Bill Little commentary: Playing for fun
Oct. 24, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was at a luncheon in a ballroom at a posh Washington hotel, and George Steinbrenner was speaking during a cable television seminar during the "pioneering" days of sports-on-cable in the early 1980s.
"The Boss" was giving us a candid view of what it was like to deal with some of the high-profile New York Yankee players whom he had signed to build his era of the Yankee dynasty. The discussion concerned one particular player who was disgruntled that season.
"I called the guy in and asked him why he wasn't playing better," Steinbrenner said. "He said, 'It's just not fun any more.'"
To which Steinbrenner said he replied, "It's not FUN anymore? I pay you $600,000 a year (that has obviously escalated through the years) to play a kid's game and you tell me, 'It's not FUN any more?'"
Steinbrenner traded the player the next day.
Fast forward, if you will, to the Texas football season of 2008, where the most asked questioned is,"Can these guys make it through this gauntlet of games against ranked teams and still stay motivated each week?"
Mack Brown responds with the simplest of answers -- "These guys are having fun."
What we know is, most games are more fun when you win. That's not profound, it just...is.
Thursday as the Longhorns finished their final day of practice, Mack brought in a resource to talk to his team about the journey of being No. 1. He called his old neighbor, Lance Armstrong. For seven straight years, through stage after stage of the Tour de France, Lance rode to victory after improbable victory. He knows about being number one -he has lived it.
And with pictures of Lance's odyssey displayed, Armstrong talked about what it takes to win, and win, and win again.
"First," he told them, "you have to decide why you want to win. Everyone may have a different reason. Some want to win for somebody, some want to win because they cannot stand the thought of losing."
And then he talked about the responsibility of the image, as well as the challenge to maintain.
All of it fit as the Longhorns prepare for Saturday's meeting with Oklahoma State in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. When you have two unbeaten teams in college football in 2008, only one will still be standing when the sun sets in Austin.
Having played tough back-to-back games with Oklahoma and Missouri, Texas is halfway through its unique string of four straight ranked opponents. The Cowboys of Oklahoma State present the most balanced offense UT has faced this season. They have run the ball successfully, and have some outstanding weapons offensively and in the kicking game.
The fact that the game is in Austin, Brown believes, will work in the Longhorns' favor. Saturday's crowd against Missouri has been described as the best and most vocal in Brown's time at Texas. The presence of a crowd of over 98,000 fans, most of them rooting for Texas, is the wild card in what is, on paper, a match of two pretty even teams.
In fact, the teams actually resemble each other in their balanced approach. Oklahoma State's offense features an outstanding running back, coupled with a great tight end and receiver. The receiver -- Dez Bryant -- is also a world-class kick returner.
The highly publicized results of previous recent meetings between these two clubs focuses on the Longhorns' dramatic comebacks to win four of the last five games - with the only exception being a relatively easy Texas win in 2006.
But while Brown and his staff and team gladly accept the compliment as the "comeback kids," he is quick to point out that it wasn't a good idea to get behind in the first place.
Therefore, one of the points of emphasis for Texas will be not only handling its opponents' surge (a pretty standard challenge), it will be in coming out swinging itself. With the support of the crowd against Missouri, that worked fabulously. Texas scored on its first five possessions and held a 35-0 lead just before halftime.
That, of course, was on a night when everything was working perfectly - longtime observers thought the first half against Missouri was as good a half as a Texas team has played. The key to winning all of the games, as Lance discussed, is to make the commitment not to lose.
Each week now, the coaching staff has asked every player to write down three things they can do to help this team get better. Answers have ranged from "help fire up the crowd" to "be the best scout team player I can be."
Saturday on what should be a perfect day for football, Brown is hoping the Longhorns fans will copy and enhance their performance against Missouri -- early, loud, louder.
Lance talked about winning for his team, and discussed how he knew he would feel if he had to go down to dinner with his fellow cyclists if he had had a "bad" day. The sense was, he felt that he had let them down, which is a typical reaction for a star.
The fact was, just when he thought he was letting them down, that's when they were picking him up.
And, that, after all, is part of the fun of this magical season.
Everybody is in this together.