Bill Little commentary: A stepping stone
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Sept. 16, 2011

Bill Little, Texas Media Relations

PASADENA, CA -- A little known fact in the grand scheme of history is that the first editorial advice for men to seek their fortunes in the western United States supposedly is not only often attributed to the wrong person, it is also misquoted. And the guy who gets most of the credit steadfastly denied that he ever said it in the first place.

It seems that long before a newspaper man named Horace Greeley was supposed to have said "Go west, young man, go west…," an editor at the Terre Haute Express in Indiana named John B. L. Soule wrote, "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country." Greeley said he never said it or wrote it, and nobody can prove that Soule actually wrote it in 1851, because it wasn't in the Terre Haute Express that year - or so all parties said.

Well my, my.

Since all of the parties who did, or didn't, have since departed the stadium, that debate will never be settled. What is known, however, is that a very young Texas Longhorn football team is headed that way in search of growing up.

It will be the sixth meeting between Texas and UCLA in a series that, while it hasn't been of epic proportions, has had more than its share of significant games. Where this one will fit, only history (which will be reported by 60,000 or so people and a regional television audience) will determine. In the past, this game has either been a stumbling block, or a stepping stone for Texas.

The first time these two high profile national programs hooked up was for a home and home series in 1970 and 1971 before the current children of the 'Horns were even born. That Texas team was defending national champion, was riding a 22-game winning streak and was ranked No. 2 in the country. With a dramatic 45-yard touchdown pass from Eddie Phillips to Cotton Speyrer, the Longhorns scored with 12 seconds left to survive in the 1970 game in Austin, 20-17.

The next season it appeared business as usual for the Longhorns, as they were ranked No. 3 nationally when they played UCLA in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Phillips was the master of the Wishbone offense, and he deftly directed his team to what appeared to be an easy, 28-10 victory. But on the final touchdown drive late in the game, Phillips pulled a muscle in his leg that would never completely heal. Texas would go on to an 8-3 season.

The two schools didn't meet again until the 1997 season, in a game that turned out to be a disaster of dashed dreams for John Mackovic and his Texas program. The Longhorns had finished the 1996 season as one of the most talked about programs in America. Mackovic had wowed the college football world with the famous "Fourth and Inches" call that produced a game-clinching pass in a shocking 37-27 victory over Nebraska in the first Big 12 Championship game in St. Louis. And after dispatching Rutgers, 48-14 in the season opener, Texas was a heavy favorite over the twice-beaten Bruins.

The bright, sun shiny day turned dark quickly, however, and by the time the carnage was over, UCLA had won, 66-3. For all practical purposes, the Mackovic era at Texas had abruptly ended, even though he wasn't re-assigned until after the 4-7 season.

When Mack Brown took his first Longhorn team to California to play UCLA in 1998, the Bruins had moved their home games to the storied Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena. And to the dismay of the 15,000 Longhorn fans who showed up, things didn't start well there, either. But despite an overall mismatch in personnel, things began to look up for the Longhorns in the second half. After starting quarterback Richard Walton broke his finger early in the game, a redshirt freshman named Major Applewhite took over as the Longhorn signal caller.

Eventual Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and Applewhite helped the Longhorns score 28 second half points, and despite the 49-31 loss, Texas left the stadium with hope in a season that would end with a 9-3 record.

Then came 2010. Just as in 1997, Texas came into the game highly ranked and unbeaten. The Bruins had struggled. But with a second half rushing explosion, UCLA stunned the 'Horns, 34-12. It was a harbinger of what would end as a 5-7 season for UT.

All of which brings us to this game Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (Pacific Coast time) in the Rose Bowl.

So much has happened since Brown brought that out-manned crew here 14 seasons ago. First, the venerable old stadium which once seemed so ominous to the visitors from Texas has become a comfortable place. In the last eight seasons, Texas has played three times in the Rose Bowl, winning two sterling silver champion trophies in 2004 and 2005 (the second, of course, in what was also the BCS National Championship game).

Many of the players on the Texas team were also on hand in 2009, when Texas played the BCS National Championship game on January 7, 2010.

Now, there is a "wow" for you. Nineteen months ago, in the same stadium where this very young Texas team with up to 17 true freshman who may play Saturday, Texas played Alabama for the national title - in a game where, save for a freak injury to their quarterback, most folks think Texas had a heck of chance to win.

You can dwell on all of the ironies - of the turns and twists of fate in past Texas-UCLA games and Rose Bowl visits - but the fact is, Mr. Soule, or Greeley, or maybe it is even Mack Brown and his staff that have summed this up pretty well.

This 2-0 Texas team flies to California for the purpose of playing and winning a football game. You can toss out all five of those other meetings, including what happened last year. The venue is a very special place - a hallowed place in all of college football. In the canyons of the Arroyo Seco looming over the northeast corner of the stadium, the ghosts of college football past watch.

It is they who have seen the hopes and the dreams, and it is they who know so well that it is the spirit within, and not some outside force, that determines who fights to the end. In the rocks of the canyon and the history of the mountains, they also understand the wisdom of the Longhorns' season theme of "brick by brick."

For it is in that, in their growing-up trip to the west, that the young men of Texas will come upon a stumbling block, or build a stepping stone.