Somehow, closure is always bitter sweet.
It is hard to believe that Monday in SMU's football stadium, the Texas Longhorns spent their last practice day together. Tomorrow, as the New Year's Day clash with LSU approaches, the team will move to the Cotton Bowl where the squad will have a short walk-through.
So for all practical purposes, as head coach Mack Brown gathered his team in the SMU dressing room for their pregame Thursday meeting, the time clock that marks a season was ticking down its final moments.
The FOX television announcers were there to talk with selected players. Coordinators Greg Davis and Carl Reese went over the personnel who will play in the game and Brown had his usual session with the broadcasters.
Equipment manager Chip Robertson and his crew packed the gear and Tom McVan's training staff made sure they left the training room of our old friend Cash Birdwell in good shape. The day had begun with a wary eye toward the western sky, but the heavy showers that deluged the area didn't come until well after the Longhorns had left SMU for the final time.
The coaching staff gathered for one final meeting and the consensus was that the practices had been excellent. Despite a flu bug that afflicted several players, the overall health of the team appears better than at any time since the very early season.
The practice sessions have been popular for high school coaches and youngsters, as well as for former Longhorns lettermen. The latter group has included many former stars, including Bob Moses, who was the Outstanding Lineman in the 1962 Cotton Bowl win against Ole Miss, Bob Mitchell, a starting guard on the 1969 and '70 National Champions, and Hodges Mitchell, who starred three seasons ago.
When the team began this season, it had a slogan of "FIT." Brown told folks that stood for "Finish in Tempe." In a lot of ways, August seems so recent. The 12-game season, one of the longest slates of regular season games ever scheduled, was packed with activity. During one stretch, Texas played 10 straight weekends.
Now, the season is down to one very important game.
Brown has told his teams that the life of a college football team is really only about 365 days — from the end of the final game of one year to the end of the final game the next. That being the case, this team's clock strikes midnight some time at mid-afternoon on Wednesday. It actually got a bonus couple of days, since the Holiday Bowl last year wasn't played on New Year's Day 2002.
In the final hours, Brown has given his team a lot of very specific things to think about.
First, look around at what has happened during the bowl season. Over and over again, the underdog has won the bowl game. So be ready. For the seniors who were part of the 1999 squad, it is an obvious message. Arkansas came into Dallas in 1999 as an underdog and played the role well. When the dust settled in the very first football game of the 21st century, the Razorbacks won.
Those who pick games would have told you that Colorado shouldn't have lost to Wisconsin, nor should Nebraska have fallen to Ole Miss. Kansas State should not have struggled with Arizona State, but it did.
So be ready.
Press the kicking game. A half dozen or so kicks have already been returned for touchdowns. Many of them have come late in games, when the other team's legs were tired.
Blend having a good time and representing Texas well at the bowl events with getting plenty of rest.
Never take anything for granted.
Play every play as if it were your last, and for some, it will be just that.
The seniors can leave as the winningest senior class in school history, and the underclassmen want to help them do that. A major part of this team is its togetherness. They will want to win this game, not for themselves and perhaps not even Texas. They want to win the game for each other.
" People who talk about this game not being anything to play for have never competed at anything," Brown said. "If there is a game to be played, it is worth it to put out the effort to try to win the game. It doesn't matter if it's marbles on a concrete slab in your backyard. If you play, you want to win."
That is where Texas is right now. Sure, all of those superlatives that have been talked about would be nice and Brown has made it very clear that to win a National Championship the road will most likely go through Dallas. The Longhorns would like to walk out of the storied Cotton Bowl with positive memories of victory.
So as the dark, rainy afternoon finished the 30th day of December 2002, all that remained for the Longhorns were a couple of bowl events and then the regular pregame schedule, which will include a 5:30 a.m. wake up call on the first day of 2003.
When you think about it, the players' adopted letter-slogan still works and its message is perhaps more important to kids in a growing-up world than the one they started with because fate didn't see fit to allow "FIT" to mean "Finish in Tempe."
However, what it can mean is simply this:
" Finish It."