The University of Texas at Austin has been home to some of the most influential figures in science, politics, sports and film, among other fields. And those influencers have a habit of delivering memorable speeches full of inspiration, wit and rallying cries to change the world.
We’ve gathered five of our favorites below, plus two extra not-quite-a-speech clips that just couldn’t be ignored.
And while these individuals each made their own way, we hope their time on the Forty Acres helped shaped their story. After all, it was Congresswoman, UT professor and incredible speaker Barbara Jordan (included below) who once said:
“I get from the soil and spirit of Texas the feeling that I, as an individual, can accomplish whatever I want to, and that there are no limits, that you can just keep going, just keep soaring. I like that spirit.”
Kevin Durant Accepting the NBA Most Valuable Player Award
“Basketball is just a platform for me to inspire people.”
The NBA called it “one of the greatest MVP acceptance speeches of all time.” In his tearful address, Durant, who played one season at Texas before entering the NBA draft, thoughtfully calls out each of his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates and the specific ways they make him a better player. He also thanks the coaching staff for helping him “grow as a man first and a basketball player next.” But it’s the tribute to his mom who became a single mother at age 18 that brings the house down and the crowd to its feet. “You’re the real MVP,” he tells her.
“[Durant’s] sincerity was felt by anyone who viewed his speech,” says Daron Roberts, B.A. ’01, director of UT’s new Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation, which supports coaches in helping young athletes to succeed on and off the field as responsible citizens. “Our alum recognizes the visibility of his persona and has chosen to use that influence for good.”
Roberts adds that Durant’s appreciation for being coached as both a man and an athlete reveal the enormous influence coaches can have on an athlete’s life. Stories like Durant’s are a big part of why the new center was created. “We recognize the unique position that coaches have in our society,” Roberts says. “At our core, we are here to help coaches fulfill their mission of transforming lives for the benefit of society.”
Naval Adm. William McRaven Addressing the UT Class of 2014
“Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often, but if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up if you do these things, the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today and what started here will indeed have changed the world for the better.”
In May, McRaven, B.J. ’77, a former Navy SEAL and the new University of Texas System chancellor, delivered one of the year’s most popular commencement speeches (nearly 3 million YouTube views and counting). His 10 life lessons to change the world drawn from the grueling experience of SEAL training have been praised not only as spot-on advice for recent graduates to follow but also as words by which everyone should live. Inc. magazine named it the year’s best commencement address.
Barbara Jordan Delivering the Keynote at the 1976 Democratic National Convention
“A spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers … when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.”
Before spending 17 years teaching at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan captivated the country with her oratory and devotion to civil rights. She was a woman of many firsts: the first African American since Reconstruction to serve in the Texas Senate and the first African-American woman from the South to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1976 she became the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention. In her opening remarks she tells the convention, “I feel that, notwithstanding the past, that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”
Her speech, which addressed the themes of unity, equality, accountability and American ideals, was considered by many to be the highlight of the convention and helped rally support for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
Matthew McConaughey Accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor
“So, to any of us, whatever those things are, whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to, and whoever it is we’re chasing. To that I say: Amen. To that I say, All right, all right, all right. To that I say, just keep living.”
In 2014 McConaughey, B.S. ’93, won the Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic turn in the film “Dallas Buyers Club,” but his acceptance speech was more akin to the folksy philosophy he spouted in “Dazed and Confused,” the film that launched his career two decades ago. (McConaughey was still a student when he was discovered for the film, which was shot in Austin by 2015 Oscar nominee and Austinite Richard Linklater.) His final line in the speech even quotes the movie directly, specifically his own character.
McConaughey, a longtime UT football supporter delivered another memorable speech last year when he stopped by the Longhorns football practice in September to share a few words of wisdom with the team.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifying in the U.S. Senate about Funding NASA
“How much would you pay for the universe?”
Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, M.A. ’83, is director of the Hayden Planetarium and perhaps the country’s most well known scientist. He was a favorite guest of Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report,” named People magazine’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive,” and in 2014 he hosted the reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980 science documentary television series “Cosmos.”
Tyson is known for his ability to captivate audiences, discussing the poetry of science, explaining the compatibility of science and faith, and contemplating the wonder of the universe.
He even manages to be charismatic when testifying before Congress. In this 2012 testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Tyson argues that funding space exploration is key to fueling the U.S. economy and advancing the country’s overall scientific achievements.
“When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions,” he says. Calling for an increase in NASA’s budget, Tyson declares, “Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night.”
Finally, these two moments from a pair of legendary Longhorns prove that you can deliver a big message even without a big speech.
Lady Bird Johnson Quieting Protesters
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“My friends, this is a country of free speech, and I respect your opinion. But this is my time to speak my mind.”
In 1964 Lady Bird Johnson, B.A. ’33, B.J. ’34, hit the campaign trail in support of her husband’s presidential bid. She set out on a four-day, eight-state whistle stop train tour to try and win back Southern voters who were angry about LBJ’s recently passed civil rights legislation. At each stop, Mrs. Johnson addressed the crowd from a platform on the last car of the train, dubbed the “Lady Bird Special.”
One of the most notable moments from the tour, however, came at the stop in Columbia, South Carolina, when Lady Bird went off script in response to people protesting the Civil Rights Act. In the clip, she begins speaking at the 12:35 mark and graciously but powerfully responds to the protesters at 17:30.
Walter Cronkite Questioning the Vietnam War
“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Known as “the most trusted man in America,” CBS News anchor and UT alumnus Walter Cronkite famously criticized continued U.S. military action in Vietnam during his broadcast on February 27, 1968.
Having recently returned to the U.S. after reporting from Vietnam, Cronkite tells the nation, “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
President Johnson is said to have remarked afterward that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country. A few weeks later Johnson announced he would not run for reelection.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Persac and Megan Scarborough