Dec. 19, 2008

By Adam Caparell

The foundation for Texas’ run to the Fiesta Bowl was not laid this past summer, spring or winter.

The cornerstone was planted about a year ago when Mack Brown decided something had to be done to shake up the Longhorns.

Heading into the Horns’ Holiday Bowl matchup with Arizona State last December, Brown felt something was missing from his team. Texas had had itself a pretty good year, finishing the regular season at 9-3. But Brown couldn’t shake the memory of those disappointing losses and games that turned out to be too close for comfort. As he watched the film and replayed the year in his mind, something kept gnawing at him.

"This team has exceeded expectations because they've played so hard."

Texas Coach Mack Brown

“In some games I didn’t think we tried as hard as we could,” Brown said.

The Longhorns, he decided, needed a cattle prod to the core.

So Brown did a little thinking and figured he’d change things up at the most basic level. Continuing to go through the same routine in practice for a bowl game – the same routine the Longhorns had been plodding through the past four months – was out of the question. Gone were afternoon practices and in were early morning sessions. Very, very early morning sessions. Football may be a way of life in the Lone Star State, but Texans like to have their coffee after the day’s first snap, not before. 

Much to their surprise and chagrin, the Longhorns were on the practice field at 6 am. And they weren’t just going through the motions. The Longhorns were dressed in full pads and actually hitting each other, a big departure from their regular routine. Brown wanted to jolt the system, open some eyes, and make it perfectly clear to everyone that status quo had to go.

“It was something we weren’t used to,” defensive end Brian Orakpo said.

And it got pretty good results.

Team morale, which had suffered toward the end of the season, was never higher than it was heading into the Holiday Bowl. Lampooned by many during the season for uninspired play – especially on the part of the defense – Texas rolled to a 52-34 victory two days before Christmas, shutting up their critics in the process. The same Longhorns team that seemingly took plays off earlier in the season was nowhere to be found in San Diego.

“Part of it was just being more physical, which we did all year,” Brown said. “I think it was just the intensity and urgency we did it with.”

Since last December, that sense of urgency has been second nature to the Longhorns. The lessons learned during those early morning practices have translated into an 11-1 record this year and a BCS bowl game few thought Texas was capable of making. Expectations weren’t terribly high for Brown’s team heading into the season, but with an adjusted attitude and a Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback in Colt McCoy, Texas finished the regular season closer than close to a berth in the BCS Championship game.

“That’s what turned this whole thing around,” Orakpo said. “We did a whole 360, starting with that bowl game and carried that over through the spring, summer and two-a-days. And look what happened.”

Consistency and leadership were hard to come by last season. Not so any more. McCoy put his sophomore slump behind him to have arguably the best season of any quarterback in Texas history. In just about any other year he would have won the Heisman, easily, instead of finishing second (behind Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford). And defensively, the Longhorns are allowing, on average, a touchdown less per game than last year.

“This team has exceeded expectations because they’ve played so hard,” Brown said.

Now as Texas gets ready for its showdown with Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. just a few short weeks away, Brown isn’t changing much of anything in the Longhorns’ practice routine – including the start times. And why should he?

“You don’t fix something that ain’t broke,” Orakpo said.

There will be some tweaks here or there preparing for this year’s bowl game compared to last’s, but Brown's basic practice philosophy remains true to form.

“Each team is different, but we’ve had the same format basically for a long time,” Brown said. “We got more publicity last year because we were in finals and we started at six in the morning. But it didn’t have as much to do with a change in format as it did in attitude.”

That new attitude is a big reason why Texas was one play away from going undefeated and earning that spot to the Big 12 Championship over Oklahoma. The “never take a play off” mind-set Brown demanded of his team last December resonates a year later. 

“That’s hard with a group of kids who play over a four or five year period,” Brown said. “It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to have kids play hard every week, but it is. And people aren’t doing it around the country as much as you would like to think.”

That used to be the case with Texas. Not any more. Brown’s made sure of it.