Though it was only a little over 730 days ago that the Texas Longhorns traveled to Lawrence and lost to the Kansas Jayhawks, 24-21, to seal the end of the Charlie Strong era, the passage of time in culture years is significantly greater, according to head coach Tom Herman.
“I feel like that program that went there, I feel like that was 50 years ago, not two years ago,” Herman said on Monday. “We’re so far past that point in our program.”
Indeed, the Horns have transformed from a program with plenty of talent that played at a level less than the sum of its parts into a program that Herman now believes is overachieving. Call it greater than the sum of its parts. Guys playing for the culture.
In the late years of the Mack Brown era and under Strong, that wasn’t the case — Texas consistently got blown out and lost games it shouldn’t have lost. The program culture was rotten and neither Brown nor Strong were able to fix it.
The events of November 19, 2016 put it all into stark perspective when Texas suffered the most infamous loss in the modern history of Longhorns football in a game that effectively ended Strong’s tenure.
With a mid-afternoon start in sunny, 47-degree weather in front of a crowd generously reported at more than 25,000 strong, Texas was supposed to cruise to an easy victory against 1-9 Kansas to continue to build momentum for Strong to keep his job. According to ESPN, the Longhorns entered the game with a win probability close to 92 percent.
Instead of the easy victory and that consolidated momentum, Kansas stunned Texas thanks to a late collapse by the Horns. Early in the fourth quarter, the visiting team seemed in control with a 21-10, but a steady touchdown drive by the Jayhawks and a fumble by star Longhorns running back D’Onta Foreman deep in Kansas territory gave David Beaty’s team a chance.
Strong’s defense forced a turnover on downs, then tried to ice the game by giving the ball to Foreman on 4th and 5 on the KU 32-yard line with a minute left in regulation. The eventual Doak Walker Award winner was stopped two yards short on his 50th carry of the game.
Thanks to a 26-yard pass to running back Ke’aun Kinner, Kansas moved into Texas territory with the clock ticking down before a targeting penalty on Longhorns linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch put the Jayhawks into field-goal range with 19 seconds remaining.
Kansas tied the game as the clock ticket towards zero and kicked a field goal to win it after Shane Buechele threw an interception on the second Texas play in overtime.
It was the first victory by the Jayhawks over the Longhorns since 1938, ended a nine-game losing streak overall, and stood as the only win over an FBS team for the Jayhawks in nearly 1,400 days by the time the 2018 season started. That’s right — the only win for Kansas since then came against Southeast Missouri State. The last FBS win before it? Against Iowa State in 2014.
While teammates like Poona Ford were captured on television laying on the field in defeat, defensive end Charles Omenihu reacted with the most demonstrative anger, spiking his helmet on the field, yelling as teammates headed towards the locker room, and then continuing the outburst as linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary and another staffer tried to calm him down.
A fierce competitor, Omenihu is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve after defeats, as he did this season during a terse interview on Longhorn Network following the heartbreaking loss against West Virginia.
On Tuesday, however, Omenihu claimed that he doesn’t recall much about the aftermath of the loss in Lawrence.
“One thing, I got a short-term memory, man,” Omenihu said. “Especially two years removed, so my memory of that day is kind of vague, but knowing myself, I was obviously mad. I don’t like losing games — doesn’t really matter who it is.”
Since then, Omenihu said that he’s matured and understands that he can’t react to losing a certain way, a possible reference to the aftermath of the 2016 loss to the Jayhawks.
Senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson was a little bit more forthcoming, admitting that he sometimes experiences the echoes of that loss when he’s watching an upset around college football.
“Only if y’all knew,” he says to himself of a loss that remains a running joke on social media.
So the pain is still real, at least to Nelson — call it Post-Traumatic Rock Chalked Disorder.
Like Herman, though, Nelson believes this team has come a long way since that nightmarish performance against Kansas.
“We’re a whole different team, to be honest with you,” defensive tackle Chris Nelson. “Whole different everything. Back then we had a whole bunch of stuff going on. Guys didn’t really know how to handle it, didn’t know how to handle adversity. Now guys are just now complete and we know how to talk to each other.”
Now the older players are more vocal spreading the culture to younger players, who are willing to listen and internalize those teachings. Now older players like Nelson are telling the younger players that every opponent approaches every game against Texas like the national championship is on the line.
Nelson wishes that former teammates like Ford could experience what it’s like in the program now.
“The other guys, I wish their senior years could have been like this, honestly,” Nelson said. “It’s incredible being here, walking into that locker room each and every day, no doubt in your mind, just ready to work and go win the next game.”
Across the team, players have embraced Herman’s 1-0 mentality and a narrow focus that only sees the next game. Nothing beyond that. With as straight of a face as Omenihu could manage, he said he wasn’t aware of what a win against Kansas would mean for the program in terms of a Big 12 Championship game appearance.
“To be honest, I don’t care what’s on the line,” Omenihu said. “The game ahead of us is what matters.”
So, can Kansas upset Texas again?
“You know the answer to that,” Nelson said. “We definitely don’t want that to happen. We’re not trying to let that happen at all.”