texasmonthly.com: How did the idea for a cover story on the Longhorns originate?
Brian D. Sweany: The idea came from the fact that I was actually right for once in predicting something sports related. Last year I thought everyone had it all wrong when they said that the Longhorns could win the national championship. It was crazy: UT fans and the media were counting on a quarterback with limited experience but unlimited hype, a true freshman running back who had never played a college game, and a coach who had never won a conference title with even the most experienced of players. All of that hoopla didn’t make any sense to me, particularly after the Horns had been blown out—almost in UCLA fashion—by Oklahoma in 2000.
So at the start of 2001, I remember telling folks that UT should be thinking about the national championship in 2002, when they’d be more experienced. And, as it turned out, experience is what kept them from winning it all last year. In a way, the team needed to come close to find out what it takes to go all the way, and that’s what I wanted to argue in this story. Of course, I’ve been bragging about being right about UT not winning since last December. Come January 2003, we’ll see just where my convictions land me.
texasmonthly.com: Are you a football fan? Why or why not?
BS: How can you not be a football fan? It’s funny, I didn’t play ball in high school; my coaches said that it had something to do with talent and speed. But I grew up in Plano, outside Dallas, and one of the most important things about being a kid then was the Cowboys. It’s a little embarrassing; I’m thirty years old, and I kept a laminated poster of the 1977 Cowboys on the wall in my office. That’s the same poster that was in my room growing up and served as the focal point of my college dorm. And even though I didn’t play for my high school, I had a group of friends—all of them awfully good athletes—and we played every Saturday morning from our sophomore year on. It was a big deal; we even had a name for the league. It was called PFL, or Plano Football League. And talk about taking it to extremes. One of my friends made us ID cards for our wallets that had our nicknames on them. They were names like Dr. Death, the Impaler, the Exterminator, and so on. I was the Intimidator, and I think you can imagine why, at six feet, 165 pounds, I had to pick that name myself.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of this story?
BS: I think that the most difficult part was arguing something as ridiculous as how a football team is going to do in six months. Do I think that UT can win the national championship? Yes. Do I know for sure that the Longhorns will win? Well, if I did, you can bet that I’d be making a heck of a lot of money down at the racetrack. So what I had wanted to do was argue the team from the inside out: who’s good, where the team is deep, where the team has weaknesses. What I found, hands-down, is that this year’s Longhorns are as talented as they come. It’s more important to look at the team under the microscope like that than to compare them with other teams in a detailed way because you never know what’s going to happen come game time. Weather, injuries, the will of God; those are the reasons you play the game in the first place. I think UT has a great chance of beating Oklahoma this year, for example, but on the other hand, is there a universe in which North Texas could pull out a win in the opener? You bet—if the ball bounces a certain way a couple of times.
texasmonthly.com: When you interviewed Mack Brown, was he what you were expecting? Why or why not?
BS: I was impressed with Mack Brown because of all the roles he fills so easily: coach, cheerleader, public relations expert, businessman. All big-time coaches have to do that; R.C. Slocum at A&M is no different. But Brown has such a way about him: He’s a bit of a preacher, a bit of a used-car salesman, and a bit of a politician. I had met him only one time before our interview, but he greeted me by name and patted me on the back and told me it was good to see me again. You can just see how his personality works on recruits because he makes you feel as if you’ve been friends forever. Darrell Royal said that Mack is the best public relations coach he’s ever seen, and who am I to argue with that?
Of course, that’s the exact thing Brown’s critics charge: He’s a better coach in February than he is during the season. Is that fair? Well, it’s the same old deal: The better you get, the more people expect you to accomplish. And until Mack wins a Big XII title and a BCS bowl—preferably, this year, the Fiesta Bowl—people are still going to say that ten wins a season isn’t enough.
texasmonthly.com: What did you find most interesting about Chris Simms? Why?
BS: When I interviewed Chris Simms, and I should say that I’ve only talked with him once, I found him to be far more thoughtful and reflective than I might have imagined. Regardless of how you feel about him, he was in an awful situation in competing with Major Applewhite last year. The only way for him to have won was to, well, win. And by win, he had to do it all. When he came up short, everything exploded. As wide receiver Roy Williams told me, “I guess you have to be 13—0 around here for people to consider you a great quarterback.” I know that that is what people expect if you come to a school like UT, but on the other hand, that’s more pressure than anyone deserves. The most important thing, from my perspective anyway, is that he can do it this year if the right cards are dealt. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and if he has the kind of year that he’s capable of having, a lot of people in Austin are going to be saying, “Major, who?”