AUSTIN, TEXAS — Not so long ago, a group of sportswriters wanted to know whether Colt McCoy drank.
"Yes," he told them. "But only milk and water."
Turns out the Texas quarterback had recently given up Dr Pepper. His coach, Mack Brown, chuckles at the story.
"They thought he was putting them on," Brown recalls. "He really wasn't."
After three seasons of big-time college football, McCoy still has a whole lot of small town in him. The T-shirt and blue jeans with a ball cap tugged down over his head. The soft twang in his words.
And that's a big reason for his success.
There is something basic and essential about the way McCoy has rebounded from the disappointment of last season, guiding the third-ranked Longhorns into the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State tonight.
"He's as good as there is," Buckeyes Coach Jim Tressel says. "He's just put up extraordinary numbers."
The kind of numbers that rank McCoy among the best passers in the nation. A once-scrawny recruit, he has added enough muscle to lead Texas in rushing too.
The young man from Tuscola, Texas, doesn't like to make a big deal about his statistics or anything else, really. He says: "I haven't tried to do too much."
But that's exactly the point.
Every buzzard's luck
In many ways, the journey from Tuscola -- population 725, just south of Abilene -- was farther than miles could measure.
McCoy arrived at a college campus far more populous than his hometown. He was playing football for someone other than his father, Brad, the coach back at tiny Jim Ned High.
"I was going to get yelled at and screamed at," he said. "I could take it from my dad, but I'd never heard that from anyone else."
Through the fall of 2005, with the Longhorns on their way to a national championship, McCoy shadowed star quarterback Vince Young from film room to meetings to practice field, watching and learning.
This apprenticeship figured to continue in 2006 with Young returning as a senior and his understudy playing in mop-up situations, gaining experience.
That plan changed in a hurry when Young left school early for the NFL. McCoy was thrust into the leading role as a redshirt freshman, asked to follow one of the greatest athletes in Texas history. Even now, he shakes his head at the thought.
"That's tough," he said. "That's really tough."
It wasn't just the physical part of the game. He worried about taking charge of a team full of veterans returning from a championship season. His coaches took steps to protect him.
"We actually went to the shotgun and no-huddle most of that year so he wouldn't have to be in the huddle talking to the older kids," Brown said.
Brown calls the '06 season "a miracle," McCoy completing 68% of his passes, leading Texas to a victory over Iowa in the Alamo Bowl. His success kindled big expectations for the next fall.
The Longhorns started at No. 4 in the 2007 preseason polls but fell steadily, hampered by injuries and inexperience along the offensive line. There were losses to Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M as McCoy's interceptions nearly tripled, to 18.
"He had every buzzard's luck you could have," said Greg Davis, Texas' offensive coordinator. "I bet he had six balls that were tipped. Sometimes they find the ground. That season, they always found the opponent's hands."
Though Texas finished with a victory over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, fans weren't satisfied and McCoy took most of the heat.
"Understand that his second year, which everyone says was so bad, we won 10 games and he threw for 3,000 yards," Brown said. But, the coach added, "Our standard for quarterbacks around here is a lot higher than some."
Every day during summer camp, it was the same thing. When the offense broke from its meeting, McCoy sidled up to Davis and asked: What can I do to get better?
"I was nagging. I was bugging," he recalled. "Trying to figure out every little thing."
It was clear the quarterback was pressing. "He was frustrated and he was mad," said Davis, who finally sat him down and gave him an answer that made all the difference.
Do less, he said.
The coordinator, very big on analogies, compares McCoy to a student driver who obeys all the rules at first but, with a little confidence, starts easing through stop signs and neglecting to use his turn signal.
"Then, boom, you have an accident," Davis said. "The great thing about having an accident is you go back and realize how quickly that car can get out of control."
Coaches take some blame for McCoy's sophomore woes, saying they made the offense too complex. So they simplified the playbook and emphasized a careful approach. Take what the defense gives. Avoid turnovers. In other words, they wanted McCoy to be a little bit more like that cautious newcomer back in 2006.
At the same time, McCoy worked in the weight room, getting bigger so he could take off running when none of his receivers broke open.