Rice assistant Applewhite to face former team

Updated: September 13, 2006, 4:52 PM ET
Associated Press

Major Applewhite enjoys cult legend status at Texas, where he was a freckled-faced kid with burnt orange hair who helped lead the Longhorn resurgence from mediocrity to national power.

With cherubic looks and an unathletic body, Applewhite was a winner and a fan favorite, setting Texas passing records in a wild career that saw him go from starter to bench warmer to bowl game hero.

Now Opie is the enemy.

Applewhite faces his old team Saturday night when No. 8 Texas (1-1) plays at Rice (0-2), where he is the Owls' new offensive coordinator.

"It's an exciting time for me," Applewhite said. "[But] you can't get emotionally wrapped into where you went to school and stuff like that. It's a job, it's a business now and you've got to be prepared."

Applewhite has enjoyed a quick rise through the coaching ranks.

His playing career finished with 473 yards passing and four touchdowns in a 2001 Holiday Bowl win over Washington. He began coaching as a graduate assistant at Texas in the spring of 2003.

His job then was to work with the offensive line and help tutor freshman Vince Young, who would later lead Texas to the 2005 national championship.

Applewhite left Texas before last season. Former defensive coordinator Greg Robinson got the top job at Syracuse and hired Applewhite as his quarterbacks coach.

After one season in the snow belt, where winter high temperatures can hover in the single digits, Applewhite jumped at the chance to take a promotion to offensive coordinator at Rice, located in hot and humid Houston.

At the ripe old age of 26, Applewhite was designing and running his own offense. And he brought a recognizable name that would help Rice recruit in its own backyard.

"Major Applewhite, just that name speaks for itself," Rice coach Todd Graham said. "He's a winner. Watching him as a competitor at Texas, seeing the type guy he was as a winner and achiever, he brings us instant credibility to where we want to go offensively."

Applewhite set 48 school passing records at Texas and still holds marks for career yards (8,353), touchdowns (60) and consecutive passes without an interception (156).

Texas coach Mack Brown noted that Applewhite, now 27, is younger than he was when he got his first coordinator's job. Brown was 28 when he was named offensive coordinator at Iowa State in 1980.

"I'm just so proud of him," Brown said. "Major has head coach written all over him; it's just a matter of time."

While at Texas, Applewhite worked closely with offensive coordinator Greg Davis both as a player and graduate assistant coach.

The two have stayed so close that when Applewhite was considering the Rice job, he called Davis on Jan. 3. It was the night before Texas played Southern California in the Rose Bowl.

They talked for about an hour. Davis said he finally had to cut him off with "Major, can we talk later? I have some things on my mind."

"That speaks volumes about him as a person," Applewhite said. "He had time to talk to me about the transition, the responsibilities I'll have, the ins and outs of taking a new job."

Applewhite had plenty of work to do. He scrapped the wishbone offense for a one-back offense similar to one used by the Longhorns.

"We had to get into today's offense," Applewhite said. "Not many kids want to play in a wishbone."

The results haven't produced a winner yet. Rice led Houston 30-14 in the season opener before losing 31-30. Last week, the Owls lost 26-16 at UCLA.

Facing his old team this week, Applewhite has been asked repeatedly to rehash the good and bad times of his playing career, from the big wins to the controversy that swirled around his benching in favor of Chris Simms for part of 2000 and most of 2001.

A favorite memory is a win at Nebraska in 1998 that snapped the Cornhuskers' 47-game home winning streak. Another is his final game, the Holiday Bowl when he rallied Texas from 19 points down.

The game Texas fans will remember most was a loss, 39-37, against Colorado in the Big 12 championship game in 2001.

Simms had four turnovers in the first half before Brown sent in Applewhite. His first pass went for a touchdown.

Texas couldn't come all the way back from a big deficit, but the rally was the stuff of swaggering Longhorn legend.

He says the arc of his career, including a painful knee injury in 2000 and the QB controversy, made him a better coach. Simms is now the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.

"There were highs and lows of it. That goes along with playing that position at a place like Texas. That was tough to handle for both of us," Applewhite said.

"That's made him a better player. That's made me a better coach. You're exposed to so many things. I appreciate everything anyone in that building did for me."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press