FRISCO, Texas – The golden locks of Texas defensive end Breckyn Hager drape long past his shoulders and curl past the lower portion of his rib cage. In the Bible, Samson’s long hair represents his strength. In Austin, where the sputtering Texas football program is desperately seeking a revival, Hager’s flowing locks are a daily reminder of the program’s recent weakness.
Hager says he hasn’t cut his hair since arriving on campus in 2015, when he made a unique pact with his teammates. His next trim will come only when the Longhorns win the Big 12 title and end a drought that dates back to 2009.
“I’m going to let everyone get a piece because it’s going to be a story,” Hager said. “And then I’m going to put it all in a bag, and I’m going to donate to Locks of Love.”
Locks of Love is a charity organization that provides hair pieces to financially disadvantaged cancer patients. It was a highlight of a Big 12 media day riddled with unexpected references that ranged from French philosopher René Descartes to the late actor Marlon Brando. (“I love Marlon Brando, he’s my man-crush Monday, every Monday.”)
Hager’s media day podium interview unfolded more like an experience – 90 minutes where he sounded part Spicoli, part Socrates and part Scorsese. Hager established himself as the frontrunner on the Dos Equis Award Watch List for the Most Interesting Man In College Football, a mixture of eccentric, philosopher and endearingly bizarre. There’s a movie he’s making, a business venture he’d get in trouble talking about and trips to California that he gently suggested did not marry themselves to the discipline required of an elite athlete. “I have things,” he said at one point, “the world needs to hear.”
Hager’s media day experience would certainly have turned Bill Snyder’s hair a more fluorescent shade of white. But Texas coach Tom Herman, a free spirit by football coach standards, knew exactly what he was doing showcasing Hager. The senior defensive end epitomizes the intense buy-in that he hopes will help flip the program to Big 12 title contenders after Herman’s 7-6 debut season in 2017. Herman compares Hager to the character Steve Lattimer from “The Program,” the paragon of intensity.
“That is real,” Herman says. “That’s not an act. That’s not for show. That’s the way his circuits are wired.”
Herman found out in the third quarter of Texas’ overtime loss to Oklahoma State last year. Hager ran off the field after a sack and Herman greeted him with a low-five to celebrate. Herman laughs, calling what happens next a “scene out of a movie.” Hager stopped, removed his helmet and apologized to Herman. Perplexed, Herman looked on the field to see if there was a flag down on the play.
“Sorry for what?”
“[Sorry] for being such an a–hole, I love you coach.”
“Alright, Breck, I got a game to coach here, bud.”
It perplexed Herman that a player as passionate as Hager, who grew up the son of a Longhorn legend, had been such a non-conformist. But that moment flipped everything, as Hager has become emblematic of the cultural overhaul that’s got Herman and his staff so optimistic about the upcoming season. “It surprised me a guy that wants to win so badly, that loves Texas so passionately, took so long to give us his heart,” Herman said. “That was odd to me, but once he did, man … that’s my dude.”
Hager ended the season an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 player, finishing with nine TFLs and four sacks. He described his initial resistance to the staff as him “just being a weirdo.” He’s gone from leading the resistance to expecting Belichick-level loyalty from his teammates: “Holy crap, these guys know what they’re talking about,” Hager says of his epiphany. “We better all buy in and become the Patriots you know.”
Part of Hager adapting to the staff came with the realization of the only thing that can truly secure his legacy at the school. Hager’s father, Britt Hager, is a Longhorn legend who still holds the program’s records for tackles in a season (195) and career (499). But Britt Hager’s era at Texas dovetailed with the forgettable David McWilliams era, and a pair of Bluebonnet Bowls doesn’t exactly ensure immortality. “Colossal individual statistics mean nothing, they don’t stand the test of time unless you win games,” Breckyn Hager says. “My father is [a] case of that here at the university, the greatest linebacker statistically individually, like, ever, and you don’t hear anything about him because they didn’t win.”
Texas’ best care for winning this season will come with a repeat performance on defense. Herman stressed again on Tuesday that he considers veteran coordinator Todd Orlando the best in the country.
Hager and Orlando would make the quintessentially perfect pair for a buddy movie, as Orlando is a steel-jawed Pittsburgh native whose moods are dissected in degrees of his scowl. He’s as exacting as he is demanding, as evidenced by Texas improving 61 spots in scoring defense — from 90 to 29 — in his first season in Austin.
How much does Hager adore Orlando?
“Every film session you get with this man is a blessing from the football gods.”
“[He tells us if we get the ball on defense] we’re trying to score touchdowns out here. I was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
“One time at the end of practice I saw him trying to help a little wounded baby bird, and it was like the most sincere, kind thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Hager’s best reaction of media day came when I asked him who he liked better, Brando or Orlando. “Oh my God! This is the question of the century! Oh my goodness!” he exclaimed. “That’s insane.” Finally, the shock wore off and he answered: “I would say coach Todd Orlando because I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for him.”
The fact that Hager was sitting there was a blessing for all the reporters. And it also showed that the Texas program is taking on the swagger and identity that Herman’s Houston program had. Herman is demanding, but in a much different way than the Saban generation of autocrats. Herman grew up in Southern California wearing Vans and riding skateboards and aspiring to become, of all things, a sports talk radio show host. (Herman once during a baseball game at Division III Cal Lutheran got thrown out of the game by a portly umpire for playing the sound effect of an oinking pig to protest a questionable call).
That twinkle of mischief returned to Herman’s eyes on Tuesday as he reveled in the media going through the “Breckyn Hager experience.” If there’s a movie about this potential Texas turnaround, Herman has already identified the lead actor and defining scene.
“These guys are building an empire, a legitimate empire and I’m just trying my absolute hardest for building the foundation [with them],” Hager said. He added in the same soliloquy: “It’s going to be a lovely time for all of us who have been a part of some not so lovely times.”
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