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IN THE FIRST WEEK OF DECEMBER 1997, MACK BROWN STOOD backstage at the Erwin Events Center in Austin, awaiting his formal introduction as football coach at the University of Texas. The school's longtime sports information director, Bill Little, whispered ominously, "Are you ready for this?" Brown was 46. He had been a head coach for 13 years (at Tulane and North Carolina) and had agonized over the decision to leave Chapel Hill. It's just a press conference, he thought. This is the easy part. He wondered why Little would worry.
Then he walked into a new world. "Live, statewide television, audience full of fans," Brown recalls. "At North Carolina, when I was introduced as head coach, it was me and a few writers sitting around a table."
Awaiting his turn to speak at a podium placed on a temporary stage in a cavernous basketball arena, Brown found himself sitting next to Darrell Royal, a living legend who had coached at Texas from 1957 to '76 and guided the Longhorns to their last national championship, in 1970. Royal won 76% of his games and 11 championships in the tough, old Southwest Conference and gave Texas fans a reason to believe that their Horns could always be king. In many ways, Royal was to Texas what Bear Bryant had been to Alabama or Bud Wilkinson to Oklahoma. In fact, Royal had played for Wilkinson on the other side of the Red River.
Brown leaned in to Royal, who was then 73 and still a hellacious golfer at Barton Creek in the Austin Hill Country, and spoke into his ear: "If I'm going to do this, I need your help. Will you help me?" Royal smiled the tight-lipped smile that he had worn so often while walking the Texas sideline for 20 seasons. "I'll help you," he said. The men shook hands, Brown gently wrapping his fingers around Royal's arthritic hand, and a bond was formed linking Texas's proud past with its uncertain future.
Perhaps more than any other game on the broad, overblown landscape of American sports, college football seeks a connection between what happened once and what might happen again. Other games are in a desperate hurry to find the next new thing. Professional sports teams seek the next free agent or the next new stadium, remaking franchises like suburban families redoing kitchens. Even in college basketball, where March Madness is the model of perfection in generating public frenzy (and office pools), teams rush to milk a season or two from their best players before they are gone to the NBA. Tradition is what happened last year.
In college football, though, there are special places where fans do not look hurriedly forward. They look longingly back, like middle-aged adults leafing through high school yearbooks. They beseech the next coach, the next star quarterback, the next big linebacker: Can you take us back? Texas is one such place, a burnt-orange island in the middle of an oversized state that worships football, whether it's played under the Friday night lights or in the Sunday afternoon sunshine. Or on the Saturdays in between, when Austin is not only the state capital but also its football heart.
A fan can look back over the Longhorns' proud history and see Bobby Layne throwing jump passes, Tommy Nobis filling holes and President Richard Nixon awarding Royal the UPI national championship on a bitter Fayetteville afternoon in December 1969. To an outsider these are chunks of history, years apart. To an Orangeblood these moments are part of a mosaic that captures what it means to live and die with the Longhorns and what gives meaning to Texas football.
Sometime after Royal left, the life was slowly sucked from the Texas program. There were moments: Earl Campbell (1977) and Ricky Williams (1998) won Heisman Trophies more than two decades apart. Fred Akers, who succeeded Royal, got Texas into a couple of major bowls, and John Mackovic, who preceded Brown, engineered a stunning upset of Nebraska in the first Big 12 title game, in December 1996.
But there were far more lows: An embarrassing 46-3 loss to Miami in the 1991 Cotton Bowl, a total of 34 defeats in the seven seasons before Brown's arrival. Texas football had always been something special. Brown arrived to find that quality gone, and he asked Royal to help him find it. So the old man dispensed advice in shorthand.