of Beaumont.
On Saturday night there will be a lot of memories for James and the other inductees for the respective Halls of Honor, and there will be a lot of memories as well for the Longhorn seniors of 2009. It is correct - they still have much to play for, so saying goodbye on Saturday isn't appropriate. Texas is on a mission that includes a four-game schedule under optimum conditions. A victory Saturday, of course, clinches the Big 12 South Division, and the right to represent the division in Dallas Cowboys Stadium on December 5.
That is why it is special to pay tribute to the seniors, but not say goodbye to them. Saturday night is a milestone of their college career. It is not, however, the finish line.