An hour before last Saturday's inaugural Big 12 Conference
championship game, members of the Texas band rolled onto the
floor of the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, wearing their
burnt-orange cowboy and cowgirl uniforms like period pieces from
the Longhorns' storied football past. "Horns, 31-27, just
watch!" shouted a tuba player, and you had to think, O.K., Roy,
now run along and play with Trigger. Yet as the game's end
approached, there was the band and 4,000 or so Texas fans
celebrating the seemingly impossible and resembling a rust spot
on the side of a fire truck as they ignored the 40,000-plus
red-clad Nebraskans surrounding them in the stands.
On the sideline below, Longhorns players howled at the
disrespect shown them before the game and danced at their 37-27
upset in the making. Senior wideout Mike Adams pounded his chest
with his fist and screamed, almost in anger, "To hell with
Nebraska. We got the heart." A few feet away sophomore offensive
tackle Octavious Bishop raised a helmet in his hand and barked
in the language of the little man made large. "Nobody gave us a
chance," he yelled. "We shocked the world."
The Texas victory could not have been more fitting. It sent into
complete disarray a college football season that had been
running off the rails of reason since Sept. 21, when Arizona
State shocked the two-time defending national champion
Cornhuskers 19-0. What made this coup de grace fiendishly
pleasing was that it was delivered in one of three terrific
conference championship games played on Saturday--games that
some coaches had bemoaned as representing the evil of excess in
their sport (part of that evil being the danger of exposing
their teams to another challenge and possibly another loss). "Of
course, if you win the game, you're more for it then,"
flat-lined Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, one of the most strident
opponents of the title-game concept. His team, with only that
one loss to the Sun Devils, had been projected as No. 1 Florida
State's opponent in the Sugar Bowl, with a good shot at a third
straight national title. Instead, the Cornhuskers suffered a
bitter loss and wore the look of a dynasty that had run its
In the hours following the Longhorns' triumph, Brigham Young won
the first WAC title game in overtime, 28-25 over Wyoming in Las
Vegas (page 44), and Florida won its fourth consecutive SEC
championship game, 45-30 over Alabama in Atlanta. Those
results--plus Army's nail-biting, come-from-behind 28-24 victory
over Navy--provided the final pieces of the bowl puzzle,
particularly for the selection committees from the Fiesta,
Orange and Sugar bowls, which are part of the bowl alliance.
Under terms of the alliance, those committees would choose their
matchups from among the conference champions of the Atlantic
Coast, the Big East, the Big 12 and the SEC as well as two
December 16, 1996
And so they did. On Sunday afternoon the Sugar Bowl grabbed
Florida State, the ACC champ, and No. 3 Florida for a
been-there, done-that sequel to those two teams'
pressurized-but-sloppy Nov. 30 game. The Fiesta Bowl followed by
snubbing 13-1, No. 5-ranked BYU in favor of 10-2, No. 7-ranked
Penn State and matching the Nittany Lions with automatic
qualifier Texas, which is 8-4 and ranked No. 20. The Orange Bowl
snatched 10-2, sixth-ranked Nebraska to play the Big East
champion, 10th-ranked Virginia Tech, which is 10-1.
But more than creating matchups, Sunday's selections shed
revealing light on the alliance. It had been expected since
midseason that at least two teams would reach January undefeated
and that the Rose Bowl's absence from the alliance would prevent
those unbeatens from meeting. Sure enough, Florida State and No.
2 Arizona State are 11-0, but the Sun Devils will meet No. 4
Ohio State in Pasadena. It was the shunning of Brigham Young,
however, despite the fact that the Cougars have a higher ranking
and a better record than either of the at-large teams chosen
(Nebraska and Penn State) by the alliance, that served to trash
two widely accepted myths.
--Myth No. 1: The purpose of the alliance is to determine the
true national champion.
Not even close. The purpose of the alliance is to avoid the
creation of NCAA-run national playoffs. Such playoffs would put
the NCAA in charge of the beaucoup dollars the event would
generate. The alliance exists to keep the power and the money in
the hands of the alliance bowls and the four conferences that
receive guaranteed berths in those bowls. In the spring of 1994
the NCAA tried to study the possibility of starting a playoff
system but, overwhelmed by political and economic issues, gave
up right after breakfast on the first day. Conference
commissioners and bowl representatives, meanwhile, jumped to
fill the void and protect themselves, creating the alliance. Any
national championship games that result are a bonus.
--Myth No. 2: The alliance bowls exist to give fans the best
Bowls are businesses, with major corporate sponsorship and huge
television deals. Their purpose is to fill stadiums, generate TV
ratings and create precious "economic impact" on their
communities in the days leading up to the games.
BYU fails not only on the strength-of-schedule issue but also on
the economic-impact side. Bowls, particularly the Sugar Bowl,
thrive on bar business. One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is
abstinence from alcohol. You do the math. In the French Quarter,
they don't call the most famous thoroughfare Milk Street. "We
used to go to the Holiday Bowl, and our fans would bring a $50
bill and the Ten Commandments and break neither," says BYU coach
LaVell Edwards. Nebraska fans, on the other hand, travel like
Deadheads and spend like tourists.
Choosing bowl teams based in significant part on the rabidity
and spending habits of their fans isn't fair to the audience
watching the bowls at home. For all its flaws, BYU would even be
a more intriguing opponent for Florida State than a team the
Seminoles have already beaten. Unfortunately, money rules all
The least likely possibility last weekend was that Texas would
end up with an alliance berth. The Longhorns were dead. Not just
as a team--they went into the Big 12 title game unranked--but
also as a program. Texas falls into that broad, romantic species
of the once great but now departed, forever grasping at past
glory, its fans always expecting reincarnation. The group also
includes Alabama (with one hiccup, a national title in '92),
Oklahoma and USC. Miami will be there soon, wondering what
became of the swagger. Longhorns coach John Mackovic is the
latest hire by Texas in a search to recapture Darrell Royal's
magic. Brought to Austin in '92, Mackovic went 11-10-1 in his
first two years and twisted in the autumn winds, enduring
criticism of his offensive preference (he likes to move the ball
more by air than ground) and his personal habits (he's a
Chardonnay gent in a Lone Star longneck state). A year ago Texas
went 10-1-1 in the regular season but was thrashed 28-10 by
Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
The Longhorns began this season by talking themselves up as
national championship contenders but crashed to earth in a 27-24
home loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 21. A 37-13 loss at Virginia
followed, and after a so what? victory against Oklahoma State,
Texas lost to Oklahoma, giving the Sooners their first victory
of the season. Mackovic's rebuilding already seemed a failure,
with the coach barely into the first year of a five-year
contract. "We were at the bottom of the barrel," says senior
linebacker Tyson King. "We felt so bad about ourselves. I didn't
even feel like going to practice."
The Longhorns convened a players-only meeting on Oct. 14, two
days after the Oklahoma defeat, and then met again that night to
watch Monday Night Football at the house that King shares with
two teammates. "We just decided to see if we could pull it
together the rest of the season," King says. Texas played well
after that, losing narrowly to Colorado to drop to 3-4, then
finishing with four consecutive wins heading into Saturday's
game. The Longhorns were 20-point underdogs to Nebraska, but
junior quarterback James Brown spiced up a potentially dull
pregame week by saying on Dec. 2, "I think we'll win by three
There is a cool courage about Brown that first showed itself
when Texas was recruiting him as the state's top-rated
quarterback, out of Beaumont's West Brook High. Whispering old
dirt about life in Austin, people in Beaumont told Brown that
Texas would never put itself in the hands of an African-American
quarterback. "We got so much of that in the black community
here, it was sickening," Brown's father, James Sr., told the
Austin American-Statesman in August 1995.
"That made me mad, people telling me what I can't do," says
James, the son. So it should come as no surprise that he rushed
onto the carpet at the Trans World Dome before Saturday's game
and did a little dance right on the N in Nebraska's end zone,
just to punctuate his prediction. Or that he played brilliantly,
completing 19 of 28 passes for 353 yards and one touchdown.
Behind him, senior tailback Priest Holmes rushed for 120 yards
and three touchdowns, and in front of him, a young offensive
line held the Cornhuskers' fierce pass rushers sackless.
However, with 2:40 to play and the Longhorns leading 30-27 and
facing fourth-and-two-inches on their own 28, Mackovic made the
kind of call that shapes a coach's legacy, and Brown made the
kind of play that crushes typecasting. Mackovic had his team
line up in a tight goal line formation for a play called
"Steelers roll left," a sprint out by Brown with a pass-run
option; on this occasion Mackovic put the emphasis on running
and making the first down. So close to their own end zone, the
Horns would most assuredly lose if they failed to pick up the
Mackovic had often practiced this play in his 12 years as a
college coach and had used it in goal line situations. But he
had tried it only once on fourth down so deep in his own
territory. That was nearly a decade ago, when he was at
Illinois. "We didn't make it, and people called me crazy,"
Mackovic says. On Saturday morning Mackovic had stood in front
of his players in a meeting room at their hotel and told them,
"I've had a dream all week that we're going to win, 20-19." Now,
he tried to make his dream of victory come true with what he
would later describe as the biggest call of his career.
Brown sprinted hard left, aiming for the sticks, but then pulled
up and dropped a soft spiral to sophomore tight end Derek Lewis,
far behind the flummoxed Nebraska secondary at the Texas 42.
Lewis rolled down the sideline to the Cornhuskers' 11,
completing a 61-yard play. "Calling that play took, took..."
said King later, searching for the right body part to describe
Mackovic's bravery, "...guts." On the next snap Holmes bolted
through the beaten defense for the killing score with 1:53 to
play, and the small Texas crowd made the Dome shake just a little.
Eight weeks had passed since Mackovic's program bottomed out
with the loss to Oklahoma. "No team in America progressed more
than we did in that time," Mackovic said after Saturday's win.
King recalled how he had felt after the defeat by the Sooners.
"If you had told me we'd even be in this game," he said, "I'd
have said you were dang crazy."
BYU wins 13 games and gets shafted? A do-over in the alleged
national championship game? Texas beats Nebraska? Dang, crazy is