Winning a conference title is back to the way it was, but in another way, it is about the new world in which we live.
Nov. 25, 2012
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
"If we could learn from history, what lessons it could teach us," wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is only a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us."
Old Sam probably didn't know much about Big 12 football, and he couldn't have known about the long-standing emotion that Texas Christian University has always been able to generate when it comes to The University of Texas at Austin. Captured on the video of the ESPN telecast was a purple-clad fan holding up a sign saying, "Make it personal."
For more than seventy years, it has been personal for TCU, but not for Texas. That is why the Longhorns never saw it coming. We live in either of two states: emotion, or logic. Coaches and players study films and understand the logic of the game. But when you tee it up, it is the emotion of the game that usually decides the outcome. And if you are living logically, you have a tough time measuring the effect of emotion. Despite all of the cautions, and all of the warnings, you can't get it until you have seen it.
For TCU, it was personal. This was a series that has been on hold since 1995, when the Horned Frogs packed away a healthy resentment because they were not deemed good enough to be included when the Southwest Conference and the Big 8 Conference dissolved and formed the Big 12. When Gary Patterson came to Fort Worth and began to build a solid program, it still lacked that validity that could only be achieved by knocking off the flagship university of the state, and the acknowledged football power in Texas - The Longhorns of The University of Texas. Once, in 2007, the Horned Frogs had mustered their best effort and had gotten swatted away like a pesky fly, 34-13.
History could have told us that TCU had the tools with which to build a power football program. This was a school that once produced such giants as Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien, Jim Swink and Bob Lilly in the days of the old Southwest Conference. In the late 1950s and 1960s the program began to slide - so much so that its only claim to fame for a while were the devastating upsets it seemed to hang on Texas. In 1961, the Horned Frogs won only two league games. But one of them was a 6-0 upset of Texas in Austin that knocked the Longhorns out of an almost certain national championship. That was the burr under Darrell Royal's saddle which caused him to proclaim that "TCU is like a bunch of cockroaches...it isn't what they eat, but what they fall into and mess up."
In the 1980s, the late Jim Wacker tried to rebuild the Horned Frog nation, but in one of the sad twists of the time, he would learn too late that his players were involved in serious NCAA violations that would practically destroy the program.
When the Frogs were left behind and Baylor was included in the formation of the Big 12, TCU began an odyssey that would take them from conference to conference. Patterson came in and began finding success - not just winning, but claiming some signature wins along the way. All of that was what TCU brought to Austin on Thanksgiving Night, with their guns focused totally on taking down Texas.
The Longhorns, on the other hand, had bigger fish to fry than a simple meal of frog legs on Thanksgiving. The league's "purple people" now included the `Horns' last two opponents - TCU and Kansas State. The irony is, the Longhorns fully understood the significance of playing Kansas State in Manhattan. Once a simple outpost of the rural nature of the new Big 12, Texas had become quite familiar with the Wildcats. Of all of the teams in the Big 12 - including Oklahoma - Kansas State has had more success percentage-wise against Texas than any other.
Every time the media and the fans tried to talk about what might be possible for Texas if the Longhorns won their last two games, Mack Brown and his staff would try to refocus the team and bring it back to earth by reminding them, "beat TCU."
Little could they know that they were right back where their brothers in burnt orange had been in the years before the old Southwest Conference began to fade. They were in a new league that was just like the old - rife top to bottom with the strongest overall conference in college football. That will be challenged by the media, which is submerged in an adoring euphoria of the Southeastern Conference. But it is reinforced by Texas A&M, which took a Big 12-style of football into the bastion of the south and achieved great success.
TCU and West Virginia, both of whom have played as league champions in the BCS, have complimented the eight teams which stayed in the Big 12, and together the ten have formed a league where truly anybody can beat anybody. Teams are taking each other to overtime games in high-scoring contests and are putting up unimaginable numbers - a league so balanced that four of the ten teams went into the next-to-last week of the season with a chance to win at least a share of the conference championship.
What that means, of course, is that teams have to be ready to play every week. Kansas State found that out at Baylor, and the landscape is littered with other examples. All of which brings us back to Thanksgiving Night in Austin.
In 1961, when the Longhorns were No. 1 in the country with their only games remaining against Texas Christian and Texas A&M, I interviewed one of the players about being cautious considering that twenty years before, TCU had ruined UT's dreams of its first national title. He brushed it off, based on the logic that the years were distant and the players weren't even born when the other upset happened.
He was right, of course - logically. But football games are played with passion and emotion. So let me help you with something. In the Big 12, for the foreseeable future, winning is not going to come easy. Where once you won simply because of the name on the front of your jersey, that is no longer happening. Playing just "okay" is no longer "okay." Too often teams have lived by the image of what they did to lose a game. This is a league which does, and will continue to, dwell in the space of games that will be won by the team that plays the best. It will be attitude, blended with aptitude, which will determine the eventual champion.
In a way it is back to the way it was, but in another, it is about the new world in which we live. It has always been really, really hard to win all of the games. And as every team in the Big 12 is finding out, it has gotten really, really harder.