From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, January 9, 2006
DURING THE TEXAS LONGHORNS' BREATHTAKING 41--38 WIN OVER USC ON JAN. 4, ONE player stood out as transcendent, his performance even a little unbelievable to some onlookers who afterward stood under a blizzard of confetti, in what had become a mosh pit on the field at the Rose Bowl. Yet when a player is as ridiculously dominant as Texas quarterback Vince Young was against the Trojans, and when a Pete Carroll--coached defense is made to look like so many cardinal-and-gold pylons, the Longhorns' victory is easily believable. What strained credulity was that with 6:42 left and USC leading by 12 points, the clearly outplayed Trojans might actually win the game.
But as Longhorns right tackle Justin Blalock said while celebrating under that falling confetti, "We kept our poise, put the ball in Vince's hands and let the man do what he does."
All Young did was outplay a pair of Heisman Trophy winners, amassing 467 yards of total offense. He completed 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards and ran 19 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns. His last carry, on fourth-and-five from the USC eight with 19 seconds left, went for the score that clinched the Longhorns' first national title in 35 years. It also terminated the two-time defending champion Trojans' winning streak at 34 games, extended Texas's to 20 and left a loquacious man at a temporary loss for words. "I've been planning this speech for 33 years," coach Mack Brown told his players in the winners' locker room, "but right now I don't really know what to say."
Hoisting the crystal national championship trophy was sweet vindication for Brown, whose charm and kind nature had become, in an odd way, a curse. He has long been one of the best, if not (sorry, Pete) the best recruiter in college football. But the more blue-chippers he raked in, the more it drew attention to the fact that in eight years at Texas he'd never won even a Big 12 title. Critics sniped that he was better in the living rooms of high school seniors than on the sidelines in big games. He was dubbed Coach February.
Brown had no way of knowing it at the time, but his fortunes changed in 2002—on the day he sold Young, then a senior at Houston's Madison High, on the Longhorns. Parade magazine's national high school offensive player of the year, Young was a scintillating runner and a strong-armed passer despite an awkward throwing motion, and he played his best when the stakes were highest. Upon arriving in Austin that summer, Young was still a raw talent who had much to learn from Brown and was, in fact, redshirted. But make no mistake, Texas won its fourth national title because Brown's relationship with his star player had become a two-way street: The teacher learned a thing or two from his student as well.
THE GATORADE IN BROWN'S HAIR WAS NEARLY DRY A HALF hour after the game when he remarked, as much to himself as to anyone, "It's a long way from Dallas." Five straight losses to Oklahoma from 2000 through '04, all in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, had overshadowed otherwise excellent Texas seasons and threatened to define Brown's career. Each of those defeats was marked by a discernible tightness passed from the coaches to the players, a fear of failure. Young's career as a Longhorn can be viewed in part as a battle to overcome this constrictive atmosphere—a battle he officially won last season, when Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis gave up trying to fix his three-quarter throwing motion and stopped attempting to transform him into a sprint-out, bootleg quarterback. They gave Young more latitude away from the field as well, signing off on his request to liven up the locker room and practices with song and dance—and we're not talking Lawrence Welk. Young even got Brown, 54, to loosen up by exposing him to the world of hip-hop, earning the coach a nickname from the team's beat writers: Snoop Mack.
Still, heading into the Rose Bowl the big question was, Which Young will show up? The brooding passer who in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was pressing in the face of a surprisingly stiff challenge? The Heisman runner-up with the chip on his shoulder, who voiced his displeasure over not winning the trophy moments after Reggie Bush's name was called? Or the fist-knocking, loose-limbed team leader whose dazzling physical skills are matched by his toughness and strength of will?
The answer came during pregame warmups, as Brown grooved to the beat of Justin Timberlake's Rock Your Body: The guy could not have been less tense. Even after the Trojans turned a fumble by Longhorns punt returner Aaron Ross into an early 7--0 lead, Texas had no reason to panic. Though the Longhorns were scoreless on their first three possessions, they were moving the ball.