Bill Little commentary: The long distance runner
It took a good portion of Saturday to try to understand Friday, and by the time Oklahoma escaped Oklahoma State, there was a tendency to simply say to the football gods, OK, we got the message.This one wasn't meant to be.
Watching West Virginia lose at home to unheralded South Florida helped put a lot into perspective.The Mountaineers, like Texas, had been fighting all season for a chance to play for the National Championship.
Now, here they were, beaten by a team everyone thought they shouldn't lose to, just as Texas had fallen, 12-7, to Texas A&M, a school which had won only eight times in the 82-year history of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
By twilight, the Longhorns knew their deal was done.Once again, just as has happened for most of history, the defending National Champion will not be repeating.The Big 12 Conference championship will be decided by two teams which Texas defeated -- Oklahoma by 18 points when the Sooners still had Adrian Peterson, and Nebraska in Lincoln in the snow.
In the 10-year history of the Big 12, a team has never won back-to-back league championships, and it won't again.Eight points -- three against Kansas State and five against Texas A&M -- ended the Horns' regular season at 9-3.
There are a lot of ironies in all of this, but none greater than the final regular season mark.
Prior to the season, Mack Brown talked to a lot of coaches who had won National Championships, asking them their thoughts on coaching that next season.Gene Stallings, a great friend of Brown's who is now on the Board of Regents at Texas A&M after a coaching career which included a National Championship at Alabama, was one whose counsel he sought.
Stallings had told Brown he thought his Alabama team put too much pressure on itself to repeat.His advice was, "Just try to get them to understand that they don't have to be last year's team, they just need to do what they can do."
Thus, the theme of "Just Do What You Do" came about. But even after the loss in the second game of the season to Ohio State, the mantel of the National Champions wore heavy.The Longhorns missed a field goal with 12 minutes to go in that game that could have cut the lead to only seven points.Instead, the Buckeyes drove the length of the field and put it away, 24-7.
Even then, folks began talking about a rematch.
But like it or not, fate plays a heavy hand in things like college football teams.Injuries began to mount, and coaches and players just kept plugging the holes and playing dinged.Still, somehow, they kept on winning.
They believed in each other, and they believed in themselves, and that will serve them well, despite the final two losses.They won as a team, lost as a team.
Friday in Austin, they still believed, even until the end.They and their fans stayed and fought through the tension-filled game, through every call, every third down conversion, trying hard to will their team to win.
Colt McCoy's injury in the Kansas State game certainly had an effect on the end of the regular season, just as the loss of a premier quarterback would have affected any other team.Imagine the Aggies without Stephen McGee -- who would have made a good quarterback in the old days of the Texas wishbone -- or Ohio State without Troy Smith or USC without John David Booty or Notre Dame without Brady Quinn.
Doctors and trainers cleared McCoy to play against Texas A&M, but you don't completely recover from a nerve injury in less than two weeks.The mind may be willing, but the body will tire.
It has been almost 50 years since David McWilliams saw his first Texas-Texas A&M game, and it is safe to say that McWilliams and his teammates of the early 1960s hold little love for the school in College Station.
But as he looked at Friday's game on Saturday, he saw it through the logical eyes of one who has played, coached and watched the game since the 1950s.
The image he drew of the Longhorns season was fitting.
"Watching the game," he said, "all I could think about was a distance race where the leader had led all the way, and as he headed down the home stretch, he was running as hard as he could, but he just wasn't moving.The mind and all the body parts were saying `go' but the body just couldn't run anymore."
McWilliams continued, "When you play 12 straight games, and you have the injuries we had, guys don't get rest.You add the pressure of trying to repeat, and you just wear out, mentally and physically.You aren't flat, and you are trying as hard as you can, but you just aren't going anywhere.You are just running in place, because you have nothing left."
Now, the fate that is disappointing and seemed cruel has actually given the Texas team a chance to regroup.As much as it mattered to win the Big 12 South and play in the championship game, that is not to be.
What is available, however, is a new shot at finishing this thing right.The Longhorns will carry a very respectable 9-3 record into a bowl game, and for a team that has won 40 of their last 45 games, there is a chance to regroup and win 10 games.
When Mack Brown talked to Gene Stallings and other coaches about coaching a team after a National Championship, he knew the pitfalls.Oklahoma, after it won it all in 2000, finished 6-2 in the Big 12 South and watched Texas play in the championship game.The Longhorns are 9-3 on the season, and finished 6-2 in the league.
And just for the record, Stallings' Alabama team, after that National Championship, finished 9-3.
The members of this team have won back-to-back bowl games, and in the last three seasons they have defeated Ohio State in Columbus, and both Michigan and Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, the three teams which likely will decide this year's National Championship.
McWilliams' analogy is haunting, because we've all seen that look, whether from a great racehorse trying to win the third leg of the Triple Crown, or a distance runner just trying to get to the tape.
Years ago at an NCAA track meet in what was then Memorial Stadium here in Austin, a runner from Southern Illinois was competing in the six-mile run, before track distances were all converted to meters.He had run 23 of the 24 laps around the track when he mistakenly thought he was finished.He was probably not going to win, but he would have certainly earned a medal, when he jogged off the track.
Teammates and coaches ran up to him and told him, "You have one more lap to go."
All he had to do was to walk the final 440 yards, and he would be a winner.He collapsed, and never finished.
So to take David McWilliams' theory to the next level, here's the deal: There is one more game to play, time to get ready for it, and a chance to finish strong.Just as the runner's race, this has been a really respectable season, way better than most of the teams in the country, and right in there with the best of the "after" years of those who won National Championships.
Now, just get back up and finish the race.