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UNDER A BLIZZARD OF MULTICOLORED CONFETTI, IN WHAT HAD BECOME A MOSH PIT ON THE FIELD AT the Rose Bowl on the night of Jan. 4, arguably the greatest athlete in the world seemed overwhelmed by the moment. "Unbelievable," Lance Armstrong, clad in a burnt-orange T-shirt, repeated, over and over. "This is just unbelievable."
Or was it? When a player is as transcendent, as ridiculously dominant as Texas quarterback Vince Young was against the USC Trojans, and when a Pete Carroll-coached defense is made to look like so many cardinal-and-gold pylons, the Longhorns' breathtaking 41-38 victory is easily believable. What strained credulity was that with 6:42 left and USC leading by 12 points, the clearly outplayed Trojans might actually win.
But as Longhorns right tackle Justin Blalock said while celebrating on the field, not far from where Armstrong posed for pictures with a gaggle of Texas cheerleaders, "We kept our poise, put the ball in Vince's hands and let the man do what he does."
All Young did was outplay a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, amassing 467 yards of total offense. He completed 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards and ran 19 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. His last carry, on fourth-and-five from the USC eight-yard line with 26 seconds to play, went for the touchdown that clinched the Longhorns' first national title in 35 years. It also terminated the two-time defending champion Trojans' winning streak at 34 games, extending Texas's to 20, and left a loquacious man at a temporary loss for words. "I've been planning this speech for 33 years," coach Mack Brown told his players in the winners' locker room, "but right now I don't really know what to say."
Hoisting the crystal national championship trophy was sweet vindication for Brown, whose charm and kind nature had become, in an odd way, a curse. He has long been one of the best, if not (sorry, Pete) the best recruiter in college football. But the more blue-chippers he raked in, the more it drew attention to the fact that in eight years at Texas, he'd never won even a Big 12 title. Critics sniped that he was better in the living rooms of high school seniors than on the sideline in big games. He was dubbed Coach February.
Brown had no way of knowing it at the time, but his fortunes changed in 2002--on the day he sold Young, then a senior at Houston's Madison High, on the Longhorns. Parade magazine's national high school offensive player of the year, Young was a scintillating runner and a strong-armed passer despite an awkward throwing motion, and he played his best when the stakes were highest. Upon arriving in Austin, in the summer of '02, Young was still a raw talent who had much to learn from Brown and was, in fact, redshirted. But make no mistake, Texas won its fourth national title on Jan. 4 because Brown's relationship with his star quarterback had become a two-way street: The teacher learned a thing or two from his student as well.
The Gatorade in his hair was nearly dry a half hour after the game when Brown remarked, as much to himself as anyone, "It's a long way from Dallas." Five straight losses to Oklahoma from 2000 through '04, all in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, overshadowed otherwise excellent Texas seasons and threatened to define Brown's career. Each of those defeats was marked by a discernible tightness passed from the coaches to the players, a fear of failure. Young's career as a Longhorn can be viewed in part as a battle to overcome this constrictive atmosphere--a battle he officially won in the 2004 season, when Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis gave up trying to fix his three-quarter throwing motion and attempting to transform him into a sprint-out, bootleg quarterback. They gave Young more latitude away from the field as well, signing off on his request to liven up the locker room and practices with song and dance--and we're not talking Lawrence Welk. Young even got Brown, 54, to loosen up by exposing him to the world of hip-hop, earning the coach a nickname from the team's beat writers: Snoop Mack.
Still, heading into the Rose Bowl, the big question was, Which Young would show up? The brooding passer who in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was pressing in the face of a surprisingly stiff challenge? The Heisman runner-up with the chip on his shoulder, who voiced his displeasure over not winning the trophy moments after Reggie Bush's name was called? Or the fist-knocking, loose-limbed team leader whose dazzling physical skills are matched by his toughness and strength of will?
The answer came during pregame warmups, as Brown grooved to the beat of Justin Timberlake's Rock Your Body. The guy could not have been less tense. Even after the Trojans turned a fumble by Longhorns punt returner Aaron Ross into an early 7-0 lead, Texas had no reason to panic. Though they were scoreless on their first three possessions, the Longhorns were moving the ball. Then, on USC's first possession of the second quarter, the game turned dramatically. At the end of a 37-yard catch and run, Bush attempted an ill-advised lateral as he was about to be tackled inside the Texas 20. The ball missed its target and was recovered by the Longhorns. Texas turned that goof into a field goal and proceeded to dominate the rest of the first half. Taking advantage of USC's utter befuddlement in the face of the Longhorns' zone-read option offense, Young effortlessly completed short and intermediate passes to his underneath receivers behind superb protection, leading Texas on two touchdown drives. Just before intermission Mario Danelo kicked a 43-yard field goal to pull USC to 16-10, but the Trojans knew they had a game on their hands; the Longhorns were nothing like the 2004 Oklahoma Sooners, who had rolled over before halftime in last year's 55-19 Orange Bowl rout.
In truth, the signs had been good for Texas ever since the team arrived in Los Angeles on Dec. 28. "I've heard about the Vince Vibe," USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson said. "He's got those guys really playing for him." The Vibe was strong all week leading up to the game. Young was relaxed, funny, in the moment. He even played the diplomat, walking over to a group of USC players to break the ice at Disneyland, where the teams had been milling about in separate areas before being set loose in the park. And he was a goodwill ambassador, declaring at points throughout the week his love for Brown, Davis, his teammates, the Rose Bowl committee and the weather--this before Old Testament-like rain lashed floats and filled fl�gelhorns in the 117th Rose Parade.