When Texas Plays Like Texas


When Texas is playing good football, it just seems like the world is a better place.

It’s hard to describe exactly. It’s almost like there’s this warm feeling all throughout campus, Austin, central Texas and the entire state. There’s a definite buzz of positivity. The grass is greener, everyone is happier and sweet tea just tastes that much sweeter.

You hear plenty of theories around the state about why the Longhorns suddenly stopped winning a few years back. It’s been analyzed and reanalyzed up and down by every person who has an opinion about football. But I think that, ultimately, none of it really matters. I’m not here to discuss what went wrong, or whether “Texas is back.”

What I do want to talk about is what this program means to me — because it means a lot. It means just about everything.

I was fortunate to spend eight years playing defensive back in the NFL. It’s something I’m very proud of and that I’ll always be thankful for, but — and I tell this to every young man I meet who has similar ambitions — it was a job. From the moment you’re drafted to the day you retire, there is always a business element attached to playing in the league. Even though you spend your whole life dreaming of making it there, a lot of things become much more complicated once you’re in the NFL. From the outside, you only see the money, the nice houses, the flashy cars and the endorsements. But once you’re immersed in the actual pressures of the job — the injuries, the benchings, and the reality that, at any moment, your career could be over — your perspective changes just a bit. Your relationship with the game changes.

In college, things were a lot simpler. It didn’t matter whether you were a five-star blue chip, or a two-star guy like myself — everyone was treated the exact same. You slept in the same dorms, ate the same food and were held to the same standards. The coaches might have made the decisions in terms of scheme and playing time, but it was the guys you lived with — and grew up with — who you really answered to.     

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman

When I close my eyes and think back to that time in my life, the first image that pops into my mind is the DB room. Oh man, the hours I spent in that room. I can see Quentin Jammer right there at the front, quietly watching film. When I was just a redshirt freshman, he was one of the guys I looked up to.  He was also the person I never wanted to disappoint.

Coaches at college programs get a lot of focus (and blame) from fans and the media, but what gets lost is how crucial veteran leadership is to the growth of players. Yeah, if I ever screwed up during a game, I knew Duane Akina, our DB coach we give me an earful. But during those practices and games, it was guys like Quentin I didn’t really want to let down. If I was supposed to be behind the line before we started a drill, I knew I better make sure I was behind that line or otherwise those seniors would be all over me. We all knew what we expected out of each other — and it was that standard that led to us producing the best defensive backs in the country for the better part of a decade.

When I first enrolled at Texas in 2001, I was a track guy. I liked looking pretty in my uniform and grabbing interceptions. But tackling? That wasn’t for me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pretty selfish, one-dimensional player.

Four years later, I was a starter on an undefeated team playing in its second consecutive Rose Bowl. The final play of my career, it was fourth-and-two with USC leading us 38-33 late in the fourth quarter. The Trojans were on our 45-yard line and we needed to prevent them from getting a first down in order to keep our national championship hopes alive. When the ball was snapped, they handed it off to LenDale White, one of the most physical running backs in the country. And with the help Brian Robison, Tim Crowder, Rod Wright and the other guys up front doing the dirty work, I got an open shot at LenDale and stopped him just short of the chains.

And I think most college football fans know what happened from there.

That was a play I couldn’t have made when I first arrived at Texas. Not just physically, but I also wouldn’t have had the aggressive attitude and inner fire to do that. That play was possible because of a lot of work that had gone on behind the scenes to mold me as a player and as a person. It was possible because of a mentality ingrained in me that we would not and could not lose.

Over time, I think that edge — that mentality — slowly left our program.

And the biggest reason why I decided to rejoin the Longhorns as a quality control coach last year was to help bring it back.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If you went back to when I was 18 and told me I would be a football coach one day, there’s no chance I would have believed you. To me football was more of a fun game than a life-long career.

But after I retired and was living in Dallas, it felt almost strange not to be involved with the game. I didn’t just miss being around football, I missed being in Austin and with the Longhorns every day. I met my wife there, and we had always dreamed of going back one day. It was Charlie Strong who first encouraged me to get involved with the program. I have him to thank for inviting me back. Then when Tom Herman took over last December, I met with him in his office and we discussed a plan for how I could best help the program. It involves a lot of different things but I was all in and now love what I’m doing.

Here’s what I can say for certain about Coach Herman: You will not find another person more focused or more dedicated to winning. He’s a really smart and detail-oriented person who probably could have found success in a number of fields, but decided to pour his talents into football and the young men who play it.

What I appreciate about him most is that he’s a players’ coach. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s going to love you all the time — what he understands is that that’s not the best thing for every guy. There are a hundred different kids in this program with a hundred different personalities and needs. Tom has shown that he knows that reaching a young person requires a different approach for each kid. And he’s going to find the right buttons to push with each player and you’ll come out of his program as a better player and person than when you arrive. Now that I’m a parent myself, I really appreciate that about him and his staff.

Myself? The younger version of me needed to be pushed and yelled at a bit in order to learn. I remember when we were playing Oklahoma State early in my career, there was a receiver on their team who was talking trash. So after I broke up a pass in a physical manner, I decided to step on his back a little on my way back to the huddle. But I never made it back to the huddle — Mack Brown pulled me off the field immediately and said, in very clear terms, “If you do something like that one more time, you’ll never play here ever again.”

And that was exactly what I needed. I was involved in a lot of plays throughout my college career, but that particular play is the one that makes me feel most embarrassed because I was only thinking about myself. I was happy that I made a play, not that our team had. And that that’s the kind of mentality you can never let exist in a successful program.

As I matured into my junior, senior years I watched how the guys ahead of me operated. And gradually the coaches let me take charge and become a leader. I realize now that if I had maintained that selfish attitude when I became a starter — even if I was really good — it would have eventually been passed down to the guys below me. And that’s a problem that can’t be fixed through schemes or techniques — that’s culture.

A winning culture isn’t something that gets created overnight. It’s much easier to lose than it is to develop. Sometime in the last decade, I think Texas lost that culture of accountability. We became more scared of losing than committed to winning.

That’s what Coach Herman and this staff are changing. Every message is clear, it’s about doing your job, being accountable and playing for the man next to you. I absolutely love what we’re preaching to these kids and the approach the staff takes. It reminds me so much of what Coach Brown built here in the past and in just a few months with Coach Herman, I see it developing again. The culture is changing.

Want to know the worst feeling? The complete opposite feeling of when Texas is playing good football?

Wearing an Oklahoma jersey.

Just awful. Embarrassing. Gross.

There were more times than I care to remember when I was in the NFL that I would lose a bet with a teammate over the Red River Rivalry game and be forced to wear that awful jersey. I had to wear quite a few college jerseys of teams other than Texas during my NFL career. Later on in my career, when Texas started really struggling, it always kind of served as a reminder of how the program was slipping. I remember when I was a sophomore and we only won nine games. It felt like the world was ending. Today, we don’t have a single kid on our roster who has ever won a bowl game. That’s something that seemed unimaginable to me a decade ago.

A big part of my job — the part of my job that I enjoy most — doesn’t have much to do with football. I spend a lot of time with our players just talking about life and my experiences. We’ll grab food or walk to class together and I get a sense of what their lives are like. There are a lot of things different now than when I was in college. The whole social media thing has made it pretty easy for outside influences to filter in negativity to kids who are at an age when it doesn’t take much to feel negative as it is. So that’s a different kind of challenge. But I also recognize that a lot is the same. They have the same hopes and fears as any college kid. A lot of the players occupying the DB room today remind me a lot of myself at different phases of my college career. So it’s nice to be able to offer them the advice I think I would have needed when I was their age.  

That’s all to say that, in being around these kids, I’ve seen firsthand that they’re doing the right things.  I see guys like DeShon Elliott and P.J. Locke and they’re doing the things that Quentin Jammer and Rod Babers asked of me, and that I passed down to underclassmen. As a coach, as an alum and as a mentor, that’s really nice to see.

Texas is a huge school with a lot of passionate fans, so the impulse is always going to be to react to a single result and wonder whether the program is back to where it once was. But that’s just not how it works. What we’re trying to build here — what we had here — took much longer than one game or even one season. Because there’s simply no quick fix for excellence. There’s no one game that’s going to signify that we’re back.

We took a step back in our season-opening loss to Maryland but grew from that. There are no moral victories of course, but USC was a real turning point for this young team from a maturity standpoint. Now we’ve won our first two Big 12 games and are heading into OU as a much better team.

The Sooners are a team we all have circled on our schedule. It’s the greatest rivalry in college football. The game’s played on a neutral field, crowd split right down the middle and it’s surrounded by the Texas State Fair. We even have a countdown clock in our facility that lets you know when that game is coming. It seemed so far away for so long but now it’s just hours away.

Saturday will be a great challenge as, despite the Iowa State loss, we still know Oklahoma is an amazing team. It’s an opportunity for us to compete at the highest level and to take a huge step towards getting back where Texas belongs: Among the elite of college football.

Hook ‘Em