How Texas embraced the hate in its last Big 12 season

David Buono/Icon Sportswire

WHEN TEXAS PLAYERS walk up the stairs into the football offices beyond the south end zone, they're greeted with large orange-and-silver block letters on a white wall with a mantra that has served the Longhorns all year. On top, it says "Mamba Mentality." On the bottom, Kobe Bryant's signature, along with this message:

"Learn to love the hate. Embrace it. Enjoy it. You earned it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and everyone should have one about you. Haters are a good problem to have. Nobody hates the good ones. They hate the great ones."

Texas, like the other iconic brands in college football, knows the hate. The Longhorns are tied with Notre Dame for the fourth-most wins all time, behind only Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama. Former athletic director DeLoss Dodds once famously said that while other schools have to keep up with the Joneses, "We are the Joneses." The school's two most recent marketing taglines were "We're Texas" and "What starts here changes the world." The Longhorn Network was the only single-school television network in college sports.

In 2019, University of Memphis professor Cody Havard, who studies fan behavior, told ESPN that research showed that matchups with the Longhorns were frequently circled on the calendars of other teams' fans.

"We polled college fans and asked them who their biggest rival was," Havard said. "Texas has 11 different teams identifying them as a rival, by far the most in the country."

So while Texas has had the hate down, the great has been harder to come by. Heading into this season, the Longhorns have lost four or more games every year but one since 2010.

Steve Sarkisian went 5-7 in 2021, and then showed signs of a breakthrough last season. The Longhorns won eight regular-season games for only the second time in the past nine years, and all five of their losses were by seven points or fewer.

The third-year Texas coach was confident he had built a contender. And with the school headed to the SEC next year, a lot of those rivals were looking for one more shot at the Longhorns. But Texas was determined to go out on its own terms.

"I think this team is on a mission, they've taken this mindset of being on a mission. They've kind of adopted the John Wick mentality," Sarkisian said on Aug. 1, referencing the movie character who embarks on a "merciless rampage to hunt down his adversaries," according to the film's website.

"I think that they've kind of assumed this mentality of, 'Embrace the hate,'" Sarkisian continued. "We get it. We're the University of Texas. This is our last year in the Big 12. We can sit there and be a punching bag, or we can go attack the people that we're going to play. And I think that they've assumed that responsibility to say, 'Hey, we're gonna go after everybody else, too.' I think that that's the right mentality to have."

Sarkisian's marching orders weren't just some manufactured bulletin board coachspeak, either. Opponents didn't mind sharing how badly they wanted to beat the Longhorns. In the first Big 12 trip of the season, Texas went to Waco, where the Longhorns had lost in their last two trips and Baylor coach Dave Aranda told reporters there was one consistent message he heard from fans.

"I can't tell you how many times this offseason I heard 'Dave, just win this one game,'" Aranda said that week. "That has been brought up to me multiple times." The Longhorns crushed the Bears 38-6.

Before a trip to Houston, Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen echoed Aranda.

"I've got a lot of comments," Holgorsen said. "Just beat Texas. Don't care if you win any of them, but you've got to win that one. You can go 1-11 and it's OK if you beat Texas." Holgorsen didn't, losing 31-24, and while the Cougars won four games instead of just one, he was still fired at the end of the season even after, in his words, he "took the mighty Texas Longhorns down to the wire."

Iowa State offensive lineman Jarrod Hufford shot his shot as well before Texas traveled to Ames to play the Cyclones on Nov. 18.

"It's going to be one heck of a farewell present," he said. "They are going to come in here on senior night in the dark. I don't think they really know what is going to be coming for them. We've beaten them four out of the last five times at home. They don't have a good record here."

After Texas' 26-16 win and a strong defensive performance particularly up front against Hufford's offensive line, Sarkisian and his players celebrated with the Texas section in Jack Trice Stadium. Defensive tackle Byron Murphy II tweeted, "9 yards rushing ... that's all. Don't write no check you can't cash little guy," and defensive back Jahdae Barron wished Hufford a "happy senior night."

The Longhorns have since publicly backed off using "hate" analogies, aware there are bigger issues in the world than football. Early on, there were T-shirts printed with the slogan, but no more.

"A lot has been made about a T-shirt being made," Sarkisian said in August. "Let's not make this more than it is. This is about us -- we are focused on what we get to do and why we get to do it. We are proud to be part of the University of Texas. We are proud to represent burnt orange and white."

THE TAKE-ON-ALL-COMERS APPROACH has led Texas to a No. 7 ranking and an 11-1 regular season, just the second time since 2010 that it has reached the 10-win mark. On Saturday, Sarkisian will lead the Longhorns into the Big 12 championship game for the first time since 2018. They're looking to end a 13-season drought without winning a conference title, the longest since Texas first joined a conference in 1915. They'll face one more team they're leaving behind -- Oklahoma State, which didn't play Texas this regular season -- and the Longhorns have a score to settle there, too. Texas is 4-9 against the Cowboys since 2010. Only Oklahoma, with 11 wins against Texas over that span, has more, including a dramatic come-from-behind 34-30 win this year to hand the Longhorns their only loss.

Texas clinched a spot in the title game last Friday with a 57-7 thrashing of Texas Tech, which beat the Longhorns last year in one of those close games. Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium acted as one giant party, complete with a farewell to Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, who infamously spoke at a fan luncheon before the season in Lubbock and implored Red Raiders coach Joey McGuire to "take care of business" in Austin this year.

As the game wound down, Texas' video board showed the speech, sending the crowd into a frenzy. It was a final moment of celebration for a season in which the Longhorns had a target on their back in every game, but dished out their own brand of vengeance.

"That was amazing and I think they deserved that," defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat said after the game of the Yormark video, saying the "they" referred to, in his words, "Little Lubbock."

Drew Martin, one of Texas' senior associate athletic directors, oversees the game-day experience for the Longhorns. He said Friday's atmosphere at DKR was the best he's seen since he arrived at Texas in 2018, and that it was by design.

"We knew at the beginning of this '23-'24 entire athletic season ... that we were probably public enemy No. 1 among the Big 12 Conference," Martin said. "This is one last go-round. It's their last shot to take a shot at you. We've got to go in it just embracing all of that hatred and vitriol that is coming your way. Just own it. Every game you go out there in this conference, every time you play at home, away, no matter what, in a tournament, at a neutral site, you know, you're gonna get their best shot."

Longhorns great Britt Hager, who racked up 499 tackles at linebacker between 1984 and 1988 and still holds the school's all-time record, lived his whole career with a chip on his shoulder. Hager played at legendary Texas high school program Odessa Permian (the school featured in "Friday Night Lights"), starred at Texas, then played for Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles, where he was despised by Dallas Cowboys fans. He was a star, had the swagger, the attitude -- and the horseshoe mustache -- to appear straight out of central casting as a football villain. He knows the importance of backing up what you project.

"The thing for me was the chip, always just proving yourself," Hager said. "It's the chip, more than hate. You've got to have a chip on your shoulder and Texas hasn't had one. This year, starting with the quarterback all the way down, they've really done that."

That, to him, was cause for celebration during the Texas Tech blowout. With a win over Oklahoma State on Saturday, Texas would exit the Big 12 with a win in its final game against eight of the nine Big 12 schools that were in the league prior to the 2023 expansion.

"It was a really big deal for [Big 12 teams] to try to knock Texas off," Hager said. "So it's kind of ironic that the only one that came and did it was a team that's going with them to the SEC."

The Longhorns sent a message to their new league, too, rolling into Tuscaloosa on Sept. 9 and beating then-No. 3 Alabama 34-24, handing the Tide their first nonconference home loss in 16 years. "I hear so much about how tough the SEC is, but I haven't seen any of those teams go in Alabama and win, either, so I feel pretty good about our team," Sarkisian said in late October, making his case ahead of the first College Football Playoff rankings.

This season, Sarkisian passed 10 wins for the first time in his 10 seasons as a head coach. Whether Texas was galvanized by the alignment of forces against them or not, whether or not it was Sarkisian's confidence, Hager said he noticed a sense of swagger returning to the Longhorns.

"It looks like the guys seem to really want to play for Coach Sark, play for UT and care about UT," Hager said. "That's what you kind of saw this year. So when you embrace the hate, for me it's kind of embracing the tradition more than anything."

But there's still unfinished business Saturday, with an opportunity for the Longhorns to end their Big 12 tenure with a conference title and make their case for a CFP berth. They'll have one more John Wick assignment: Beat an Oklahoma State team that scored the final 17 points of their matchup with Texas last year to win 41-34 in Stillwater.

Hager, who had sons play for Baylor (Bryce) and Texas (Breckyn) proudly described what about Texas attracts such disdain from other programs and fans.

"It's a university that's big on academia, 'change the world' type of thing," Hager said. "It's a university that reaches beyond the state borders ... It's incredible what they're doing. The endowment is incredible. I can see why other people want to come in and beat them. You've got a magnificent stadium, you've got a cool logo. I get it."

Martin said his boss, athletic director Chris Del Conte, issued a challenge to all Texas coaches and players across all sports before this athletic season started, telling them to go out and win every Big 12 championship they could. Now, he's watching them rise to the occasion.

"It's been amazing to watch soccer go out and do that. Volleyball has just done that," Martin said. "Football has a chance to do that on Saturday. And we're just going to keep going down the line. I think it's fair to say that Texas, across the board this year, is playing with that little bit of edge to us and the chip on the shoulder of going out there and taking care of business."