Since the Republic of Texas and even John Wayne survived a loss in the original Alamo, it’s a fair proposition that Oregon football would survive one as well.
Yet Friday ESPN bloggers Ted Miller and Kevin Gemmell posited that the eponymous bowl game is a “must win” for the Ducks.
Admittedly it feels like that. After a season in which they suffered twin embarrassments at the hands of the Wildcats and Nerd Nation, and the long and winding indignities of falling out the national championship race and then Rose Bowl contention, after a too-close nail-biter in a Civil War scrap with the pesky Beavs, after being declared soft, loose-lipped, undisciplined and spoiled, after the snow ball fight heard round the world and resulting suspension; saving face with a decisive win at the spot Big Duke, Richard Widmark, Frankie Avalon and the inimitable Denver Pyle made their last stand seems like a face-saving conclusion, a way to put a positive Baby-New-Year-bow on a lost and misbegotten year, declaring the first year of the Mark Helfrich era a learning experience and therefore progress with an uptick at the end.
Except, it’s no less of must-win for Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns. They too have been declared soft and under-achieving by the ESPN Home Depot work bench. “All that talent,” they tisk-tisked. Brown has the richest vein of recruiting black gold in the country, with a network of high school coaches funneling it to him in a rhythm as steady as a derrick dipping into the hollowed-out earth below a flat, forlorn West Texas sky. Every spring the 16-year UT head coach hosts a Junior Day, harvesting 25 blue chips from football-crazed towns like DeSoto, Plano, Pfugerville, and Mesquite, Lufkin, Llano and Mineral Wells.
After Nick Saban passed up 50,000 jigawatts of Longhorn cash to sign a lucrative contract extension with the Crimson Tide, there will a burnt orange tide of disappointment if Brown fails to produce a coaching miracle in his battle with the #10 Ducks. At the Wednesday press conference the wily 38-year coaching veteran was busy greasing the skids of an acme rocket sled of overconfidence by the roadrunner Ducks, oozing compliments about their impressive speed and BCS-level talent.
Meanwhile, Saban knows how to play a parlay. He and super-agent Jimmy Sexton (who also represents Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp, Mike Gundy and Steve Spurrier) worked a tag team sleeper hold on Texas and Bama, squeezing a contract extension from the three-time BCS Champions that will pay college football’s highest-paid coach a cool seven million a year, tops in the NCAA by a long sight.
In fact, only six coaches make Nick Saban money in all of football, and the others are all in the NFL: Sean Payton ($8 million), Patriots coach Bill Belichick ($7.5 million), Chiefs coach Andy Reid ($7.5 million), Seahawks coach Pete Carroll ($7 million), Rams coach Jeff Fisher ($7 million), Redskins coach Mike Shanahan ($7 million). Two of those are in line to be fired soon, sparking a new round of speculation and short lists. Kevin Sumlin, Charley Strong, and David Shaw will profit afresh from another media circus that Twitter will try to predict as handlers and representatives massage the bidding and bargaining and denying into richer deals for everybody who takes a phone call from an NFL GM.
The NCAA can’t afford to pay players, because it would ruin the sport, or so the argument goes. But they can sure afford to pay coaches. Brown makes $5.3 million at Texas, and with that big money comes big expectations. He hasn’t won ten games in a season since the last BCS Championship game year in 2009. After an 8-4 campaign this fall big-money boosters cast covetous eyes on the giant shadow Saban casts over the SEC, willing to pay him anything to come to the Lone Star State and resurrect Longhorn football to the glory days of Darrell Royal and Dana X. Bible.
When they couldn’t pry Nick Satan from the hell of Tuscaloosa, they decided the devil they knew was the best choice. Friday Brown met with athletic director Steve Patterson and university president Bill Powers to fight for his job. Shortly afterward he spoke at the team banquet, trying to rouse both his team and a crowd of now-skeptical donors that attended the annual shindig.
Clearly a loss to the Ducks would further inflame an already incendiary situation for the embattled Texas coach. Wednesday he went to work on the masterful flattery and coach-speak veteran coaches use to soften up a bowl opponent.
Asked if anybody in the Big-12 compares to his December 30th opponent, maybe #6 Baylor or #13 Oklahoma State, he told the gathered ink-stained wretches dispatched to preside over his penultimate press conference, “I don’t think anybody does compare. They do a tremendous job of running the ball. They do not give you an opportunity to line up (on defense). They’ve got tremendous team speed. Where they do not get credit is the line of scrimmage, where they’ve really improved.”
At one point, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, watching Brown lather on the praise and deflect questions about his job status, turned to his iconic coaching counterpart and said, “Wow, you’re really good at this.”
Brown is a savvy motivator. He’s won 7 of his last 8 bowl games at UT, including an upset last year over #13 Oregon State where his unranked 8-4 team scored 14 points in the fourth quarter for a come-from-behind 31-27 win.
With 244 coaching victories, Brown knows how this game-within-a-game is played, and how to get maximum motivational mileage out of an underdog, us-against-the-world situation.
The challenge for the Ducks is staying oblivious to all this noise. They have the talent to beat a talented Texas team, but they have to stay on message and remain undistracted for an entire month of preparation. For the last two weeks their coaches have been out of town recruiting. Bowl practice started Friday with a quick-paced workout. Afterward team leaders like Josh Huff, Hroniss Grasu and Marcus Mariota talked about being more physical and setting the tone early, making the most of the opportunity to play a storied program.
It’s a homecoming for several of The Men of Oregon. Huff, Bralon Addison, Chance Allen, Torrodney Prevot, Damion Hobbs and Stephen and Eric Amoako all hail from the land of big ranches, big hats and big hair. They’ll bring a lot of football pride to the game. Huff’s expressed an extra personal incentive, saying the Texas coaches passed him over in recruiting. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite told him he wasn’t good enough for the Longhorns, Huff said. Instead he came to Eugene, and in four years, he has 2,262 yards receiving for the Webfoots, and 25 total touchdowns.
In the clash of the Hook’ems and the O’s, after the pushups are counted and cud-chewing is done, one coach will have a referendum and a reprieve, and the other will have a message board excoriation. It’s a must-win for everybody. In a business where your salary is front page news, the night cap to every season is a stiff shot of reality: it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world where fans, boosters, athletic directors and presidents want 110-proof results for their money.