Texas Tough? Brown Certainly Thinks So

So it’s August, and talk among Texas fans naturally centers around the Horns’ hopes of doing the thing no Texas team has done in over 30 years -- bring a national championship home to Austin. Given the lack of even a top-10 finish in almost two decades, that goal may seem delusional, but it’s not. Not this year. The Texas roster is deep and talented, and the schedule ain’t.

But how to get to the Rose Bowl, and once there, how to seal the deal? To answer that one, take a gander back at last season’s champs. If there’s anything the Oklahoma Sooners shared with the Baltimore Ravens, other than the fact they took home big, shiny championship rings, is that they played with an iron will. When it got down to crunch time, no matter what the situation, they took their opponents’ best punch and kept on standing. The Sooners did it time and again. Against A&M at Kyle Field. In Stillwater against OSU. At home against Nebraska when the Huskers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, to name a few.

It’s pretty simple, really; the Sooners and Ravens fielded some street fighters, in a game where toughness, intimidation, and talent, in that order, win ballgames.

In ‘00, Texas showed signs of becoming that kind of team, but it came later in the season, after their national title hopes, realistic or not, had been dashed. After leading in the fourth quarter against Stanford at Palo Alto, the Horns wilted down the stretch. And then OU slapped a total eclipse on the Burnt Orange sun three weeks later. The Oklahoma game showed that while Mack Brown had solved the talent part of the winning formula, the toughness part was still a work in progress.

But progress is exactly what the team made in that direction down the stretch last season. After OU crushed them on the field, it remained to be seen whether the Horns’ spirits had been crushed as well. They answered that question emphatically with six straight victories when, quite frankly, it was anybody’s guess how the rest of the season would go. Texas’ gritty wins at traditional Horn snake pits Folsom Field in Boulder and Jones Stadium in Lubbock highlighted the streak and revealed a team that had grown some backbone. A third straight nine-win season, a nationally televised spanking of A&M, and a high-profile bowl appearance put a shine on a season that had lost some early luster.

Still, the Horns couldn’t quite get it done in the Holiday Bowl against an Oregon squad that just had a little more to give. Texas came close and never quit, but it couldn’t get over the hump. So the bad news is that the Horns couldn’t find the steel to put over one more win, the way the Sooners and Ravens did. The good news is that they realize it, and are working to find that steel and forge it into a hammer.

After the spring game, a reporter asked Mack Brown about his team’s attitude, about what kind of emotion they had played with throughout spring ball, about how they’d handled the disappointment of the season’s finish. Brown responded that the team had played fired up all spring. More significantly, he said the guys embraced the heavy workload.

"We’ve been more demanding of them," the head coach said. "We know all the guys now. There's only a few guys who we weren’t in their homes in recruiting so we feel really comfortable with them, and it takes you all a while to really get to know your football team in some cases. We feel really good about being able to push these guys, we pushed them hard in the off-season and we have been hard on them this spring. We haven’t had any days off. We’ve been out in the rain, in the mud, and these guys have competed. I think this will be the toughest football team we’ll have had this fall, and one of our objectives is to get tougher."

Brown said that when he met with the team individually after last season, the guys told him they believed they needed to focus on becoming a group that could get stronger as games wore on, that could develop the resilience to do whatever it takes to win. "In the three losses last year, not so much in the last one but in the losses to Stanford and Oklahoma, the guys in my individual meetings said they felt like we just needed to push harder and make more things happen and be tougher, especially on the road, and I agreed with them."

This August, Carl Reese said he wants his defense, especially his linebacking corps, eating more nails. So far, they have been. "Tyrone Jones is more physical than he's ever been," said Reese. "Lee Jackson (currently hobbled by a toe injury) gets to play because he was physical in two straight practices and it's a day-by-day thing. And I think Everick Rawls has shown good toughness. That's been our problem; we're good athletes but we've got to be tough guys."

To get his team there, Brown said he has personally gotten more involved. "We all decided I was going to take over and make sure we pushed ‘em harder," said Brown. "We’ve stayed out longer, we’ve hit more, we’ve worked harder on the running game, we’ve worked harder on stopping the run instead of talking about how horrible it is we don’t have Shaun and Casey and Cole Pittman back. We’ve been talking about what we can do as a defense to do a better job stopping the run and accomplishing the things we need to. So I think it has just been an overall effort for me pushing harder, pushing myself harder, pushing the coaches harder, and the players pushing each other harder."

That can only be good news. The Sooners are not more talented than Texas. No, this ‘01 Longhorn team is deep and seasoned. Sure, they are somewhat thin at defensive tackle, but if they can develop a mean streak to go with the muscle, then neither the Sooners nor any other team should be able to hang with them. If not, then all bets are off.

The Longhorn players and coaches know what must be done, and beginning with a rugged spring and continuing into two-a-days for both staff and players, they have begun to do it. The result could be that break-through season we’ve all been waiting for.

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