He had been restless throughout the interview, and now Roy Williams stood up. The Texas wide receiver let his fingers do the walking through a row of magazines on a shelf in the school's sports information office, then plucked one out. "So good it's scary," he declaimed, reading the cover billing on SI's 2002 College Football Preview. "Oooh." That cover, you may recall, featured Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris striking a menacing pose. "What's that all over his jersey?" Williams asked. "Mustard?" No, Roy, that's dirt, it was explained. Sometimes the photographers will....
But Williams had stopped listening and was now reading the subhead from the cover story touting Oklahoma's "devastating defense ... a scary assemblage of superathletes ready to take the national title." Dropping the magazine on a desk, he said, "We'll see."
Yes, we will. This Saturday, in the biggest game of the season to date, No. 2 Oklahoma will play No. 3 Texas in the 97th Red River Shootout, at the Cotton Bowl. Both teams are 5-0; Texas is slightly favored. "You come out of the tunnel, and the stadium's half orange and half crimson," says Texas offensive tackle Robbie Doane. "You've got people of all ages giving you the finger."
In recent years the rivalry's profile has risen with the fortunes of both teams. One team's, of course, have soared higher. In 2000 the Sooners jump-started their surprising drive to the national title with a 63-14 rout of the Longhorns. A year later they relied on the heroics of their own Roy Williams, the strong safety now with the Dallas Cowboys, to grind out a 14-3 win.
Given that history, you might expect the mood on the Texas campus to be Beat the Sooners or beat it, Mack Brown. Not exactly. Brown, who took over as the Longhorns' coach from the fired John Mackovic after the 1997 season, may not have brought a national title to the Forty Acres, but he hasn't been twiddling his thumbs. He's won nine or more games in each of his four seasons in Austin, and he consistently reels in premier recruiting classes. Texas fans may gripe when their beloved Horns spit the bit against Oklahoma or Colorado, but they aren't stupid. They recall the lean years under Mackovic and David McWilliams. Brown has earned their allegiance.
From the day he was hired, Brown—whose contract has been extended through 2011—has reached out to former Longhorns players, to the state's high school coaches and to his predecessors. He has difficulty going five minutes in a conversation without bringing up legendary Longhorns coach Darrell Royal. To wit: " Coach Royal said you have to enjoy the wins and handle the losses," Brown said last week. "If you're relieved after wins and devastated after losses, then you never, ever have a good day."
Having failed to have a good day in his last two attempts to beat Oklahoma, Brown seems to be taking a different tack. "I've told the kids to quit worrying, to go have fun," he says. "If we play as well as we can and that's not good enough, then we'll recruit harder. We've kept our passion but lost our obsession."
By spreading this gospel, Mack the Nice is taking pressure off his club. The truth is that the stakes could not be higher for a football game in October. Bob Stoops, the Sooners' fourth-year coach, has overshadowed Brown's considerable accomplishments. A victory over the gimlet-eyed Ohioan wouldn't guarantee Texas a BCS bowl bid or even a spot in the Big 12 title game, but it would go a long way toward erasing Brown's reputation as a football man more gifted at recruiting than coaching.
Only one person in the Cotton Bowl will have more to gain from a win than Brown. For Texas quarterback Chris Simms the game will be a golden opportunity to come full circle. In his four years in Austin, the Son of Phil has gone from prodigy (beating out Major Applewhite, the returning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, as a sophomore in 2000) to pathetic figure, committing four turnovers in the first half of last December's conference title game loss to Colorado before giving way to Applewhite. Afterward Simms was verbally abused while leaving Texas Stadium with his father. Then some yahoos posted his cellphone number on the Internet, resulting in a slew of profane messages. A few days later Brown told him that Applewhite would be starting against Washington in the Holiday Bowl.
Simms dealt with his disappointment by bearing down. He spent the summer working out and throwing to teammates in seven-on-seven drills. He also invited his receiving corps to New Jersey, where in addition to practicing, they bonded by fishing in a pond on the Simms property. The result: Finally, in his fourth year at Texas, he looks completely comfortable and confident running the offense. "He's making great decisions right now," says Tulane coach Chris Scelfo, who lost to the Longhorns 49-0 on Sept. 28. Simms has completed 92 of 164 passes for 10 touchdowns, with three interceptions (two of which were tipped by his receivers). He's more willing to take sacks and less inclined to force throws. "The biggest difference," says Brown, "is that he's not trying to prove to everybody that he's good. He knows he's good."