As I watched Brown hoisted up a few feet in front of me, his players screaming and whooping around him, I almost had to laugh because he looked so uncomfortable, a very serious expression on his normally cheerful face. He kept leaning over and saying something to the two big OLs who'd grabbed him and I thought to myself, "I just bet he doesn't like being up there because he doesn't want to show up the Huskers and is telling the guys to put him down."
Sure enough, Sunday during his conference call, when asked his emotions at that moment, Brown joked, "Well, two things; the first thing that went through my mind was that I was afraid they might drop me because I knew how tired they were, and I didn't need to get hurt, because I was really excited. But the second thing is, I don't really like that because I don't want to ever put myself in a position where it is embarrassing to the other team, the other fans or coaches or the other kids. So I've never been into that very much. But when Jay Humphrey and Ben Adams try to pick you up at 600-plus pounds, there's not a whole lot you can say about it. I told them a couple of times to put me down but they weren't gonna do it so I thought, 'What the heck, I'll sit here and keep my mouth shut and let the guys enjoy themselves some.'"
I gotta think Mack Brown enjoyed that moment just a tad himself.
When Brown decided last December to leave what he'd built in Chapel Hill and come to Austin, most felt Texas had grabbed the perfect guy for the job. Brown had taken over a one-win team in basketball-mad North Carolina and wound up guiding it to consecutive 10-win seasons and top-10 finishes in ‘96 and ‘97. His defenses those last two years ranked in the top five, he could recruit like the devil himself, and above all, heexuded a heart-felt and obvious appreciation for the tradition of football at The University of Texas.
But he also had a few people wondering about his ability to win the biggest game each year on his schedule. For him, in the ACC, that game always came against a squad known as the ‘Noles. Brown's Heels never did knock those guys off. The fact that virtually nobody else in the country ever did, either, didn't seem to matter. Some folks, including a few back up in Chapel Hill, claimed he couldn't win the big ‘un.
On Halloween night, 1998, that little theory officially became classified as a myth; go ahead, look it up in the stacks at the PCL.
Saturday afternoon in Lincoln, Brown's Texas Longhorns staged what must be considered one of the most staggering upsets in the history of Texas football. Not staggering because this team lacks talent -- it doesn't, it has playmakers at key positions -- but because it entered this season not knowing if it could win; not knowing how to win. After the UCLA blow-out last year and embarrassing losses to Baylor, Missouri and Oklahoma State, the team's swagger, its simple belief in its own ability to go out and knock somebody on their ass, had vanished. You could see it in the eyes of the players, and it certainly carried through the first three weeks of this season with the deflating victory over New Mexico State and the shellackings at the Rose Bowl and in Manhattan. At the Monday press conferences at Bellmont, when guys like Dusty Renfro would come up to sit and rap with the reporters, you could just tell they still felt bewildered about who they were, both as players and as a team. You felt bad for the guys, particularly early this year after UCLA and K-State; they'd taken so many body blows and it really didn't promise to get any better. You certainly didn't think for a second that by the end of October, they could be the team to kick the door down in Lincoln and shuck the Huskers.
But of course, they now have, and the fact they have is a testament not only to the fortitude of the players but to the coaches ability to sell the guys on their system of football; a system that features an offense that is wide-open and attacks a defense from every angle; that will big-back pound it right at your tonsils but will just as soon pull it back and launch it over your head; and a defense that will blitz you silly -- according to Carl Reese, Texas came with a blitz on 33-percent of the Husker snaps Saturday! -- and will gamble in order to create huge, momentum-shifting, spirit-crushing plays. For a telling testament to how far this defense has come, certainly since it's terrible performance last season, listen to what Husker I-Back Dan Alexander said about the Texas D post-game. "They seemed to be everywhere. They were getting to the ball extremely quickly. It seemed like they blitzed on every play. Sometimes they hit us before the ball was there and we couldn't get anything done. They were very fast." Did Nebraska play Texas or Florida State? Hard to tell listening to Alexander, which is mind-boggling.
But explainable. Luckily for this team, after their brutal early schedule, things eased up a bit with Rice, Iowa State, OU and Baylor, allowing the team to grow and learn and hone its skills running the schemes of Reese and Greg Davis. Not that the Horns cakewalked these games -- Major Applewhite is probably still having Halloween nightmares of the Bears' Eddrick Brooks running loose in the backfield, a bloody meathook or some-such having from his sleeve -- but these teams more closely matched Texas' talent level, and week after week, the coaches managed to maximize the talent they have to put together winning game plans. With the winning has come trust by the players in the coaching staff, and from this faith in what they're doing, a confidence in themselves and in each other. That word -- confidence -- echoed time and again Saturday night in the Texas interview room as the media prodded the team and coaches to try and explain how Texas had just achieved the seemingly unachievable.
Here's how Aaron Humphrey explained it: "We're just playing good defense now. You have to be one unit to be worth anything on defense and I think we're just coming together. We all know each other's responsibilities and we all have faith in each another doing what we're (supposed) to do and I think having that allows everyone to run around and make plays. We have faith in our offense. They're awesome. They can run the ball and throw it. Anytime we get put in that situation it's no big deal. Our offense is going to handle their business . . . If they don't score we have to go out there and shut 'em down again so our offense can have opportunity to get on the field and make plays."
Anthony Hicks, who led the team with 13 tackles, including an amazing five TFLs for minus-18 yards, and played like a man possessed, said about the same thing. "The main difference now is that the whole defense has confidence. Everybody has confidence in everybody else to go out there and do their job and to play their position. Everybody has that relentlessness, to get to the ball and make a big play -- everybody wants to make the big play. They want to be that person in the limelight."
And it's not just Reese's guys who say so. When I asked Applewhite about how the offense has been able to put together late, game-winning drives now two weeks in a row, he explained that "everybody has a lot of confidence in everybody that they'll do their jobs. Everybody just kind of looked at each other (on the winning drive against the Huskers) and said 'I'm going to do my job, I'm not going to worry about you' and we just moved the ball down the field." Greg Davis said the offense just knew they could get it done. "They have great confidence in themselves and they've played a lot of ball, except for Major. I think they've really gained a great deal of confidence in Major's poise over the last five or six weeks. On the sideline, they said, 'Coach, we'll be fine.' We really had challenged them that one of the problems in coming into a place like this, they knock you out early. Washington came in with the No. 8 team and it's 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, so we really challenged them to get it into a game and that's kinda the way it unfolded. We made the good opening drive, gained some confidence and the defense was playing really well and I think they felt like if we could get in the fourth quarter we'd have a chance to win."
Texas won because it, unlike most everybody else, believed it could. Mack Brown and his staff created an environment in which the players could dare to dream the impossible and that dream came true. 66-3 is now just a dark piece of history; 20-16 has replaced it for the new Texas Longhorns and their coach, the guy who can win the big one.
I asked Brown after the game what this win means for the program and he said, "I think it sends a message to the fans that we're going to be OK in the long run because we do know what we're doing and we can win big football games on the road, and that's a tough thing to do. I also think it sends a great message to high school coaches in the state of Texas and to recruits that they better get on fast." All aboard, people, the good ship Humphrey-Adams is picking up steam.