Bill Little commentary: The hay in the barn
Jan. 4, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
PHOENIX -- The rain came softly Sunday to the Valley of the Sun, kissing the earth with much needed moisture, and leaving a cool, fresh, scent among the flowers and the cactus.
The timing could not have been more perfect for the Texas Longhorns, who had enjoyed the immaculately kept practices fields at Scottsdale Community College for the week of preparation for Monday night's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl meeting with Ohio State. Saturday, the 2008 Longhorns had held their final practice.
One of the legendary figures in the Darrell Royal era of Texas football was Bill Ellington, who was a great coach and a special gift of putting things into perspective. With regularity, Ellington would lean back on his stool in the coaches' locker room after the final practice of the week and exclaim: "Men, the hay is in the barn." In other words, the work had been done. Now, it was time to go play.
Bowl games are most unusual. When you first arrive, it seems that it will take forever to get to the game. Then, when the day before the game arrives, you wonder where the time has gone. Each bowl is unique in the way it manages the teams and the time. The Fiesta has gained a reputation of taking the very best parts of all the other games as far as how they treat teams, staff and media, and rolling out a welcome mat in this city, which exists like an oasis between stark, red-rock mountains and the desert that lies beyond.
What is predictable about bowl games is their unpredictability. Of the 30 or so played so far, the favored teams have won 16 and the underdogs 14. So much for prognostication. The Longhorns arrived on December 29, and by the time they depart from Phoenix on Tuesday, they will have spent more time at the bowl site than any team in Mack Brown's tenure at Texas. And when they kickoff on January 5, 2009, they will be playing later than any team ever at UT. The 2006 Rose Bowl, the 2005 BCS National Championship Game, was played on January 4. That means that a season that began officially on August 30 will have lasted 129 days, not counting the more than three weeks of preseason practice. In that time -- just a little over a third of a year -- much has happened to this 2008 Texas Longhorn team.
The pundits in preseason had assessed the future of this team as slightly above average. Predictions had the Longhorns anywhere from third to fourth in the Big 12 South, and the rebuilding year seemed destined to have four, maybe five, losses. Critical positions such as running back, receiver and the defensive secondary were huge question marks, and the jury was still out as to whether quarterback Colt McCoy would be able to sustain the momentum he gathered in an impressive victory in the 2007 Holiday Bowl over Arizona State.
And so they came, these young Longhorns, to early morning workouts in the spring and to self-governed practices in the summer heat. And as they began to roll into 2008, people began to notice.
Each week they took care of their business, and steadily climbed in the polls until, after an impressive 45-35 defeat of Oklahoma, suddenly, Texas was No. 1. All of a sudden, the "team that nobody knew" was challenging to play for a National Championship. Along the way, the Longhorns began to generate momentum, and Longhorns fans everywhere reached out and embraced them.
Those who should know would tell us that it wasn't the most talented Texas team, and it was playing a wicked schedule, but the same folks would shake their heads and celebrate the success as the Longhorns won game after game.
And as Texas defeated Oklahoma, Missouri and Oklahoma State and came within a second of beating Texas Tech in the toughest run of highly-ranked teams any school has faced in modern times, the people just smiled, shook their heads, and watched in respectful disbelief. Now, Colt McCoy had become a folk hero; Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby were a matched set of sure-handed fast guys who ran perfect pass patterns.
The young secondary was growing up, and up front, veterans Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller were getting solid help from Sergio Kindle and Lamarr Houston, and the linebacking corps was learning the ways of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
The kickers and punters would all have their moments as well, and a classic new-look stadium would allow this team to play before the largest crowds ever in the southwestern part of the United States.
And when the regular season ended, despite the disappointment of being left out of its league championship by a league rule and hundredths of a percentage point, the team had achieved more than anyone could have dreamed.
In its run of excellence to an 11-1 season, the Longhorns surpassed Notre Dame as the second-winningest team in college football history. Brown reached a career milestone as his teams notched his 200th win as a head coach, and he was awarded the coveted Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Trophy.
McCoy would earn honors as the National Player of the Year from the Walter Camp Foundation, and finish as runner-up in the Heisman race. Orakpo would win the Nagurski Trophy as the defensive player of the year, the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman or linebacker and the Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, all while becoming Texas' 19th unanimous all-American.
Their week in Arizona has been graced with perfect weather, and wonderful treatment by the Scottsdale Plaza Resort and the Fiesta Bowl committee. The Longhorns have answered questions with spirited practices, and with the same humility and quiet confidence that has brought them to this place as the current No. 3 team in the nation.
They know a victory will place them in the same group with bowl winners Southern Cal and Utah as teams that have a legitimate claim to be national champion in a world governed by a flawed system where the Bowl Championship Series allows two human polls and six clandestine computers to determine the two teams it anoints for the right to play for its self-proclaimed title.
What we do know is that in the 115-year history of Texas football, Texas and Ohio State, two of the nation's premier collegiate institutions, have met on the football field twice. After Monday night, they will have played three times in the last four years. Texas won in 2005, Ohio State in 2006. We also know that in the history of the Associated Press poll which began in the 1930s, only four Texas teams -- the 1963, 1969 and 2005 National Champions and the national runner-up in 1981 -- have finished among the nation's top two teams in the final AP poll. This team has a chance to do that.
So after the brilliant sunrises and sunsets of the days in the desert, the soft rain came Sunday. It was as if the team was given a day of rest before the last day of what has been a remarkable year. The matchup is between an Ohio State team smarting from being discounted, and a Texas team that is determined to see this thing through.
The media will wonder until, and maybe even after, the game, what the driving forces for this contest will really be. The BCS has left sub-plots that may never be answered. What we know about this team of Longhorns is that it will be remembered as one of the favorite ever of the Texas fans, not necessarily because of its great talent (although there is considerable of that).
It will be remembered because of the joy we all found in watching them play. In a time when the game of college football has sometimes given way to systems and the poor sportsmanship of running up scores, these guys have played the game for the fun of the game. And win or lose Monday, this much is certain -- they will play Ohio State in the space age-looking University of Phoenix Stadium, and they will play to win.
Part of them will want to show the world the Big 12 was wrong, part will be because they understand it is a showcase game with the entire world of college football watching. Most of all, however, they will play this game for each other.
Because, that, you see, is the true essence of this team.
The "hay is in the barn." The ready work is done.
Of all the college bowl games, this one should be fun.
For all the right reasons.