As the losses mounted for the University Trojans over the past few years, Johnny Tusa could empathize.
The Waco ISD athletic director had been in that place before. Oh sure, different sideline in a different stadium across town, but Tusa still remembered how it felt.
When he took over the head coaching job at now-defunct Jefferson-Moore High School in 1980, the program was in the midst of a losing streak of its own. That streak stretched all the way into Tusa’s third season at the school in 1982, when the Lions broke through and snapped a losing slide of more than 30 games.
“Number one, it’s like a light bulb goes on, and all of the sudden you’re released from your burden,” Tusa said. “And number two, it gives you a shot that (winning) is possible, that, hey, we can do this.”
When University blanked Austin Travis, 37-0, last Friday to halt the state’s longest active losing streak at 47 games, the Trojans experienced an overwhelming sense of relief. Players skipped and danced onto the field, others climbed into the stands to hug family and friends, and naturally several grabbed the water cooler for the traditional dousing of the head coach — in this case, second-year head man and University alum Rodney Smith.
“Those kids were on Cloud 9, and they should have been,” Tusa said.
Added Smith: “It’s great to get the monkey off our backs. The kids have been talking about this since our last loss last year. They just promised to work hard all summer, they promised to be coachable. You know, coaching is a two-way street. Coaches have to coach, and players have to play. And these guys are working, moving in the right direction.”
Yet the Trojans can’t take up permanent residence on Cloud 9, either. Another game awaits this week — in fact, it’s the District 5-5A Div. II opener against 2-0 Burleson, a program that went 9-2 last season.
So where does University go from here? Hopefully they keep moving up, Smith said. But it’s going to take a lot of work. Burleson is a much better team than Austin Travis, and similarly better competition looms down the road.
When the Trojans gathered for practice on Monday, Smith noticed that his players’ heads were still in the clouds after the euphoria of Friday.
“I kind of knew it would be (like that),” he said. “The win was still in their minds, fresh in their minds. But we still have other goals on our mind, starting with trying to get a district win on Friday.”
Still, the aftershocks of the victory should bolster University’s belief that it can indeed win. It’s not a dream anymore, it’s a reality. It’s attainable. Back when Tusa’s Jefferson-Moore team reversed its long skid in 1982, it completely transformed the players’ mindset.
“It shows you that winning is possible,” Tusa said. “When we turned it around at Jeff Moore, we ended up winning seven games in a row and won a district championship. Now, we were at a different stage in the game, primed with some pretty good athletes, and you can’t necessarily compare University to us. But the boost that this game should give them will resonate for some time.”
After the Trojans’ whooping and hollering died down a little last Friday, Smith gathered his team in the locker room and delivered a sermon that looked more forward than backward.
“I asked them — are you happy? Is this all you want? Are you all satisfied?” he said “Because if you’re satisfied, something’s wrong. Hopefully you want more out of this football season, and I think the guys realize that there are other goals that we want.”
One inherent benefit of University’s triumph is that people will stop asking the coaches and players, when are you guys going to win a game? When will the streak end? In that respect, the win is the gift that keeps on giving.
“Winning doesn’t solve everything, but it solves a lot,” Smith said.
So, after registering one of the bigger wins in the history of the program, University now faces the challenging task of putting it in the rear-view mirror and leaving it behind. The journey to get there was long and arduous, and as much as anything, that’s what the players should remember, Tusa said.
“Life is about perseverance,” Tusa said. “Lord knows those guys were in a difficult situation. But a leader is capable of moving you forward, and injecting confidence even when the backdrop looks almost unfathomable.”