Mack Brown didn't bring a fleet of bulldozers with him to Austin in 1998, but had he put in the order to Caterpillar upon accepting the head coach position at Texas, it would have been justified. The Longhorns had just finished with their worst record in five decades, and a razing and rebuilding job was in order. Yet, in the aftermath of a 4-7 season and an epically embarrassing 66-3 loss to UCLA, the team's lone bright spot, running back Ricky Williams, told his new coach that he had an ambitious goal for his senior year.
"In one of our first meetings, Ricky told me he was going to gain over 2,000 yards that year," Brown says, recalling that magical season 15 years ago. "My first thought was, 'that is very rarely ever done'."
Forget rare, it's practically impossible. There have been more perfect games in Major League Baseball than 2,000-yard rushing seasons in college football. In the entire history of college ball, with all the legendary running backs on all of the legendary teams, before 1998, just six running backs had ever done it, most notably, Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen.
This isn't to say that Williams didn't have a chance at the time. He had rushed for 1,893 yards in 1997 and was a Heisman Trophy candidate heading into '98. It's just that a man as seasoned as Brown, who had been a head coach at North Carolina and Tulane before arriving at Texas, knew how truly difficult the feat was. On top of that, the team needed an identity and a way to stay loyal to each other.
"They were just coming off of a four-and-seven season, and then there was the coaching change," Brown says. "The fans, the players, they didn't know me. So we started selling the team on the idea that the Heisman was a team award. When the offensive line feels good about a back, they'll fight for him."
Williams, as it turns out, was the unifying force Brown and the Longhorns needed, as he kicked off the season with a 215-yard, six-touchdown game against New Mexico State. He had 385 yards and nine touchdowns in the first two games of the season, and that was was just a coming attraction to the main feature.
In games four and five, against Rice and Iowa State, he rushed for 318 yards and then 350 yards, respectively, racking up another nine touchdowns, giving him 1,086 rushing yards with six games left. The back-to-back 300-yard games made Brown a believer.
"I really had not seen anything like that," Coach Brown says. "You just look up and you're amazed. He was so thick and not very tall, so he left you a very small hitting space to tackle him. You basically had to hit him in the backfield or you're not getting him down."
Along with the goals of reaching 2,000 yards and winning the Heisman, Williams was on pace to potentially break Tony Dorsett's all-time NCAA Division-I career rushing record of 6,082 yards. And there was also the team's record to consider. After losing to top-ten teams UCLA and Kansas State early in the year, the Longhorns won six of their next seven regular-season games.
"Having a back like Ricky opens up your entire playbook," Brown says. "You know you can run and the other team knows you can run. It just opens everything up. Also, he never got hurt and he never missed practice. He was in such great shape and it always struck me how hard he worked. He was the first one on the field and the last one off of it and he always wanted to be on special teams. He was very tough and very competitive. That's what I think some people didn't see. He also had a great sense of humor."
And a great sense of the moment.
Heading into Texas' last game of the 1998 season against No. 6 ranked Texas A&M, Williams needed just 63 yards to break Dorsett's all-time rushing record. With 1:59 seconds left in the first quarter, Williams set up in the backfield "11 yards shy of the record" in the words of the immortal Brent Musburger. After taking the hand off, he plowed through the line, shrugged off a linebacker and rumbled 60 yards for a touchdown, along the way inspiring Musburger's now famous call: "Hello, record book! Ricky Williams runs to the Hall of Fame!"
After the record-breaking performance, Williams won the 1998 Heisman Trophy (2,124 yards and 29 rushing TDs) and led the Longhorns to a win over Mississippi State in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
"I was confident that he was going to win the Heisman award," Brown says. "Hands down, he was the best player in America."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.