DALLAS -- Just when he was about to join the list of former football coaches at the University of Texas, possibly the first in 50 years with a losing record, David McWilliams finally became a genius this year. He didn't get any smarter, at least not much. He did win more games.
He has the Longhorns back in the Cotton Bowl for the first time in six years, all blown up and bragging with a 10-1 record, the only loss to top-ranked Colorado. If they beat the Miami Hurricanes today and Colorado and Georgia Tech lose, they'll put in a strong bid for a national championship. McWilliams has never been smarter.
It did take him awhile. This is a 48-year-old native son who was a Longhorn linebacker and assistant coach, and was hired in 1986 to return the flagging program to its place among the elite. Enthusiastic, youthful, full of ideas, he seemed the perfect man for the job. Until they started playing games.
For three years the newspapers were full of stories of his recruiting successes, talk that he was swaying many of the state's top recruits. But he'd won only 16 of 34 games going into this season, lost five of six to Oklahoma and Texas A&M, gone 4-7 and 5-6 in 1988 and 1989. Of course, fans settle for promises only so long.
As recently as September, with memories of such debacles as last year's 50-7 loss to Baylor still fresh, the native son was the subject of much grumbling, a futures commodity not worth holding. The coach that preceded him, Fred Akers, had been fired after averaging almost nine wins a season for a decade, his sin being that he just didn't win 'em all. McWilliams clearly was in trouble.
But all that is forgotten now, swept out with the wind and wins. These days, when loyalists see McWilliams' recruiting record, his oh-so-young offensive backfield and his eight defensive starters returning, they see in the offing a return to the old days, when Texas was always near the top of the polls and it was unthinkable for the coach to say, as McWiliams did the other day, that "we just don't have much name identification.
Whether such pot-of-gold fortune-telling will be accurate remains to be seen, of course. The plain truth is that the college game has changed, that scholarship limits, nationwide recruiting and the ascendancy of Texas A&M will prevent the Longhorns from (( ever hording this state's considerable high school talent as they once did. But there also is no mistaking that McWilliams has raised the talent level and brought back the swagger.
The team that will take the field today is an unusual one, a potent combination of young (freshman running back Butch Hadnot, sophomore quarterback Peter Gardere) and old (27 seniors) that came from behind to win seven times, the poise a reflection of McWilliams' unflappable demeanor. Among the opponents that fell in such a fashion were Penn State, Oklahoma, Houston and Texas A&M, all top 25 teams. That's pedigree.
The biggest difference clearly is the offense. The Longhorns' per-game average is up almost 10 points from 87-89, and McWilliams will be the first to say that much of the credit belongs to an assistant coach named Lynn Amedee, whom he hired to run his offense two years ago. One of those career assistants who knows the game cold, Amedee has become a cult figure with his own radio show. Welcome to Texas.
The presence of Amedee and defensive coordinator Leon Fuller represent the critical moment in McWilliams' tenure, when he realized after his second season that he believed all those savior PTC headlines. He was trying to be a dozen people at the same time, do it all, be the greatest coach in history, leave his mark on every aspect of the team. He was doing too much, and therefore not enough.
"It was like when I was a high school head coach at Abilene [Tex.] in 1966, I tried to do all the coaching, run the concession stands, sell the tickets and plan the pep rallies," he said. "I just have this feeling that it's hard to tell someone to do something if I haven't done it myself. I've finally learned to let the other guy do it and be happy with that."
He was particularly happy that his 27 seniors took a strong stand after last year's 5-6 disappointment, leading a crack-of-dawn off-season training regimen that, many think, has much to do with the team's ability to rally in the fourth quarter.
"It was clear some attitudes had to change around here," McWilliams said, "and they did. Our goal, starting out, was to get the respect [for Texas football] back to where it used to be. I don't know what I expected in terms of wins, or if all this is more. I just know that it's been a great season."
Now, suddenly, the Longhorns appear as set as any team in the nation as the new decade unfolds. Their coaching staff is stable, their name is on the rise, they're loaded with young stars, and, after a decade of raids by out-of-state teams, they once again are recruiting the best talent in Texas. Of course, you're only a genius until you lose. As the coach at Texas, McWilliams will never wake up without the pressure to win, and win big. But he may be up to the task.