Last January when offseason workouts began, Texas strength coach Yancy McKnight directed every player on the field to look up.
Look at the numbers, the history, on Royal-Memorial Stadium’s east facade, McKnight told them. Texas has won only three Big 12 championships since the league started in 1996, and the last one came in 2009.
“He makes us look up at the stadium each and every time and puts that in your brains,” senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson said.
Players typically can’t look beyond the current season. Most think getting to a championship game is easy, or that it’ll happen every year. Coaches know better.
The opportunity that presents itself Saturday is an incredible one for Texas and coach Tom Herman. Just to reach the Big 12 championship game in his second season is a tremendous accomplishment.
The window is open now, right now, for the Longhorns to assert themselves and rearrange the Big 12’s pecking order.
“Oklahoma’s been at the top the last four or five years,” senior defensive back P.J. Locke III said. “For us to go in and knock them off and have Texas be on top, that’s something we’ve been preaching since we got here. The time is here.”
It’s awfully tempting to say Herman’s progression mirrors Mack Brown’s in 1999. In Brown’s second season, the Longhorns reached the Big 12 title game but lost to Nebraska. Texas then lost to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl and finished the year 9-5.
But Brown was off and running. He went 9-3 in 2000 and then won 10 or more games for nine straight years.
Look at the Big 12 landscape today. It would appear things are lining up for Herman.
Texas Tech, Kansas and possibly Kansas State will have new head coaches when 2019 begins. That’s 30 percent of the conference. There’s a ton of smoke and innuendo claiming that Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley wants to coach in the NFL, or that the NFL wants him. Similar things are said about Baylor’s Matt Rhule.
Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy? Who knows how that’ll play out. TCU’s Gary Patterson sure isn’t going anywhere, though. At least the Horns ended the Horned Frogs’ four-game series winning streak this season.
That leaves West Virginia and Iowa State, two wildcards no matter who’s at the controls but two programs that historically recruit behind Texas and OU.
Former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds always believed college sports was cyclical. At Texas, with the facilities and resources, the lows aren’t as low as other places. Thus, it’s easier to get back to the highs. Saturday presents that kind of moment for the Longhorns.
When this season began, it looked like Texas was headed for a total lost decade. The Horns were just five games above .500 since the start of the 2010 season. Before this year, Texas had never even cracked the College Football Playoff rankings.
For Herman, the turning point was the Texas Bowl. Playing without several key starters who either chose to skip it, got suspended or were injured, the Longhorns pulled off a 33-16 win over the SEC’s Missouri Tigers. Most of the winning plays were made by guys who were coming back in 2018. It gave them real belief. Texas finished the season 7-6, snapping a three-year losing skid.
“We had a plan, and just because we went 7-6 doesn’t mean that the plan is broke,” Herman said. “The plan just needed more time. The plan needed more people to buy into the plan. The plan needed, you know, these young people to develop and to buy in.”
Those who didn’t want to buy into Herman’s ways of soggy pancakes, 6 a.m. workouts and a 1-0 mentality up and left. Those who stayed may get to wear a championship ring.
“I guess whatever we were doing before wasn’t really working,” senior defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “If something new comes in, you might as well come in with an open arm, an open mind and not be tied down to something like, ‘Nah man, I don’t really know him. I’m not going to go with his flow or whatever.’ That’s being stubborn, being childish. You might has well just open up to a new kind of way of doing things and see how it goes, and right now it’s going well.”
Now, Texas is No. 14 in the CFP rankings, No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll and could land in the Sugar Bowl no matter what happens against OU.
“I do think guys respect just how hard it is to get here and how much it takes,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said. “That’s more than just in-season work. You can’t just show up for the fall camp and the season and expect to do well. There’s the year-round work that people don’t necessarily see.”
That year-round work is what ultimately leads to putting new numbers on the stadium facade.
Is this team “overachieving,” as Herman has started saying these last few weeks? No. It’s a group doing what Texas should’ve been doing all along. It took the right mix of coaching, talent and the mentality to break free of all that mediocrity from earlier this decade.
Judging from the conference’s shifting landscape, Texas may keep it that way for awhile.
Win, lose or draw on Saturday against the Sooners, the Longhorns appear to be a program that’s going to win more often than not for the foreseeable future. A win, however, gives Herman a much longer runway.
“I think that’s going to be the plan,” Omenihu said. “You don’t want to get here one time and say we’re good. I’m pretty sure this is what coach Herman wanted to do when he came here.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.