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NO.2 OKLAHOMA VS. NO.3 TEXAS

Still on the Hook

Brown, Simms haunted by Longhorns' big-game failures

October 12, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Coach Mack Brown sat with legs crossed in his Texas-sized office, the acreage best described as an ode to leather and taxidermy.

Brown appeared remarkably at ease, and you wondered why.

In two days, he was going to have his hide parked on the sideline at the Cotton Bowl, staring across the field at Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, wondering if this is the year he is going to finally win the big game.

Never mind that Brown is 2-2 against Oklahoma since he arrived at Texas. As he says of Longhorn fans, "They don't remember us beating them the first two years."

Brown used to worry about what people thought, mainly that he was a fantastic recruiter who also had this side gig as a coach. If Brown were on the PGA Tour, he would be tagged with that infamous label: best golfer never to have won a major.

"It bothered me, honestly," Brown said of the criticism. "I got tired of it. Then, when people started comparing me to Phil Mickelson and [Kansas basketball Coach] Roy Williams, I said, 'That's pretty good.' "

Brown has won nine or more games in each of his four seasons in Austin, but his teams have faltered at critical times, losing the last two years against Oklahoma in games with national title implications.

Brown has nearly restored Texas to greatness--the team finished 11-2 last year and was ranked fifth--but that only further fuels expectations.

"The monster is back," Brown says, "and you have to feed it every week."

Earlier in this Texas-Oklahoma week, senior quarterback Chris Simms plopped down for an interview wearing a T-shirt, baggy jeans and work boots.

You couldn't tell if he was days removed from the defining game of his career or about to go on spring break. At one point, Simms broke into an impression of Woody Woodpecker, his favorite cartoon character.

"You've got to remember his laugh," Simms said. "He was pretty quick on his toes."

Simms appeared remarkably at ease, and you wondered why.

He, like his coach, heads into the Oklahoma game today trying to beat a rap.

Although he possesses a bright smile, quick wit, a whip for an arm and all the talent to become an NFL star, Simms has so far come up short in college when it counted.

He is 20-4 as a starting quarterback, but 0-3 against top-10 teams. In those games, he has thrown 12 interceptions and no touchdowns.

Last year, in a 14-3 loss to Oklahoma, Simms threw four interceptions.

He ended the season on the bench, watching senior folk hero Major Applewhite lead Texas to a comeback win over Washington in the Holiday Bowl.

To many who follow Texas football, this is now-or-never week for Brown and Simms, two talented men who need to beat Oklahoma to establish their claims to something other than raw-data success.

The stakes don't get much higher than No. 2 Oklahoma versus No. 3 Texas in the Red River Shootout, although if Texas loses, the Longhorns may just be steak.

To those who bow to the bovine Bevo, and exchange "Hook 'em horns" hand signs in airports, this might be the biggest Texas-Oklahoma game since 1963.

"I don't know if people will ever be able to say that Texas is back as one of the elite programs until we beat OU," Simms admitted. "I think that's the biggest thing about this game, we want to make it legit."

Time is running out for the team of Brown and Simms, the dynamic duo that was supposed to deliver Texas' fourth national title and its first in three decades.

After all, life tosses you only so many chances.

Coach and player, in fact, had an opportunity to make amends for last year's Oklahoma loss. Through a series of BCS quirks and bounces--and Oklahoma State's stunning upset of Oklahoma--Texas ended up winning the title in the Big 12 South and had a chance to play Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.

All Texas had to do was beat Colorado in the Big 12 title game, a team it had crushed in the regular season, 41-7.

If you'll recall, that game ended up being another sequel to "Nightmare on Austin Street." Simms had a horrible game and Brown--in another debatable game-management decision--waited too long to pull his starter.

By the time Brown made the move, Simms had thrown three interceptions and Colorado led, 29-10.

Applewhite was spectacular in relief and nearly rescued his team, Colorado needing to recover an onside kick at the end to preserve a 39-37 victory.

Criticized in some quarters (usually the first, second, third and fourth) for his handling of Simms versus Applewhite, Brown had no choice but to name Applewhite the Holiday Bowl starter.

After another heroic performance, Applewhite ended his career as one of the most celebrated stars in Texas history. He will join the Texas coaching staff in the spring, but for now he's drawing rave reviews as host of a daily sports-talk radio show.

Simms still can't shake Applewhite.

Even more than last year's loss to Oklahoma, though, it was the Big 12 title-game defeat by Colorado that really left Simms crushed.

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