Proud Texas finds end of drought extra sweet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Rose Bowl was remarkable for many reasons - Texas quarterback Vince Young's performance, the back-and-forth fourth quarter, the amount of talent on the field.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect was that Texas' victory gave the Longhorns their first national championship since Richard Nixon was president.

I'm not here to throw cold water on their triumph. (As the husband of a Texas grad proud enough to fly a state flag out our window first thing Thursday morning, I wouldn't dare.) But I have to ask: How could such a privileged football school go 35 years without a title?

Texas is a supremely large and wealthy school with a winning tradition and state-of-the-art facilities, and it dominates a state with high school football that ranks as the nation's best alongside that in Florida, California and the western Pennsylvania/Ohio corridor.

Yet its last title before this one is such ancient history that I saw it as a kid at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 1, 1971. Notre Dame defeated the Longhorns, but Texas still won the UPI national title, which was awarded before the bowls then. (Nebraska and Ohio State also won titles that year.)

I also saw the Longhorns lock up undisputed national titles by winning Cotton Bowl games at the end of the 1963 and 1969 seasons. I grew up down there, and later, my first job out of college was covering Texas high school football.

I was consecrated into the secular religion of Friday Night Lights long before the book and movie came out, and all I can say is, yes, the players are that strong and fast, and, yes, the fans are that rabid.

I once covered a playoff game attended by 50,000 fans. I also covered a coach who burned down the house of a running back in a neighboring town, hoping to persuade him to move. I could go on and on.

Back when the Longhorns were winning national titles, the NCAA set no limits on how many scholarships a school could offer, and Texas coach Darrell Royal made the most of that. He recruited many more top players than he needed, knowing that, while many would never play, they also wouldn't go to other schools and beat him.

His Monday intrasquad scrimmages were reputed to be better than Saturday games at most other schools.

A changing world ended the dynasty. Other schools moved more quickly to recruit African-Americans in the 1970s, and the NCAA started setting scholarship limits to level the playing field.

As the scholarship limit declined from 105 in 1973 to 95 in 1978 to 85 in 1992, college football experienced a revolution that continues today. Smaller schools such as Miami and Virginia Tech have found they can compete at the elite level, while each of the "traditional" powers have gone through long dry spells.

Southern California didn't win a national title from 1978 to 2003. Oklahoma was dry from 1985 to 2000. Alabama has won one title since 1979. Nebraska, after years of winning, is finally struggling now.

Texas has had a particularly tough time. Royal retired in 1976 and, like many iconic coaches, proved hard to replace. Sensing an opportunity, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer swooped in and started signing many of the best recruits in Texas.

Under the three coaches that followed Royal (Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic), the Longhorns became a relative mediocrity, as likely to land in the Holiday Bowl as a major.

They were caught in a cycle - just another team, unable to rise. They had Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, two Heisman Trophy runners, but were ill-fated in a way, masters of the key, season-wrecking loss (usually to Oklahoma).

Since taking over in 1998, current coach Mack Brown has focused on reconnecting the Longhorns with the state's best high school talent, as Royal once did. All but one of the players who started Wednesday night were homegrown.

The coaches who preceded Brown surely also knew to follow that blueprint, but Brown has worked it more doggedly. And, of course, he recruited Young, the once-in-a-lifetime player who put him over the top.

When Brown started talking about Texas high school football almost as soon as he won Wednesday, he was paying homage to the people who put him there, and also (always) recruiting.

You can be sure every other Division I coach in Texas was rooting against him, knowing the pull to Texas would be that much stronger if the Longhorns won.

When they did, I thought about where I was the last time they won - sitting in the stands, still a kid. I can hardly believe their fall and rise needed 35 years to play out.

Of course, if you ask them now, they will tell you the wait was worth it.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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