For Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong, the belief that players should have to earn certain privileges is part of his core philosophy, so before the season opener against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a handful of players received new numbers as a reward for hard work during fall camp.
The act was just the latest in a similar string of decisions made by the head coach, including removing the Longhorns logo from the helmet during the offseason and awarding dog tags to players for work in the classroom and offseason conditioning.
So on Sunday evening before the game, Strong surprised six players by giving them new numbers:
“Look, some of the guys and we talk about guys being unselfish, we take the field last night, and some of them, you probably saw, but I gave a lot of the guys a single digit, and they didn't know it,” Strong said on Monday.
Sheroid Evans, the sixth-year senior cornerback, wasn’t sure he deserved the new number.
"Coach, I haven't been on the field in three years,” he said.
Of course, Strong didn’t change his mind, telling Evans instead that he was going to start at cornerback over sophomore Holton Hill. On the first play of the game, Notre Dame targeted Evans, but on his first play since Iowa State in 2013, Evans was in perfect position to force an incompletion.
Freshman quarterback Shane Buechele didn’t expect it, either.
“It was kind of a pleasant surprise walking into the locker room seeing No. 7,” Buechele said on Monday.
Since the Arlington Lamar product wore No. 7 in high school, he had joked around with his head coach about wearing it.
“Hey, coach, I know 7's open. I'm just wondering if I can get it,” he would say.
Strong’s response was always non-committal.
“We'll see, we'll see,” he would say.
Then, just before becoming the first true freshman to start in the season opener at quarterback since Bobby Layne in 1944, Buechele got a major jolt of familiarity.
Given Buechele’s typical demeanor and proven competence, there was still no way of knowing how he would react to the big stage. But his head coach made sure that at just the right moment, he felt comfortable wearing his favorite number.
Whether the number changes made any big difference in the game is impossible to say, but here’s guessing that the players hold their head coach in a little bit higher esteem because of it.
And there’s no question that in a double-overtime thriller that went down to the final seconds, any little advantage helped the ‘Horns.