Texas' big-game problems start at the top
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BY MATT HAYES
Sep. 15, 2003 9:57 p.m.
It was easier to explain away when the whipping boy was around. Where is Chris Simms
when you need him, anyway?
Ladies and gentlemen, we have witnessed yet another deflating and demoralizing loss in a big game for the Texas Longhorns. The nation's annual underachiever is at it again. All those preseason hopes, all that talk about a new beginning and a fresh outlook were ground into the turf at Royal-Memorial Stadium by a rival who lined up and got physical. And whaddya know, Oklahoma was nowhere to be found.
The Sooners derailed the Texas train the past three seasons, exposing the Longhorns for what they are: a talented team that wilts in big games. Those games, though, were easily and effectively dismissed because of shoddy quarterback play from Simms. But after a 38-28 loss to Arkansas last week, it's time to aim the blame and flame where they belong: coach Mack Brown.
A team is a reflection of its coach; it's just that simple. Players feed off temperament or turmoil, off stability or insecurity. At this point, with history as good an indicator as anything, Texas players can't feel too confident in Brown and his staff in big games. Brown is the best recruiter in the business, but a coach who can't win big games is a coach who eventually loses the grip on his team.
Here is the overriding problem at Texas: There's a big difference between acting like a champion and playing like one. In big games, the Longhorns have the audacity of Oklahoma and the makeup of Baylor. After Arkansas rolled over the Texas defense for 438 yards -- 265 rushing -- averaged 5.6 yards per play and gave up a gift touchdown on a fumble return to make it look respectable, Longhorns quarterback Chance Mock said, "They snuck out of here with a win."
After Arkansas held the ball for 35 of the 60 minutes, limited Texas to 62 yards rushing on 29 carries and conceivably could have hung 50 points on the 'Horns behind the Heisman-esque play of quarterback Matt Jones, Texas defensive coordinator Carl Reese said, "You take the plays Jones made out of the game, it's a different ballgame." Yeah, which is sort of like saying without the barbarians of Germany, it's a different game for the Roman Empire.
No one questions Mack Brown's abilities as a recruiter, but Texas has a bad habit of playing, and coaching, tight in big games.
There's always an excuse at Texas; never accountability. The Longhorns were outcoached, outplayed and outschemed. The Razorbacks once converted a third-and-30 from their 3 when Jones avoided the rush and a potential safety and took advantage of a busted coverage for a 54-yard completion to George Wilson. Texas was in Cover 2, with its safeties deep on the hashes to prevent such a gain. But instead of staying in coverage, the safeties bit on Jones' scramble, and Wilson got behind everyone. Texas players stood stunned on the field; Brown took off his hat and ran his hands through his hair.
"An all-airport team," says one Big 12 defensive coordinator. "They look the part, but they sure as hell don't play it."
If you're looking for a reason, start at the top. Brown, in his 20th season as a head coach, never has won a conference championship. At Texas, he has overseen the rebirth of a once powerful program and helped fill luxury skyboxes and the fanatical imaginations of some of the best fans in college football
. But his tight temperament in big games has filtered down, perpetuating a "wait till next year" aura around a program that should be working on multiple championships by now.
The Longhorns won 11 games each of the last two seasons, but the pain that stains those successes are the losses to Oklahoma and the loss to Colorado in the 2001 Big 12 title game, in which a Texas victory would have meant a spot in the Rose Bowl national title game. Instead, we've watched Texas cap seasons with useless bowl victories and hollow hype for the next year.
The Longhorns have so much NFL talent, the league should set up a scouting field office in Austin. Forget that talk about Texas being a finesse team; the Longhorns are as big, physical and fast as any team in the country. But winning big games means developing an attitude, an instinct that has oomph behind it on Saturdays. College football is about emotion and motivation, and Texas rarely is full of each.
Early last week, Brown tried to stir the fire by dressing down Arkansas coach Houston Nutt for giving a "'Horns down" sign -- index finger and pinky pointed to the ground -- after the Razorbacks' victory over Texas in the 2000 Cotton Bowl. Brown put an 8-by-10 glossy of Nutt's handiwork on the locker room wall, hoping to rally his team to reach and fulfill expectations. It served only as a constant reminder of the big-game implosions.
By the end of last Saturday's game, Nutt was on a ladder in front of the Arkansas band leading the school fight song, his fingers pointed skyward. Brown was sitting at a solemn postgame news conference, explaining away another lost opportunity for the most talented team in the country.
Where is Chris Simms when you need him?