Bill Little commentary: The beauty of the Rose
NEW YORK -- As the American Airlines jet roared off the runway in Dallas toward New York's LaGuardia International Airport, things seemed eerily the same, and yet they were so different.
DeLoss and Mary Ann Dodds sat beside each other, directly across the aisle from Mack and Sally Brown. The destination, again, as it had been exactly 12 months before, was the Hall of Fame dinner of the National College Football Foundation. The weather in New York would be chilly, with light rain. A car would be waiting to take the Texas party to their hotel.
Had it been only a year?
On a similar Sunday last December, Brown and Dodds had left the ground hoping that Texas would edge past California and get a BCS bid. Dodds had lobbied the appropriate bowl reps to set up a Texas-Michigan match up in the Rose Bowl if the computers and the voters allowed the Longhorns to prevail.
Several times during the flight, air phone calls were made to try to find out what had happened. Finally, when the big jet touched down in New York, Dodds turned his cell phone on and got the message.
"We're in," he had said to Brown. "You're playing Michigan in the Rose Bowl."
In retrospect, it was perhaps the single most important moment in Brown's 30-year coaching career. After years of enduring excellence, Mack Brown, football coach, had a chance to step straight into the limelight in the most famous venue in college sports, the Rose Bowl.
In the span of the next 25 or so days, Texas linked its grand tradition with that of the tradition rich Rose Bowl. In its first-ever trip there, in its first-ever game against Michigan, history would be made. Dusty Mangum would kick that game winning field goal, and Vince Young would run and pass himself straight into the national college football limelight.
In the end, Texas would have the 38, and Michigan the 37, and the ghosts that linger in the foothills of the Arroyo Secca would smile and say "Well done."
There was immense irony about it all, because the 2004 Longhorn football team was a team fraught with miracles. You always knew they would somehow have one left, and sure enough, they did.
But the greatest coincidence of all was how the Longhorns, a group hooked together with a special bond of love, wound up in the Rose Bowl, which had as its theme, "Celebrate Family."
Brown and Dodds didn't need to wait for phone calls on the ride this year. The Longhorn team plane returning from Houston had circled the Burnt Orange Tower on its way into Bergstrom International Airport. The Big 12 had not only been a conference this year, it stood for the 12 wins this unbeaten team had put together.
It was slammed home with an exclamation point Saturday in the 70-3 victory over Colorado in the league championship game.
And now, as they waited for their bags in the same area where they had made excited phone calls a year ago, they knew their destination.
On the podium accepting the trophy for the win over Michigan and for being the game's Most Valuable Player, Vince Young had said it first: "We want to come back next year."
"Next Year," of course, meant more than just another trip to a BCS bowl in California. Young and his teammates had their sights set on the National Championship game, which in its rotation between the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar and Rose fell to the Rose in 2005.
Since early in this season, the college football world-excluding, of course, the opponents and those who had designs on crashing the party-had hoped for this match up. For three months, Southern California had been No. 1, and Texas No. 2 in most ratings. Week after week, the two unbeatens, both sporting ever-growing winning streaks, answered every challenge.
The much-maligned BCS, which had been Texas' frustration for the first four seasons of the 21st century, finally looked as if it had a chance to work. As Texas and Southern Cal prevailed, others fell from the ranks of the unbeatens.
"It would be," wrote a Chicago columnist, "what every college sports fan has dreamed of…a game for the ages."
And sure enough, as Brown got in a car to head to a national television appearance, here it was.
Mack Brown would be the first to spread the praise for all of this, and it is, indeed, about a tremendously talented group of Longhorn football players and a coaching and support staff who have worked every day of their professional lives for this chance. He would also be the first to jump in and say that nobody in burnt orange wants to stop now.
We talked last week about goals and dreams, how goals are visible, attainable things. The Big 12 Championship was the final goal in the Longhorns' annual series of goals. It was the last goal, because at the start of the season, that is all they had guaranteed to them. It was the last thing they could completely control. A chance to play for a National Championship would be determined, not by what they did, but by what other people thought about them.
Thus, it became the dream
Dreams are us human folks' way of imagining. There are good dreams and bad dreams, big dreams and small dreams. Athletes are taught to dream big, and Texas did. In spring practice, on warm summer nights, in two a days, they dared to dream.
Texas had never played the two biggest names in the Big Ten, Michigan and Ohio State, and by the luck of the draw, they did it in a span of three games in 2005 -- first the Rose Bowl, and then on the road in the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio. Since Mack Brown came to Texas, he had built his program with the goal of bringing the Longhorns back to the national spotlight.
Those two wins validated that.
Then, there was the matter of Oklahoma. The truth was, the Sooners and the Longhorns had both become dominant college football teams, but Texas seemed to never get credit because of losses to Oklahoma…losses that often proved the only real blemish on a spectacular five-year record.
When Texas hammered Oklahoma in Dallas in October, folks who had already begun making tentative arrangements for a trip to Pasadena now made non-refundable reservations.
As Texas' charter flight headed home from that game in Dallas (and this is the honest to gosh truth), in the western sky there was a burnt orange sun sinking below the horizon. And when it set, the sky was the darndest rose-colored sunset you ever saw. True story.
What we knew then, and what we understand now, is that Darrell Royal once said, "Potential means you ain't done it yet." The team's success would not be about the prophetic sunset or pollsters or prognostications. History will decide where this group of Longhorns will rank in the annals of college football. But as far as its regular season and its Big 12 Championship game, it is no longer a team of "potential." This bunch has done it, didn't sputter, didn't take prisoners, and played at a level that is off the "good" meter.
Brown said that to be great, you have to play good all the time, and he also said this team had not played its best game. Saturday in Houston, it was a great team that played darn near perfect.
Now, the nation got what it wanted. As the stretch limo made its way across the East River into downtown Manhattan, the images were plentiful. It was a wintry day, with the results of a yesterday snow still in evidence along side the streets. Brown and Dodds' trip to New York was only the first leg for Brown that will include a whirlwind week of accompanying his honored players to awards presentations in Orlando, the football banquet in Austin, and a trip back to New York next Saturday for the Heisman Awards.
There, he will see his own Vince Young, and Southern Cal's Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, all of whom are under consideration for the award for the best football player in America.
At the Longhorn football banquet a year ago, Texas embraced that Rose Bowl theme of "Celebrate Family," and Friday night, they'll do the same for this year's theme. The president of the Tournament of Roses Parade always gets to select the theme, and this year, for the first time in history, the president is a woman, Libby Evans Wright.
And even though she couldn't have known it, she couldn't have selected better for this Texas team, for this 2005 Texas season.
Because the theme of the parade, and therefore the bowl, is simply this: