Bill Little commentary: Life is what you choose it to be
Nov. 7, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
MANHATTAN, KS – In the jumbled world of the Big 12 Conference, as the pretty day turned into an ugly night in Kansas, a vivid memory returned like an old friend—a reminder that, just when you think you have things figured out…you don’t.
It was the season of 1965, and Darrell Royal’s Texas Longhorns were in the midst of the most successful run in school history. A single loss to TCU in a 6-0 upset was the only blemish in 1961. In 1962, Texas was 9-1-1. The 1963 team went unbeaten and won the school’s first ever national championship. A one point loss to Arkansas tarnished the 1964 season—the year that ended with the famed win over Joe Namath and Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
Entering the 1965 season, Texas was ranked No. 2, and by the first week in October the Longhorns were back atop the national polls. When the Longhorns won their first four games that year, Texas had put together an incredible record over almost four-and-a-half seasons of 45-3-1. The record since the start of the 1963 season was 25-1.
It seemed as if it would never end. But if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that life will have its good times and its tough times. Still, those Longhorns of 1965 were not ready to let go of success. On the road in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Texas fell behind, 20-0, but somehow fought its way back to a 24-20 lead. With a final drive, Arkansas came back to win, 27-24. Still, it seemed a blip on the radar. Until the next week, and that is where our story begins.
Rice, coached by the legendary Jess Neely, came into Austin and handed the Longhorns a 20-17 defeat. In the Owl locker room after the game, I was a young reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. I still have this picture in my mind of Neely, dressed in a brown suit with his snow-white hair neatly tucked beneath his dress hat. He walked into a dressing area on the east side of what was then called Texas Memorial Stadium, raised his hands and in his finest southern accent, addressed his team.
“Ah told yuh,” he said, “that it happened in 1946, and it could happen agin!”
Those of us in the bewildered media scrambled to find out what had happened in 1946. Sure enough, Rice had upset a No. 3 ranked Texas team that season. The Longhorns were No. 5 that day in 1965. They had the fearsome Tommy Nobis on that team, plus a collection of players who had been a part of a national championship in 1963, and an Orange Bowl win at the end of the 1964 season.
But it was what Neely said next that has stuck with me all these years. A reporter—we called him “Homer Joe” because of his allegiance to the Owls—excitedly asked Neely how this could happen. How his Owls, who would win only that game in Southwest Conference play that season, could upset mighty Texas. After all, the experts said the Longhorns were 23-point favorites.
“Who aar the ex-purts,” said Neely. “Are you and ex-purt?” And then as the writer shook his head, Neely said the most important thing I have ever learned in sports.
“Thar aar no ex-purts when young boys get together and play.”
The next week, Texas lost, 31-14, to an SMU team that won only three league games that year. In case you are counting, that is three straight league losses. Two weeks later, TCU beat the Horns, making it four losses in five games. The season ended at 6-4. But the story of Darrell Royal and his Texas teams in the 1960s didn’t end there. By 1968, they were on a roll again, and won 30 straight games between 1968 and 1970. Royal, despite that dip in the middle, was named national coach of the decade by ABC-TV.
The irony of all of this, of course, is the similarity to what Royal’s teams went through in that season of 1965 and the year Texas is experiencing in 2010. Texas has played for the national championship twice in five years, and the Horns were 25-2 over the past two seasons. Once when I dropped the old cliché of “You can’t win them all,” on my old friend and legendary former Longhorn baseball coach Cliff Gustafson, he replied, “You can if you are good enough.” He’s right, of course—but the fact is, nobody in the history of sport has ever been good enough to always do that.
In the final year of the Big 12, the jumble of teams within their division has never been more obvious. This was a season when I thought, after Texas losses to Oklahoma and Iowa State it would still be possible for a South Division team to tie for the zone title with two, and maybe even three losses. Now, with Oklahoma State the only team in the division with just one loss, it would appear that could well be true. Unfortunately, the Longhorns—just as they did in 1965—have played their way out of contention.
So when you ask how a team that was ranked in the top five nationally can find itself struggling for victories late in the year, the formula is really pretty simple. The first part is the disbelief that this can happen to you. It isn’t the standard Texas football has set under Mack Brown since 1998. Add the fact that this is a very young team to the equation, sprinkle in a series of nagging injuries that have affected almost half of the starters at one time or the other, and then put a target on your chest as vulnerable after dominating opponents, and you have the formula for what has happened here.
Each week, Mack has challenged his team to play well in their final games. Last week, a third of the season remained. Now, it’s a quarter of the year. Three games, and all three of them at home. Texas, its players, coaches and fans, can look at those games like the little girl in the musical “Annie”, who places her hands to her face and exclaims, “Oh my goodness…oh my goodness!”
Or, it can determine that destiny is only what you choose it to be.
In the movie “Silverado”, the great little actress Linda Hunt has one of the great film lines ever. She is short—too short to be the bartender in her own saloon, so she builds a ramp to take her to an appropriate height to serve customers. When the character played by Kevin Klein notices what she has done, he looks inquisitively at the floor behind the bar. And then she says this:
“The world is what you make of it, friend. If it doesn’t fit, you make alterations.”
As I said, there are three games left. Destiny is, what you choose it to be.