Senior College Football Columnist

Network difficulties the least of 'Horns concerns with OU looming

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Texas has problems too. It just depends on your level of sympathy.

"You have to make sure that you're dressed and everything."

Those are the words of tough-as-steel Texas safety Blake Gideon during Red River Shootout week. With everything on the line in the annual street fight with Oklahoma, there are the usual levels of anxiety. There are the usual blood, sweat and fears of losing to the Sooners.

Players shouldn't have to worry about having a towel around their waist.

But ask any 'Horn this week, privacy is definitely an issue. Training room, cold tub, practice field, locker room. Watch your mouth and cover up. The Longhorn Network's lurking somewhere, and everywhere.

"You have to be aware that there is always a camera around," Gideon said. "They're following us in the training room. It's like, 'Who's hurt? Who's being a wuss?' ...

"My sweet mother and grandmother sitting at home, I wouldn't want them to turn on the TV and see something I said in a spirited practice get out there."

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While climbing the polls, these Longhorns (10th in the coaches poll, 11th in the AP Top 25) have also adjusted to becoming programming for the nation's largest cable company. The startup, one-of-a-kind, school-centric LHN is one of the biggest launches in ESPN history. It has also become, at times, an awkward, distracting attempt at turning one school's behind-closed-door moments into commerce.

No doubt a first-class production for viewers. But also a football colonoscopy for team and staff, with the nation holding the remote.

"It was tough to adjust to at first," Gideon said. "You're not used to people sitting in on your meetings, private exchanges between the players and your coach. ... Sometimes if we need those guys to step out of a meeting room or turn off the camera, they're more than compliant.

"They're on our side when it comes to that. At the same time, the things you do and things you say, you always have to be aware of."

It's more than a privacy issue. Missouri could become the fourth school in 16 months to leave the Big 12 over issues tied to Texas' financial autonomy. That autonomy allowed Texas to partner with ESPN on LHN in a 20-year, $300 million deal that could revolutionize college sports.

A network launched to give Texas football more exposure has become a story itself -- a conference realignment lightning rod to some, a flat-out distraction to others.

"They expect all access, all the time, every day and that's a difficult thing," coach Mack Brown said. "Trying to be partners with the media is different. Period. Obviously, their goal is to get as many viewers as they can, which is different from our goal to win games."

It's a daily push and pull, the coach said. An hour of practice is televised on both Tuesday and Wednesday. If a player gets hurt, Brown wants the network to hold off on reporting it until parents are contacted.

"[But] if a guy gets hurt while they've got the camera on him, there's nothing we can do," he said. "Thank goodness our kids are nice and they're not cussing all the time and fighting all the time and getting in trouble."

Brown now has to dress up for his weekly radio show that no one could see -- until the LHN started televising it.

"You can't go in your shorts and your flip-flops and have your feet up while you're talking," he said.

To compensate for the extra demands on his time, Brown now frequently stays in the office until 10 at night.

"It's definitely more [time] than I would have thought, more than I was told," Brown added.

All of it can't distract from this week. There's nothing like Texas-OU when both teams are undefeated.

Texas got to the Oklahoma game unbeaten for only the third time in six years since winning the 2005 national championship. To get there, it had to get by a plucky Iowa State squad that beat the 'Horns last year in Austin. During his pregame talk in a hushed hotel team meeting room Saturday, Brown noticed a familiar presence.

"There is a camera in my face and I said, 'Excuse me, could you back up just a little bit so I can talk to my team?'" Brown said. "They're [LHN] really trying. Their producers are trying to get information and I'm a coach trying to win games."

It might be a scene played out soon all over the country. Collegiate networks seem to be the wave of the future. The Big Ten's is the industry standard. The Pac-12 plans to blanket the country with its unique network setup.

But while the Longhorns have been televised from the inside out, it's entirely possible Texas' story this season hasn't really been told.

In the middle of conference realignment we're being reminded that Longhorns bleed too. Gideon made to it Texas four years ago after recovering from two cracked vertebrae in high school.

"That was definitely a scary time in my life," he said.

Gideon's mother Ralene is at least as tough as her son. She is in remission after having battled breast cancer.

Quarterback Garrett Gilbert first lost his starting job, then lost his season to an injured shoulder. His best friend Case McCoy -- brother of Colt -- and David Ash have taken over as a two-headed threat. Gilbert has been given his release and is transferring.

Tight end D.J. Grant missed two seasons with a serious knee injury. Against UCLA, he caught three touchdown passes.

The 'Horns as a team have recovered from an embarrassing 5-7 downturn in 2010. They have a running game that has been lost for years. They have two new superstar assistants. Bryan Harsin was hired away from Boise State to be co-offensive coordinator. Manny Diaz came from Mississippi State.

For haters of everything burnt orange, it will be hard to sympathize with a $5 million-a-year coach who can't wear his flip flops. On a higher plane, rival ADs and coaches are worried about LHN becoming an unfair recruiting advantage. The network originally planned to televise high school games.

It was enough for Texas A&M to leave for the SEC. Enough for Missouri to consider following the Aggies. Enough for an NCAA summit to be called in August to discuss high school content on institutional networks.

The NCAA ruled against televising high school games, but it is allowing high school highlights on LHN.

"There's always the issue of privacy and should a 16-year-old kid be on national television," Gideon said. "There's definitely two sides of it, if it's handled the right way."

They knew it was going to be different with this new startup. Or at least they should have known. There are two things about Texas that have become obvious during the conference shuffling two-step. Neither has a thing to do with football: Texas is always going to win and it is always going to look good doing it.

"We're good people," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds told the Tulsa World this week. "And we do it the right way."

"It's just a lot more work than I would have ever dreamed," Brown said of his newfound duties.

Let's hope for the sake of college football there is one place LHN cameras can't reach on Saturday. That morning, both teams will gather in a holy place before taking the field -- the legendary Cotton Bowl tunnel.

Before the blood, sweat and fears, Sooners and Longhorns will be alone with their thoughts before the game of their lives.

"That's something you can only experience," Gideon said, "if you're there."


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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