These four players exemplified four different roles within the program, and all of them still hold the imagination of the fans in their roles, and their lessons both inform and haunt the program today, as the Longhorn football program attempts to find a fair wind in an increasingly hostile landscape in which to mount a turnaround.
Our memory and awareness of these men and their lessons leaves a relentless series of questions to wrestle with: who is next? Who is the next player that will move the needle in a disproportionate way, and define the character of season they play in? And will they move it for good or for bad?
The first man, the buyer, bought into the program against all odds. After being benched to the Hollywood arm, smile, and pedigree of Chris Simms, many would have expected Major Applewhite to retire his contributions to the Texas program under Mack Brown. It was clear he had a coaching future ahead of him, and like many in his position, had the ability to build his career in many different towns.
Instead, Applewhite came back, and according to rumor, against the counsel of some in his family who still have a bitter taste in their mouths over the great Simms/Applewhite debates that nearly rended the fan base more than a decade ago. With the departure of Brian Harsin, Applewhite has become the offensive coordinator at Texas, his first such position at a major program, and at a moment when Texas will demand a coordinator who can oversee the offensive resurrection of a squad that has struggled to find success since 2009.
Applewhite's lesson is a terrifically important, though often overlooked, bit of wisdom. Buy-in to a program is one of the most important substances a player can possess. Many great coaches and great teams demanded buy-in to their systems and their methods, and when they had it they could win championships. Without it, even extremely talented teams can crumble.
The timing of Applewhite's promotion is almost eerie considering the lesson he teaches; the Texas program has, perhaps, the lowest level of buy-in in the Mack Brown era. Player defections and recruiting decommits are common over the last few seasons. Boosters and fans are livid at the last few years, which have seen Texas slide in national relevance. After having only one offensive coordinator over decade before, Texas is now on their second transition in three seasons. And many players seem to have drawn their emotions dry, with outgoing players seeming more detached from the program than fans are comfortable with.
Texas needs buy-in and discipline, and Applewhite is in a very interesting position to continue his legacy as the ultimate buyer in the BCS era for Texas. How much moreso if he one day steps onto the podium to become the head coach of the Longhorns.
Garrett Gilbert was hailed as one of the best pure QB recruits in Texas history. Even more, he was openly discussed as Greg Davis' most well-fit recruit. The coaches' dream. If only either of them had foreseen the dramatic crumbling of their careers just two years later.
The 2009 national championship performance by Gilbert, the wide-eyed true freshman who took over for the injured Colt McCoy against a nasty Alabama defense, played well enough that even the national media crowned Texas a major contender throughout the offseason. Then the wheels fell off.
When Gilbert left the program after failing to meet a single expectation in the 5-7 fiasco season in 2010, many fans still wished him luck. Davis, Muschamp, Mack, and others took the brunt of the anger and Gilbert was seen as a good kid who simply arrived at the wrong time for Texas. However, Gilbert's father decided to hold court in the media and openly blamed the Texas coaches and players for Gilbert's failure, once again promising great things from the QB at SMU.
Once again, Gilbert failed to come close to expectations. SMU finished the regular season at 6-6, and Gilbert's touchdown to interception ratio was an awkward 15/15. Now, years after Texas' 5-7 season, it is clear that something about Gilbert was not fit for the college game. While he may yet have some life in football, it was horribly unwise to anchor a program to him in the way the Texas staff chose to, passing up on future Heisman winners to honor a promise to a kid who turned out to be nothing more than a system QB with questionable intangibles.
The liar's lesson is also an important one: coaching and program performance must always be greater than the promise of any single recruit or class of recruits. Staffs must be continually aware of their own mortality and build their programs around sound philosophies and behaviors -- from the film rooms and practice fields -- and not from press clippings about 18 year old men. Failing to learn this lesson has killed more than one coaching career across the BCS, and in this case it contributed to years of turmoil at Texas.
Colt McCoy rose from a 3-star recruit from a tiny Texas high school to, perhaps, the single greatest pure leader any Longhorn team has seen. Unlike the NFL studded teams that Vince Young lead, McCoy was surrounded by players that didn't make many writers' heart monitors beep very quickly. Good players came and went over McCoy's tenure, but his greatest seasons were his last seasons -- teams that greatly exceeded their paper potential. Texas with Colt was a Heisman finalist squad, fantastically accurate and disciplined, and a contender for the national championship of college football. Without Colt, the team was 5-7, riddled with attrition, and completely void of a leader who could demand both performance and discipline from his peers in a way that generated results.
Perhaps you could have guessed Vince Young's jersey would have been retired when he signed his scholarship. He was famous before he came to campus. But no one predicted the affect McCoy would have on the Longhorns, ending with the second jersey retirement in two quarterbacks and college football records being broken all over again.
It is hard to put your mind around how well lead the McCoy teams were. In fact, many have speculated that McCoy's presence allowed the old staff to become complacent, even coving over many of their internal failures that only came to light after McCoy had departed the program for the NFL.
McCoy's lesson is one that is still being felt in heavy ways around the 40 acres. Good leadership creates a lift for the program that can sometimes outperform physical limitations and coaching complacency, putting a team in position to defy gravity. Longhorn teams since Colt's departure have had no sails or rudders, and it is one of the most frustrating issues for fans who observe from the outside. A common topic on all Texas boards through the last three seasons has been, "who is emerging as a leader for the team?" Even the coaches continually feed this question with their comments to the media. And yet, for all the articles and speculation and talk of "quiet leadership", no single leader on McCoy's level has come close to surfacing, despite many players with far superior football talents.
More than any other player in the BCS era, Vince Young is the face of longhorn legends. Both Rose Bowl wins were the most electric games by a Texas player in the school's history. Yes, the teams were loaded with NFL players that all made critical contributions to the championship. Yes, VY gets more credit than he perhaps deserves. But all the same, he stands as the embodiment of a Texas legend. He is the face of Texas as an NCAA juggernaut.
At times both good and bad, Young also completely rewrote expectations for Texas as a team in recruiting, in the media, and for fans. Texas became accepted as a team that should be dominant in the state regardless of the year, and the media were willing to get caught up in these new expectations as well. For a while, Texas was given a national benefit of the doubt in a way only shown a few elite schools.
These same expectations roosted negatively within the program as Texas fell from grace. The feeling of being "farther and farther from the VY years" accelerated the perception of Texas' decline, and has no doubt been in the minds and emotions of fans, symbolically, in the latest revolt against the Texas staff.
Young's lesson for Texas is a bit more subtle. The stories are now well known and repeated, about how Vince with all his talent was failing to blossom in the program until one day Mack had this "aha!" moment wherein he decided to simply "let Vince be Vince". The reality was more complex than this, as Greg Davis became a key player in Young's emergence as he designed the offense in creative ways that leveraged what Young was best at. Young's enduring lesson is that exceptional talent, in the right system and with the right staff behind them, can win championships. Texas often has some of the best talent in college ball, but they cannot waste this talent by simply running rote offenses and defenses like a lego puzzle, putting in pieces based on X's and O's. The challenge of great talent is that it must meet great coaching in order to perform in the right way. This is a lesson Texas is still struggling with, as a stable of rare skill players like DJ Monroe and Daje Johnson sit frustratingly on the sidelines as Texas continues to underperform on offense.
Who is Next?
Each of these four roles, and the lessons they embody, are of immediate value for Texas. Some are positive, some are negative, and most are some tension of the two. The 2012 longhorns did not seem to embody the wisdom earned in previous seasons, things that should be a part of both the living and oral history of the program. Few players seemed to heed the opportunities or the warnings presented by those who had dressed for game just a few years before, and as a result, few players have had any sort of impact on the program greater than their expected magnitude. None have shown exceptional leadership, toughness, commitment, or fit within the program in ways that moved the needle on the season as a whole.
To outside observers, this leaves questions that are both frustrating and exciting: who is the next man to move the needle? Which player will defy his limitations and force his legacy upon the game in a way that matters? Will his impact be positive or negative? Is this player on campus, or are they currently not a part of the team? Overstreet? Brewer? Gray? Ash? Someone else? Could it be years before the needle really moved again?
Has our time passed us by, forcing us to rebuild again and again until some team years away begins to get it right again?
Or are we on the edge our period of rebirth, ready to leverage our earned wisdom about commitment, team performance, leadership, and building the right systems for our current players in order to reach higher and greater plateaus?
Truly, football is a team sport. As many as 50 players may contribute to a single win on any given day, and often too much is made of individual players. But symbolically, teams and seasons tend to be defined most by one or two players who come to be seen as a representing something bigger than just a scholarship on a roster.
Buyers. Liars. Leaders. Legends.