Dec. 18, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The sleek jet had fought mightily against headwinds in excess of 135 miles per hour, its crew trying to beat time and get home before a relentless fog closed all of the airports in the vicinity of Austin. When the forces of nature won, it had meant an unscheduled overnight stop in Dallas.
Mack Brown was on his second trip to and from New York. In the span of one week from the morning after the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington until the early morning hours Sunday following the Heisman Trophy announcement in downtown Manhattan, he had traveled almost 10,000 miles by air, and he was on his third three-o’clock-in-the-morning watch since the night after the title game.
As he climbed on the van from the Wyndham Hotel at Dallas’ Love Field to catch an 8:30 commercial flight home so he could catch up with recruits who had seen him at the football banquet on Friday and visited with him only a day before at the Texas football offices, a nice gentleman from another state sitting across the aisle from him commented, “You must be The University of Texas coach…I’m sorry, but I haven’t been keeping up…how has your season been going?”
A week and a few hours and a few miles away from the site of the conversation, Texas’ season had been validated by a 13-12 victory over Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game, a win solidified by stellar defense, a couple of clutch drives, and one final 46-yard field goal that struck like a knife in the heart of Nebraska’s upset hopes on the game’s final play.
Scott Henderson, a Dallas attorney who was an all-American linebacker for National Champion Texas in 1969, sent an e-mail after the game, smiling at similarities separated by 40 years. That season, in a showdown for the Southwest Conference championship, Texas had gone to Arkansas favored over the Razorbacks just as the 2009 version of Longhorns was over Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game.
The heroics of that game have been well chronicled, but what struck Henderson was the familiar circumstances. Texas had to fight to win, coming from behind in the final minutes in a game that ended, 15-14. History has dulled the memory of the turnovers, and the mistakes. And Arkansas has been left forever, playing valiantly and wondering what might have been.
While the dramatic ending will go down in history as part of the legacy of the Longhorns, the game was particularly about a team that had made a commitment to be one second better than they were a year before when their hopes for a chance to play for the National Championship were taken away in Lubbock with one second left on the clock.
Now, you can put this in the drop file of major ironies if you want, but the following actually happened: One year ago, in Frankfurt, Germany, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service announced that last New Year’s Eve – to accommodate the tugs from the sun and the moon that are gradually slowing the earth’s spin and causing days to get longer – it was adding one second to its coordinated universal time, which is used to calibrate national and regional clocks around the world.
That one second would figure in the climatic fourth quarter in Arlington. After a Nebraska field goal had cut a Longhorn lead to 10-9, game officials made a huge mistake by blowing the ball dead as Marquise Goodwin was trying to field the ensuing kickoff at the 1-yard line. Since an inadvertent whistle is not a reviewable play, quarterback Colt McCoy and his Longhorns offense had to start from their own 1-yard line.
In a 65-yard drive that consumed 6:38, McCoy took 14 plays and converted three third downs until Nebraska’s Dejon Gomes wrestled the ball away from Dan Buckner on what appeared to be heading for a complete pass at the Cornhuskers 31-yard line. From there, the Nebraska offense, which had gained just 64 total yards in the game, put together a 43-yard drive to a go-ahead field goal. It was 12-10 with 1:44 remaining in the game.
The connection between Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley has been much discussed throughout their careers. Somehow this season, when he’s needed him the most, McCoy has always managed to find Shipley. And this would be no different. The two hooked up on a crossing pattern for 19 yards, and when Nebraska’s Larry Asante was guilty of a personal foul on a horse-collar tackle, the ball was advanced to the 26-yard line.
Up until this season, mistakes by the clock operator have not been part of the “reviewable” plays in the college game. Fortunately for the Longhorns, a change was made this year. When the clock keeper high above the field at Dallas Cowboys Stadium didn’t stop the clock when McCoy’s throwaway pass landed out of bounds with a second remaining, there was a brief, scary moment when it appeared the game had prematurely ended.
And when the officials put one second back on the clock for one final play, it was darn near eerie. And that is when Hunter Lawrence came on the field to kick. This was no “chip shot” as he lined up for a 46-yard field goal. On the one hand, Nebraska – with their stellar defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh leading a front which had blocked three field goals during the season – was talking “trash” trying to get in Lawrence’s head. On the other, his holder Jordan Shipley was quoting Bible verses that said you should “Trust in the Lord.”
And when the ball was put in play, the second clicked away. Greg Smith snapped, Shipley held, and Hunter Lawrence’s right leg swung its way right into Longhorns immortality.
All of that was still fresh as the Longhorns charter sailed by a full-orange Tower and landed in Austin early on the morning of December 6, and now it was off to a week of adulation for Brown, McCoy, Shipley and safety Earl Thomas.
First, Brown would head to New York in preparation for the events surrounding the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame induction. McCoy would arrive the next day as one of the NFF’s 18 National Scholar-Athletes. He would give the response for the honorees at the banquet at the Waldorf Astoria on Tuesday night.
Brown, meanwhile, would leave New York for a recruiting trip to the snowy Midwest. That venture would end when he and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp missed a flight from Dallas to Austin because of the weather. The two rented a car and drove to Austin, arriving about 3:30 on Thursday morning. A few hours later, Brown was on a plane with some other assistant coaches, headed for the Home Depot Awards ceremony in Orlando, Fla.
McCoy had left New York on Wednesday for Orlando, and was joined there by Thomas, a finalist for the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, and Shipley, who had become UT’s first finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in the country.
There, the three were named as members of the prestigious Walter Camp All-American team, and McCoy began his haul of honors that would make him one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the history of Texas football. He was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year for the second straight season, picked up the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback, and earned the Maxwell Trophy as America’s outstanding college football player.
Friday, as Brown and the team were celebrating their senior banquet in Austin, McCoy traveled to Baltimore, where he rubbed shoulders and listened to stories as he was named the winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award. Immersed in the presence of football legends such as Bart Starr and Raymond Berry, McCoy began to realize that his awards cup, and his gratitude for the many honors, was filling. By now, what he wanted most was to get back to Austin and begin preparing for the Longhorns’ game on January 7 against Alabama.
The final stop proved almost anticlimactic. In 2008, he had high hopes of winning the Downtown Athletics Club’s player of the year award, the Heisman Trophy. Disappointed with the second place finish then, he returned to New York for the 2009 TV show. In the closest vote ever, he finished third, the only Longhorn in history to place in the top three for the award twice.
McCoy’s mom, Debra, who made the circuit of awards presentations with him, recalled the day when a skinny young kid returned home from a recruiting trip to Austin and stood in her kitchen and announced he wanted to go to Texas and lead the Longhorns to a National Championship.
It was a long, long way from the Nokia Theatre in New York to that moment so short, and yet so long ago. In the meantime, her son had become a star, a player respected nationally, and loved as much as any in the history of The University of Texas.
He has won all but one award for which he could be considered. There are still a few ceremonies and a couple of awards left, and as far as the Heisman is concerned, he joins a pretty respected group of quarterbacks including Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning – the list goes on and on – who were not picked by the diverse collection of media that votes on the Heisman Trophy.
For the last weeks of the season, Mack Brown talked to his team about goals and dreams. Each game down the stretch became a goal – a Big 12 South Division championship, a Big 12 Title, and so on. The final “goal” was to play in a BCS Bowl game for the National Championship. Their dream was to win it. Now, the dream becomes the final goal.
“How has your season gone?” the nice man asked Mack.
“It’s gone well. We are 13-0 going into our final game.”
“Are you going to a bowl?”
“Yes,” he said.
“We are going to play for the National Championship.”
Then the two said goodbye, as Mack hurried off the van to catch a plane to Austin. He still had time to catch up with recruits as they finished breakfast.
And as far as the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Services is concerned, the next time you hear somebody say “wait just a second,” think of Hunter Lawrence drilling a 46-yard field goal. He kicked it hard, and he kicked it straight, proving once again that in time and distance, the shortest travel is a straight line.
Similar, I would think, to the distance between Arlington, Texas, and Pasadena, California, where Colt McCoy and his teammates will get a chance to realize that dream.