Saturday, September 3, 2011

Reference Point


We can’t help but have them. They’re part of being human, and whether we like it or not, they’re always there, constantly shaping how we feel and how we view the world. They help define what we think is good, and what we think is bad. They determine if we’re satisfied or disappointed. They can make us laugh or cry or vomit, and despite our best efforts, we often have very little control over them.

As a University of Texas football fan, I’ve been conditioned over the years to have extremely high expectations. Considering the school’s motto is “We’re Texas,” why wouldn’t I? With world-class facilities, a fertile recruiting base, chart-topping merchandise sales, its own TV network (so what if no one can watch it?) and a campus full of beautiful girls in chaps, the program has been blessed with every advantage imaginable. So it’s only natural to want – to expect – those advantages to be parlayed into consistent success on the field.

Of course, one of my favorite seasons to follow was 2008, when the expectations weren’t so extreme. The Horns were a little under the radar, a little underappreciated, and nobody really thought there was anything special in store. But one good thing happened, and then another, and then another, and the next thing you knew they were the No. 1 team in the country. And even though they ended up falling one second and a BCS screw job short of playing for a national title, watching them game after game was a thrilling, in-the-zone ride, like gambling with found money and continually getting dealt blackjack.

(At least, that’s what it was like until Oklahoma ran up the score on their final four opponents, the voters fell for it, and the Sooners got to play for the championship, despite the fact that Texas had beaten them head-to-head. Then it was like getting kicked in the crotch. But whatever…I’m over it.)

Conversely, the 2009 campaign was like a weekly trip to the proctologist, which is a little strange considering they went 13-1, had a Heisman finalist and won their conference in exhilarating fashion. But as one of the preseason favorites to win it all, expectations were sky high, and every play was run under the weight of that pressure. So when the offense struggled or the margin of victory wasn’t big enough, you were dissatisfied. Wins were met not with excitement and celebration, but with relief. The team was being held to a different standard, and nothing short of perfection was acceptable. And when they fell short in the national title game, the season felt like a complete and total failure.

But we were spoiled, and we didn’t know it. And unfortunately, we were about to get a whole new perspective on what a “complete and total failure” really was.

Fresh off the 25-2 run of ’08-‘09 and ranked in the top five, the dawn of 2010 was business as usual in Austin. Sure, there’d been some key losses to graduation, but with a talent-laden roster, the seemingly next great Texas QB under center and the Head-Coach-In-Waiting as the Defensive Coordinator, it appeared that the train was set to keep on rolling.

And then the team started actually playing.

They were sluggish from the outset, and in hindsight, critics like to claim that they could see this perfect-storm collapse coming from a mile away. But initially, it just felt like an aberration, and you were sure they were going to snap out of it at any moment. That next play, that next series, that next half, it was going to turn around, and all would be right with the world again.

But as the losses steadily piled up – UCLA, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State – there was no denying that things had spun completely out of control.

And as a fan, my experience of watching the games became much different, and not just because Texas was getting bent over week after week. It was that my expectations had changed, and I was now just waiting for the worst-case scenario to take shape. Every pass was going to get picked off. Every series was going to go three-and-out. Every defensive back was going to get beat deep. Even when there was a good play, I expected it to get wiped out by a penalty (and the officials were more than happy to oblige). In a matter of weeks, I’d been transformed from a cockeyed optimist like Billy Mumphrey to an outright cynic.

Fall behind 39-0 enough and that’s what happens.

When the season mercifully ended with a Thanksgiving night loss to Texas A&M, it marked the beginning of a long, cold winter for UT fans everywhere. While the likes of Toledo and Troy were competing in bowl games, I was left searching for a holiday 90210 marathon as I counted the days until the Longhorns could take the field again with their record reset to 0-0.

But as I sit here now, just hours from the start of the 2011 season, I can’t help feeling utterly confused and discombobulated. Last year turned everything on its head, and I don’t know what to expect anymore. Will they be any good? Can they be competitive again? Was 2010 just a painful detour that’s now in the rearview mirror, or was it the first step towards a looming disaster, like Thelma and Louise shifting into drive?

At this point, I have no clue. Nothing would surprise me. You could tell me that the big Samoan dude from Necessary Roughness will be starting at right tackle or that the first play from scrimmage will involve Bevo as some sort of Trojan Horse, and I wouldn’t be able to dismiss any of it with 100 percent certainty.

In the aftermath of 5-7, there were sweeping changes made to the program. There are now new coaches, new schemes and countless unknowns. The reasonable, more grounded side of me is convinced that we’ll have to suffer through a transitional phase. You can’t make that many changes and not expect there to be growing pains. You’ve got different offensive and defensive systems, question marks at key positions, and a depth chart that features 15 true freshmen, not to mention a schedule that includes dates with three top 10 teams.

On the other hand, these changes have seemed to cleanse the 40 Acres, giving everyone a sense of hope and renewal. There’s a feeling that we could be onto something special, like the beginning of a budding romantic relationship. Everything is so fresh and so exciting. And because nobody’s been caught picking their nose or wearing their granny panties, there’s not a blemish to be found anywhere. The possibilities seem limitless.

That newfound energy is contagious, and a part of me believes that it will lead to a quick turnaround, that the Horns will be right back in the championship chase this year. Comprised of the best and brightest the coaching profession has to offer, this new staff will not only wreak havoc on opponents with their innovation, but they’ll find ways to get the most out of a roster that’s stocked full of four and five-star talent, athletes who were pursued by all of the top programs in the country. And if that’s not enough, there’s half-man, half-amazing – Strength Coach Bennie Wylie – to will everybody forward with the sheer force of his left tricep.

I mean, would you not do whatever this guy to the right said?

With the scars not yet healed from last year, though, the smart move would probably be to temper my expectations as best I can. And when I think about it, it could actually be freeing, allowing me to just sit back, relax, and enjoy having football to watch again, no matter what the outcome may be.

But I have a feeling that strategy is most likely a waste of energy. My passion for UT is intuitive…it comes from some deep, dark corner of my subconscious – as well as from my grandfather, who’s just as irrational as I am – and trying to control it seems useless. Once that ball is kicked off, I’m sure I’ll go back to living and dying with every play, expecting the Horns to come out on top.

After all, we are still Texas.


  1. Hey Brent -

    Awesome post, was at the game last night. I think we have a ton of YOUNG talent, who are going to make mistakes. I love our new OC and DC and think good things are coming within the next few years. With that said, Gilbert is not the guy and I hope Ash is in within 3 games. Burning a redshirt for him to come in for 3 plays and block would be a waste... hook em.

  2. Aron-

    Thanks for the response.

    I agree...there's a ton of young talent in the program, and with new systems on both sides of the ball, there are going to be some growing pains. But I'm excited to see this team develop.

    I'm not ready to give up on Gilbert yet (as you'll see in my new post), but I also don't think Ash is ready yet. I think they'll use him in certain situations - and if the new coordinators showed anything Saturday night, it's that they're going to play a bunch of guys - which will help prepare him for when it's his time to take over.

    On to BYU...

    Thanks again for reading!


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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?