By Andy "Coach" Cotton, Fri., Nov. 21, 1997
Broken hearts, the awkward travails of dating, haunting Barton Creek Mall at 8:30 on Christmas Eve with my other depressed friends, and wondering how my psyche was going to withstand another New Year's Eve might make for more entertaining writing, but, all in all, I'll take placid.
Oddly, without excessive emotional unrest in my life, I seem to have more time for my job, which is to write about sports. So it was that I found myself trekking through the wind, semi-sleet, and icy rain to what was very likely the final Austin appearance in the regime of John Mackovic, the beleaguered and hounded coach of the Texas Longhorns.
A few minutes before kick-off, a gentleman was standing next to the main entrance to DK Royal Memorial Stadium with four 50-yard-line tickets. Not unusual except for this: he was giving them away... for free. The weather was pretty nasty, by Austin standards, but this was a first. The announced "crowd" was 68,000. In fact, you could have spotted your mother from the opposite stands in the half empty stadium.
There were, of course, good reasons, aside from the weather, for the pitiful attendance. Not long ago, this contest against the Kansas Jayhawks was considered a one inch, tap-in putt. Just another game sending the third-ranked Horns into a grudge match against A&M. An excellent chance for an undefeated season and a national championship staring them in the face. Instead -- incredibly, horribly -- this game now boiled down to a few elemental facts: 1. Avoid humiliation at the hands of a really bad football team and, 2. Give the seniors one last win in front of their friends and family. Has any team of any kind free-fallen so far, so fast? That's what this game was about.
Probably the last post-game press conference in Memorial Stadium of the Mackovic era began at exactly 5:39 CST. He made a few comments about the game and was ready for questions from the media. The room fell awkwardly silent for what seemed like a very long time. No one wanted to ask the obvious questions. Finally, someone asked about a third down call or whatever. Another long silence. Another easy question. More silence. The coach was game, but there were no takers. He left the podium in one of the shortest press conferences in history. What began with a bang six years ago may have ended in a nervous silence.
I stepped out of the tunnel in the south end zone into the now almost empty stadium. I crushed an empty cup. A popcorn box, almost magical in its solitary journey to who knows where, blew across the chewed up, but still lush and green football field.
Some time late in the fourth quarter, the sun had came out. The field was now bathed in the soft-focus light, more like a haze, of the late fall afternoon. As evening gently approached, beneath a cinnamon-colored sky, I stopped and considered all that could have been in a season begun with such wonderful promise only a few months ago on the calendar, but so very long ago in the hopes and dreams of the players, coaches and fans. I was happy for the departing seniors, happy their last contest at home was a victory. Aware of all the blood and sacrifice.
It wasn't supposed to end this way. The empty stadium should be still half full with fans wanting to see its 10-0 Horns return triumphantly to the field, one last time, to gracefully acknowledge and to rightfully accept the due they've been groomed for since Pop Warner football; to bask in the warm glow reserved, for one brief moment in time, to the football hero.
I felt depressed. Like when you awake from a vaguely disturbing dream; a hazy dream you already can't remember. The park was cold, empty and lonely. The saddest words in the English language: What could have been.