University of Texas linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch (23) and quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) stand next to Texas head coach, Tom Herman, before the team exits the tunnel for the Orange-White spring game held at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April, 13, 2019, in Austin, Texas. [Rodolfo Gonzalez for AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: What does being ‘back’ even mean these days for the Longhorns?

Longhorns reached the Big 12 title game and won the Sugar Bowl. That's great, but that's not what Tom Herman came here to do.

Posted July 19th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Feldman: “Literally, Texas isn’t all the way back until they have a parade celebrating the national title.”
  • Schroeder: “It’s more than contending for the Big 12.”
  • It’s also foolish to think Texas hasn’t turned a major corner.

Nothing saps one’s energy like the annual ritual of wondering whether “Texas is back.”

Ugh, just reading those three words is draining, bordering on debilitating. Yuck.

Alas, it was the topic du jour at Big 12 media days. At least, it was when people stopped asking about Horns Down penalties. Reporters from all over the Big 12 wanted to quiz quarterback Sam Ehlinger about his post-Sugar Bowl proclamation of the Longhorns’ status.

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Did he see coach Tom Herman’s expression? “I can picture it. I don’t exactly recall what that looked like,” Ehlinger said.

Did the coach say something afterward? “No, no, he didn’t say anything.”

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) celebrates a win over Georgia during the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game in New Orleans, LA.Tuesday, January 1, 2019. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Spoiler alert for those just arriving from Mars: Texas is not back. The Longhorns haven’t won a Big 12 championship since 2009. Just being in the game last year does not count.

Perhaps it’s time to rephrase the question.

What does Texas being “back” even look like?

• “Literally, Texas isn’t all the way back until they have a parade celebrating the national title,” said Bruce Feldman, Fox’s national college football reporter. He thinks Texas will win the Big 12 this season, by the way.

“Sam’s terrific, but in order to really punctuate it, he needs to do what Vince (Young) did,” Feldman added. “That’s how high the bar is. Those guys shouldn’t be shying away from it. It’s ridiculous how mediocre they’ve been.”

Prior to last season, the Longhorns were only five games above .500 for the decade. A 10-4 campaign in 2018 pushed that winning percentage in a favorable direction. This program has finished in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll only twice this decade — 19th in 2012 and ninth last season.

• “It’s more than contending for the Big 12,” said George Schroeder, national college football writer for USA Today. “It’s contending for the Big 12 while you’re a legitimate playoff contender. Then, you have to win the Big 12. You may not have to make the playoff, because it’s hard to get into the four. But you’ve got to be a legitimate No. 4, 5 or 6.”

Just getting to the Big 12 championship and then beating Georgia, however special that was, does not mean the program is back to its customary Darrell Royal and Mack Brown winning ways.

Texas head coach Tom Herman watches a replay against Georgia during the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans, Louisiana. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Herman knows this. He accepts it. After all, he didn’t come to Austin just to have one good year. His stated goal from day one was to win “championships.” Plural.

• “I’ve never been able to answer that question because I don’t know what the definition of back is,” Herman said at Big 12 media days. “What that word means, I don’t know?”

Herman said he didn’t have a big problem with Ehlinger yelling out “We’re baaack!” on the Sugar Bowl stage. “Shoot, the guy played his tail off,” Herman said. “He scored three touchdowns. He threw a two-point conversion. He was the MVP. I’ll cut him some slack for saying two words.”

Two big words.

“Two big words, yeah,” Herman said. “But if there’s anybody that’s earned it, it’s him.”

Still, Herman accepts the idea that being “back” is more a state of mind than anything. He just doesn’t necessarily agree that it’s something Texas should aspire to because it represents the arrival of a destination.

“Maybe a better way to explain it, we’ll never use that phrase in our program because there’s a finality to it,” Herman said. “We’re on the right track, right? We’re constantly improving. We’ll never arrive at being back. We will always be pushing to improve. Now, where that ceiling takes us, I don’t know. But we’ll never put a finality on our goals to say, ‘Hey we’ve arrived.’ That’s foolish.”

It’s also foolish to think Texas hasn’t turned a major corner. This program is long past the days of botched coin flips, ragged play and coaching speculation. It’s even moved past the necessary culture change, the disgruntlement over burnt hot dogs and soggy pancakes.

Nowadays, if someone doesn’t qualify for the team’s offseason “Champions Club,” you seriously have to wonder why that player hasn’t already moved on. Herman and his staff have reached a point where they should no longer wait on stragglers not putting forth the effort.

At this point, the Horns are managing expectations. Mostly their own. This team has bought into Herman’s sermons that yours and mine don’t matter one whit.

“You just have to completely shut it out, and that’s kind of been my main objective,” Ehlinger said of the outside noise. “Shut out the positive and the negative noise, and focus on what’s truly important and what’s truly going to make us better.”

Go look at social media. Herman has not been active on his Twitter account since August 2018. Ehlinger said he changed his settings to get notifications only from those he follows. All those Oklahoma and Texas A&M fans sending him hate tweets? “I don’t know,” he said.

This program appears dialed in for the 2019 season. The preseason rankings — Texas is No. 9 in the American-Statesman’s Top 25 — literally mean nothing.

Texas is back to practice. That’s not meme-worthy, and it won’t make an Aggie’s head spin. But that’s all that matters.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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