Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Fueled by football, UT athletics is getting that 2002 feeling again

Football wins bring optimism abound. ‘It’s definitely a good vibe around the campus and the athletic department.’

Posted October 25th, 2018

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The question alone mortified Kerwin Roach II. The Texas football team has Oklahoma State this weekend. Snoop, who you got?

“C’mon, why would you even ask that?” the Texas senior replied at Big 12 men’s basketball media day Wednesday in Kansas City.

Hey, you never know. Some athletes have close friends on the opposing team. UT freshman safety Caden Sterns’ older brother starred at Oklahoma State.

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But, of course, Roach is picking the sixth-ranked Longhorns over the Pokes this weekend at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater.

Texas kicker Cameron Dicker (17) celebrates a field goal against Baylor in the Longhorns’ win on Oct. 13. A week earlier, his end-of-the-game field goal beat Oklahoma. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Ask a UT basketball player about the football team, and you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at life on campus these days.

“Every home game, we’re there, in the student section on the front row,” Roach said. Members of the men’s team tend to stand out in the crowd of common-sized folk.

Remember how the baseball team’s success in 2002 sparked the revival of the entire athletic program? It was impossible not to think about that again this spring when Texas hosted an NCAA super regional and went on to the College World Series.

Now, the football Longhorns are ranked No. 6 in the country, are 6-1 and 4-0 in Big 12 play, and sit atop the conference standings. Heading into the crossover month of November, other UT athletes want to feed off the football team’s energy.

What was hoped could be coming into reality. Is this 2002 all over again?

“It’s definitely a good vibe around the campus and the athletic department,” Roach said. “Seeing how football has responded after that first loss, people were doubting them. They came and beat USC, beat Oklahoma and they’ve been resilient all season. I feel like that could be us, too.”

Football is the economic, psychological and motivational engine that drives the entire athletic department. As athletic director Chris Del Conte said, “It’s the franchise.”

It’s the franchise that hasn’t won anything yet, though. Linebacker Gary Johnson said after the Baylor game that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby wasn’t giving out midseason trophies.

“The only thing that matters is what hardware have we taken home and where are we ranked at the end of the season,” UT coach Tom Herman said this week. “So the only thing we talk about is that we have earned everybody’s best shot. So if we think we’re going to get anything less than everybody’s best shot from here on out, we’re kidding ourselves.”

Texas pitcher Huston Street ends up on the bottom of the dogpile after UT won the 2002 College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Don’t think an athletic department benefits from winning momentum? Look what happened in 2002. With Dustin Majewski’s and Jeff Ontiveros’ home-run prowess and Huston Street’s slider, Texas baseball made it to Omaha and won the national championship. Three months later, the football team started off with a five-game winning streak; Texas lost to Oklahoma but Mack Brown’s Horns finished with an 11-2 record.

Rick Barnes’ basketball team went 26-7 during the 2002-03 season and reached the Final Four. Jody Conradt’s women’s team went 29-6 and also made the Final Four. Texas’ swimming and diving teams and track teams were grabbing conference titles. So was men’s golf. Women’s golf got a championship ring in 2004.

Success just came in waves, culminating with Vince Young’s run to the national championship in 2005.

You can be sure outside observers have been anxious to see Texas football get off the canvas and start dominating again.

“I think the Big 12 is a better conference when Texas and OU are both playing at a high level,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday.

He wouldn’t crown either team as league champions just yet. But the league office would probably like to see those two teams meet again at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 1. Bowlsby just can’t openly say it, though.

“West Virginia is an excellent football team,” he said. “Iowa State’s proven it’s an excellent football team. So it’s a long way to the gate post.”

And it’s a long way to Stillwater, Okla., a place that hasn’t been too kind to the Horns in recent years. The last trip there was embarrassing, as Texas had three extra points blocked and got waylaid 49-31. That day was indeed the beginning of the end for then-coach Charlie Strong.

This feels like the beginning of a new beginning for Texas athletics, though.

It’s imperative that Herman’s Horns keep grinding. Internally, everybody’s hopes are up. You can feel it just from talking with other players, other coaches and school officials. Oh, and fans are excited, too.

“Just go out there and do it,” Roach said. “You can’t just talk about it. Talk does nothing for you. You just have to go out there and do it.”

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

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