Burnt Orange Nation Interview: John Lopez

For today's Q&A we bring in Houston Chronicle columnist John Lopez, who writes the outstanding Lopez @ Large blog for the paper. John was nice enough to sit down for a little Burnt Orange Nation Q&A, chatting about his early days as a Longhorn fan, his college days as an Aggie, and the state of college football in Texas and the Big 12.

Burnt Orange Nation: Thanks for chatting with us, John. Now correct me if I'm mistaken, but you're a Texas A&M graduate, correct? Did you wince any when Texas won the national title?

John Lopez: No, not at all. I was doing a live blog that night for the Chronicle, so we had a Rose Bowl watching party at my house, while I sat in my favorite chair and blogged.

I always get a kick out of it when people, even some of my colleagues, say Aggie-this or Aggie-that. Mostly, it's readers who may not always like what I write, so they blame it on my background. I get similar letters from Aggies, who think I went to UT.

The problem is, most people don't know my background, so I'll share it here: I grew up a big Longhorn fan. We weren't the most affluent family in the world in inner-city San Antonio, but my dad always found a way to get us tickets to one college football game a year. Mostly we went to Austin, since it was closest. Once we went to Baylor.

I just loved college football, and as you know, I still do.

I had an Earl Campbell jersey in high school, lots of Longhorns gear and probably could name every starting player on Longhorns teams from around 1969 (when I was 7-years-old).

My friends, brothers and sisters still remind me of all this occasionally. My uncle went to UT, cousins went to UT, my sister just finished putting two daughters through UT and I've coached several young basketball players (including 2006 freshman DB Robert Joseph and 2007 power forward Gary Johnson) who I've encouraged to go to UT.

Full disclosure: I've also coached A&M's Chris Yoder and Jerrod Johnson, Arizona's Nic Wise, TCU's Jason Ebie and Rice's Pierre Beasley. When kids I've known for years ask my advice, or their families ask, I give them honest answers on what I think would be the best fit.

I wound up at A&M for that same reason. It was no doubt the best fit. As a kid, I turned out to be an OK football player, got a few small-time offers and was offered a chance to play at Blinn JC in Brenham. I went to visit on Thanksgiving break in the fall of my senior year of high school (1979). Since it's close to College Station, I went with friends who had invited me to the Texas A&M-Texas game that Thanksgiving Weekend (Aggies spoiled a Sugar Bowl trip that year).

I know this sounds hokie, but I fell in love with the place. Until that day I had never stepped foot on the A&M campus, knew nothing about it, didn't know a thing about the traditions. Nothing. I visited a couple more times, checked out the journalism department and less than a year later was enrolled and decided I'd have a longer career writing about football than playing it.

Going to A&M was the best thing I ever did and I'm proud to be an Aggie. I like seeing the Aggies do well, but I also write honest columns about them. And it's not as if I stopped liking Longhorns football. I've told many people that my personal bliss would be covering 11-0 Texas vs. 11-0 A&M someday.

I love big-time football and the 'Horns are big-time. Besides, I probably wouldn't be writing this column if it wasn't for all those annual trips to Longhorn games that my dad scraped together.

Burnt Orange Nation: Speaking of the Aggies, what's the mood amongst the Aggie faithful regarding Coach Fran? What does he need to do this season to answer his critics?

John Lopez: He's feeling it, no doubt. He's walking around a different man, much more cautious about everything he does and says. Fran's been humbled. He knows the excuse-making won't cut it. He knows he's getting a reputation as some kind of John Mackovic -- not really part of the family.

But these are his guys and his team. He knows that he has a much better team than he's ever had, so opinions can change quickly. I would suspect the Aggies will have a 8- or 9-win season. He should make it nine wins if he really wants to make sure he'll stay employed.

Burnt Orange Nation: How do you see the Big 12 shaking out this year? The conference has fielded a team in the national title game several times in this decade; do you see someone emerging from the Big 12 unscathed this season?

John Lopez: Simply because it's the Big 12, an undefeated team will earn the BCS title berth. The problem is, I doubt any team this year will be perfect. I rate the Sooners slightly ahead of the Longhorns even after the Rhett Bomar thing.

Adrian Peterson looks unbelievably chiseled and is more than willing to carry the load. He'll be helped by a great defense and an assortment of receivers who will make Paul Thompson better, including true freshman Jermaine Gresham, who may well end up Big 12 freshman of the year.

But no matter which of those teams wins the October OU-UT game, with unproven quarterbacks and slight chinks in the armor on both sides, each is primed to slip-up somewhere else. And Nebraska in the north? I think the Cornhuskers are vastly over-rated.

Burnt Orange Nation: Have you ever seen a recruiting blitz like the one Texas is on right now? How are others dealing with Texas' prominent position right now?

John Lopez: Considering scholarship limitations, what Mack Brown is doing should be considered the greatest recruiting feat in the history of Texas football. Better than Darrell Royal. Better than Barry Switzer. Better than the best team SMU could buy.

Naturally, with his knack for recruiting and the big run the Longhorns are on, Mack Brown can get pretty much anyone he wants.

But the most impressive thing about this streak of success is Mack and his staff have an unbelievable talent for sifting through all the stars on recruiting lists, all the press clippings, and finding the best PLAYERS.

That's not easy. Lots of five-star players turn into flops. Superb player evaluation has been the biggest reason Texas has become the supreme program in the Big 12. That, and Gene Chizik and some kid named Vince Young.

Burnt Orange Nation: It wasn't -that- long ago that the Aggies were routinely handing Texas their lunch on the football field. Do you think these stretches of dominance are cyclical, or do you think the Longhorns are entering a unique position of dominance within the state?

John Lopez: Everything is cyclical. The unknown is how long can the Longhorns keep it up? Another two or three years? Or another decade?

If the OU Rhett Bomar thing turns into something bigger, Nebraska keeps churning out more hype than legitimacy and Coach Fran fails to do something big, there's no reason to think the Longhorns will be anything but a perennial top-five team.

Who's going to threaten them?

Colorado and long-shot Texas Tech can be great occasionally, but they won't become year-in, year-out elite programs.

I like what Mike Leach is doing out in Lubbock and they'll keep winning, but I call them longshots to be in the same breath as a Texas because the key words there are, "out in Lubbock."

The Raiders certainly have it in them to make a BCS run or two. They certainly also have the coach. But the greatest recruits won't stream to West Texas every year. Given the choice, what Dallas and Houston kids would rather play "out in Lubbock" over Norman, Austin or College Station. That's just a fact. Some will turn down UT or OU offers to go out there, but most won't.

Naturally, there won't be a lot of Vince Youngs come down the pike for Texas, but unless the aforementioned player evaluation begins to turn sour, and unless OU becomes OU again and A&M returns to the top, no will be tugging on Mack Brown's cape anytime soon.

Burnt Orange Nation: You've been one of the first journalists to plunge into blogging as a compliment to the writing you publish in the print edition. How has it enhanced your ability to deliver sports news and opinions to your readers?

John Lopez: It's like a keg of beer or an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I'd always rather be at the front of the line than the back of it.

Obviously, I love newspapers for the depth and sustenance they offer. The things you write are researched, thought-out and carefully written (on good days, anyway). And the words on those pages will be there forever. To me that's irreplaceable.

But let's get real. Where do sports fans get most of their news now and where do they speak the loudest?

It's online and on TV.

One day when my sons had some friends and teammates over a couple years ago for an all-day marathon of watching college football (chips off the old block, eh?), I noticed that one of the friends brought a laptop with him.

He watched the games while on the computer - instant-messaging friends, posting on blogs and forums, etc. One of my sons was doing the same on his laptop. The other was upstairs with friends watching the game while hovering around the home computer.

I realized right there. This is where we're going. Get at the front of the line.

Burnt Orange Nation: Thanks for taking a few minutes to visit with us, John.

John Lopez: My pleasure.

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