By Michael J. Mooney
Billy Schott attended his first Texas Longhorns game before he was a week old. Before he'd even been home to his own crib. Today he's 61, with an earnest smile and a subtle Central Texas drawl. He works for a drug testing company, and he loves telling the story of his first time at the stadium.
Little Billy was born in St. David's hospital in Austin, on the Tuesday after the Oklahoma game in 1952. His dad worked the chain crew for Texas games back then. Schott was scheduled to be out of the hospital by Friday, in time for his father to work the Arkansas game that Saturday.
"Back then, doctors kept the moms and the babies in the hospital a lot longer," he says. "They didn't release us until Saturday afternoon, right before game time."
First his dad stopped at Dirty's, the burger joint near campus, to get his mother a cheeseburger and a malt. Then he parked at the north end of the stadium, where he knew the security guard. When Schott recounts his origin story, which is not rare, he talks about his father carrying him into the stadium, over the black cinder track that wrapped around the field at the time. He walked up the sidelines, showing off the baby boy to the coaches and his buddies on the game crew.
When he was 9, Billy worked as a ball boy for the Longhorns. He remembers the first time he met Darrell Royal. He remembers watching those great teams in the 1960s, when Texas was the biggest powerhouse in the most important football conference in America. He remembers his father inviting players like Tommy Ford and Bill Bradley over for dinner and cooking them steaks.
"That's probably illegal now," he jokes.
As a teenager, Billy was an equipment manager, and when he finally got to college, in 1971, he was the team's kicker. His nickname was "Billy Sure Shot." He scored five points in the 1973 Cotton Bowl, when Texas beat Bear Bryant's Alabama team by four. When Schott is introduced on the radio or during banquets, it's often as "one of the greatest kickers in Texas history."
Those days feel like not so long ago. When he talks about Texas football, when he's hanging out with his old friends and teammates, time doesn't move the same way.
For Schott, like so other fans and former players, being a Longhorn is an important part of his identity. (As an alum and longtime Longhorn fan, I can relate.) The program's prominence is a source of pride. It's the same reason there are cars painted burnt orange and covered in Texas insignia driving up and down I-35 every weekend. It's why my favorite notebook has "I [heart] VY" (Vince Young) printed on the cover. It's why so many wedding cakes are Texas themed, why fathers buy their sons Longhorn caps and jerseys, and why so many people come week after week to fill the largest football stadium in a state full of giant football stadiums. It's why so many of us can use football games and coaching eras to mark important moments in our lives.
And it's why the appointment of Charlie Strong as the new head football coach means so much to so many people. He is the future, the next era. He is confidence. He is optimism.
Before the University of Texas even announced that Charlie Strong would be the new head football coach, there were burnt orange T-shirts for sale with TEXAS STRONGHORNS printed across the front. With a name like that, it was inevitable. Charlie Strong. It's friendly yet willful. Simultaneously casual and militant. The ingredients of a perfect football coach. And the word Strong is right there: direct in that Texas way. Just saying it out loud -- as in, "God Bless that Charlie Strong! He'll turn things around!" -- we could imagine the name up there among the pantheon of Texas coaches. Dana Bible. Darrell Royal. Mack Brown. Charlie Strong.
A coach's name is important at Texas. Dana X. Bible is the man who first brought the program to national prominence, in the 1930s. Much of the winning tradition, the historical lore associated with the Longhorns, began with him. In a state where religion and football are both so ingrained in the culture, his last name has become something of an aptonym. Same goes for Darrell K. Royal, the legendary hard-nosed coach for whom the school renamed a stadium that had previously been dedicated as a war memorial. Mack Brown, whose tenure ended in December, was the casual coach, the pleasant, polo-wearing CEO character the program needed to take us into the 21st century.
At the press conference in January introducing him as the new coach, Strong wore a brand new burnt orange tie and sat behind a Longhorn Network microphone, between athletic director Steve Patterson and university president Bill Powers, both older white men. While introducing Strong, Powers hugged him. Twice.
Strong said all the right things, too. He said he wanted to continue the traditions of coach Royal and coach Brown. He said he would "work like it's fourth-and-inches" to make sure the alumni association is happy with the product on the field, that it was time to put the program "back on the national stage." He told a story about meeting Darrell Royal a few years before his death, and how it gave him "chills through my body." He said he'd spoken to Royal's widow the night before, and pointed her out in the audience. He said he'd spoken to Mack Brown, too, and he assured his predecessor he would always have a place there. Then he said he wanted to build the program around "physical and mental toughness."
As he sat there at the press conference, looking a little uncomfortable, bemoaning the fact that the cold weather didn't drive away more media, Strong gave hope to the faithful. He wasn't as good in front of the cameras as Brown, who had his own television show. At one point Strong said he was devoted to making Austin "the state capital for college football, as well as the state capital of this state." But on-camera charisma doesn't win championships. (Just ask Nick Saban.)
There was some debate before his hiring, and some small protest immediately afterward -- most notably from billionaire booster Red McCombs -- but in the end, most fans seem to agree: This is what we wanted. Toughness, back to basics, all that. When Texas loses, when other schools snag great recruits that beat our guys and we slip from the elite ranks, that's the answer. Hard work. Remind the coaches that they aren't entitled to the best players. Remind the players that they aren't entitled to wins.
This is how being a Texas fan is vexing. It's a lot anticipation and anxiety, a sense of privilege seasoned with self-loathing. With the wealthiest athletic department in the nation, it's a little like being a fan of the Yankees, or the Dallas Cowboys, or Brazil in the World Cup. Attached to those resources is an expectation of not just victory, but dominance.
This aloofness is generally mocked by our rivals. The first time I heard someone refer to a Texas fan as a "tea-sip" -- as in, a country-bumpkin way of saying "teetotaler"-- I thought I was hearing a different language. Especially since there's as much debauched behavior at UT as anywhere. But there's also plenty of arrogance and grandiosity. Commercials for the university remind fans every week that "What starts here changes the world."
Nobody wants their favorite team to be screwed by the BCS system. Nobody wants to watch their team lose a heartbreaking national championship game. But it doesn't bother Texas fans as much as it might bother others. With so many conference titles and national championships, the biggest fear of a Longhorns fan isn't a devastating loss. It's becoming irrelevant.
The last decade was great for Texas fans. Between 2000 and 2009, the Longhorns appeared in four BCS games, including two championship games. The team never had more than three losses in a season and finished ranked in the top 10 seven times. Before Mack Brown, the program had toiled under John Mackovic, who came to Texas from the Kansas City Chiefs. Mackovic was a good recruiter, able to bring in a Heisman winner in Ricky Williams, but he also famously professed his affinity for wine, which somehow seemed like the antithesis of everything Texas football was about. Brown was the gentle grandfather who could guide the team to its gradual ascendency. Even when things went wrong, he was the calm face of the organization.
My sophomore year the team lost 63-14 to Oklahoma. It was 49 degrees and rainy. Texas was held to negative-seven yards rushing, while OU's Quentin Griffin seemed to get into the end zone at will. The entire thing was humiliating, demoralizing in a way that no sporting event should be. (It happened again three years later, only slightly worse.) But on the Monday after the game, there was Mack Brown, walking around campus, smiling and waving. I remember seeing him eating with someone at Pizza Hut that week, as resolute as he ever looked. It was reassuring. Students came up in small groups to give him encouragement.
Brown recruited greats like Cedric Benson, Roy Williams, Derrick Johnson and Vince Young. With Young, the coaching staff realized that the more they dialed back -- the more they let the quarterback lead the team himself -- the better they looked. Brown would let Young and the other players dance during warm up drills. The atmosphere was light, comfortable. Nothing like what players went through back in Schott's days, when Darrell Royal would have everyone running up and down the steps of the stadium in the brutal summer heat. They'd carry teammates on their backs and jump rope while wearing weighted jackets. They'd practice until they puked, then practice some more.
"Some people would consider it torture," Schott says. "But for us, that was a way of life. It was about being tougher than the other guys."
The team won under Brown. And Longhorn fans were happy, in the way that Longhorns can be happy. Even as Vince Young evaded USC defenders and floated into the end zone, beating a team with two Heisman trophy winners -- possibly the greatest moment in Texas sports history -- fans were jubilant, euphoric. But we may have been more relieved than anything else. Sometimes we need the world to confirm what we already tell ourselves.
Over the next few years, with Colt McCoy at quarterback, we were always in contention, always in the conversation. In 2008, we were a Michael Crabtree high-wire walk away from a championship game against Tim Tebow. OU, a team Texas had beaten earlier in the season, went instead. It was upsetting -- mostly because Texas would have beaten Florida that year -- but the pain was mitigated by watching OU lose.
Texas couldn't be denied in 2009, facing off against Alabama in a championship game that is still maddening to think about. On the fifth play of Texas' first drive, the arc of the entire program changed. That's when Colt McCoy's shoulder went numb and he was replaced with true freshman Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert threw four interceptions and lost a fumble that night -- and yet the Longhorns kept the game close until the end.
Then whatever had been working for Brown stopped. The next year, 2010, the team went 5-7, its worst under Brown and the school's first losing season in 13 years. An 8-5 season the next year didn't feel like much of an improvement. Neither did 9-4 after that or another 8-5 season in 2013.
Programs like Baylor and Texas Tech, once considered feisty little brothers to Texas, got much better. Kevin Sumlin turned around Texas A&M just in time to compete in the SEC. The balance of power shifted away from Austin.
Worst of all were the three future Heisman Trophy winners Brown didn't sign. Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston all should have been Longhorns -- at least as far as fans are concerned -- and all ended up at other schools. (Though I don't know many Texas fans who'd invite the kind of problems Florida State faces right now with Winston.)
The perception among fans was that people in the program had become entitled, players and coaches had become too soft. And the hungry kids were going elsewhere.
Nobody associated with Texas football will say a bad thing about Mack Brown. They won't say that maybe he got complacent. They won't say that maybe the $5 million a year or the Longhorn Network spoiled him, or that maybe working so hard all year only to lose your quarterback on the first drive of the championship game could break a man's spirit. Brown's done too much.
People will only say the word back. As in: "Back on the national stage." Or, "Back to the basics." Or, as Billy Schott says, "It will be nice to get some discipline back in the program."
That's where Charlie Strong comes in. He's said that he wants to "put the T back in Texas." One of his first moves was to cancel the shuttles that drive the players the half mile to and from practice. Now they walk in the weather, like players did under Royal. Strong also barred his players from giving the "Hook 'Em Horns" hand sign, saying that they haven't earned that yet. In his first two months, he cut two players. Three more quit.
And this sounds good to us. As other schools go the other way, as videos emerge of Kliff Kingsbury dancing with his players at Texas Tech, as Kevin Sumlin pipes in music to practice at A&M, as Art Briles shows off a newfangled offense and a brand new stadium at Baylor, Texas goes the other way. We bring in a guy who says his goals are graduating young men and winning championships.
"We don't want the players who'll go somewhere because they get new uniforms every year," says Schott. "We want the guys who are dedicated to winning and doing what it takes to get there."
Since coming to Austin, Strong has been guarded in the media. People around him say it's because he's focused on conveying the sense of urgency to everyone in the program. He says he has an open door, that he knows he needs players to trust him. People who show up early to use the weight room find the coach there, working up a sweat. He also does all the running drills right next to his team. Tough.
What else do we know about him? Well, we know he grew up in a small town in Arkansas, and played defensive back at Central Arkansas. We know he worked his way up the coaching ladder, with stints at Southern Illinois, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M. We know he interviewed for head coaching jobs at Kansas, California, East Carolina, Minnesota and Vanderbilt, but didn't get any of them.
We know that he's the first black head football coach at Texas. We know that he was the first black head coach in the Big East, and that an SEC school once told him that he didn't get the coaching job there because his wife is white. We know that Lou Holtz, who hired him twice as an assistant coach, once told a reporter that Strong is "great with players … but not a hip-hop coach." It was meant as a compliment, a comparison to Ohio State great Woody Hayes.
Most importantly, we know he had a great defense at Louisville. He took a team that had won just 15 games in the three years prior and went to four straight bowl games, winning three. We know that Mack Brown had done something similar at North Carolina before he came to town.
And the truth us, we won't know anything until we see the team on the field. Right now it's anxiety and optimism. It's seeing how he does with the players he has, and what kind of players he can recruit.
Billy Schott is more excited than he's been in years. This is important. He's pleased to see the program get closer to what he calls "the old school way." He's glad we're talking about toughness again, and that "entitlement is being escorted out the door." He's says he's happy to see "a strong attitude, really befitting of that name."
It feels like heresy to even ask, but what if Strong doesn't win? What if Texas isn't back in the national conversation, even after he has his own guys in there?
"Well," Schott says, "I'd say five years tends to be the magic number."
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Michael J. Mooney is a staff writer at D Magazine in Dallas. He also writes for GQ.