Do not get it twisted, Mack Brown is responsible for restoring a once struggling Texas football program to its place as a college football powerhouse. But, in the what-have-you-done for me lately culture of college football, the Longhorns 2009 Rose Bowl appearance feels like ancient history.
After a remarkable 69-9 run between 2004 and 2009, Brown and the Longhorns have fallen on hard times. Two embarrassing early losses, the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and the announcement of Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds' retirement has turned Brown's job status into a week-to-week soap opera, with the media and the fans waiting for the hammer to drop on one of the winningest active FBS coaches in college football history.
Then, Saturday's 36-20 upset over No. 12 Oklahoma looked like a new beginning for Texas. But it could very likely be Brown's Red River encore and the beginning of the end of the 16-year career at Texas for Mack Brown, one of the premier and most significant coaches in Texas Longhorns' history.
Bringing Tradition back to the 40-acres
Prior to Brown's arrival, the Texas Longhorns had an 11-year record of 72-54-2 under head coaches David McWilliams (1987-91) and John Mackovic (1992-97). After Mackovic finished the 1997 season with a 4-7 record—one of the Longhorns worst records in five decades—Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds made a decision that would change the entire landscape of Texas football.
Dodds hired Mack Brown, fresh off an 11-1 season at North Carolina, as the Texas Longhorns head coach on December 4th, 1997. Brown went straight to work, hiring a staff of veteran assistant coaches, reuniting with the Texas Lettermen and most importantly, rekindling the relationship with Texas High School football coaches.
"I have never seen anyone make friends better or quicker with the high school coaching community," Eddie Joseph, former VP of the Texas High School Coaches Association said. "Mack is amazing."
But Brown's off-the-field PR was only a fraction of what he brought to Texas.
The 1998 season did not start the way Brown may have envisioned. The Longhorns were 1-2, and Texas fans questioned if Dodds' made the right hire. "Eddie Joseph told me I couldn't find enough friends to be pall bearers at my funeral," Brown said of his 1-2 start in 1998.
Texas fought through the 1-2 start to finish the season 9-3 with a Cotton Bowl win over Mississippi State, the Longhorns second bowl win in a decade. Brown also had the opportunity to coach the Longhorns' second Heisman trophy winner, Ricky Williams, despite Williams' initial hesitance.
"I didn't really like him," Ricky Williams told the Waco Tribune. "I was partial to John Mackovic and Texas had fired Mackovic. I had pretty much made up my mind after my first conversation with [Brown] that I was leaving. But then we talked again, and the way he responded really caught my attention and made an impression on me. It opened the door for me to come back my senior year."
In their first conversation, Brown informed Williams of his hair policy, which conflicted with Williams' signature dreadlocks. "I sincerely think if we had told Ricky, you have to give up your hair style to stay here, he would have gone to the NFL," Brown said in Steve Richardson's book Ricky Williams, Dreadlocks to Ditka.
But Brown's wife, Sally, came to the rescue and reportedly convinced her husband to ease up on his hair style policy, according to Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com.
Williams' decision to stay for his senior year was the first sign of Brown's success at Texas. And Williams' 2,124 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns in his 1998 Heisman season was the picture-perfect beginning to Brown's legendary career.
Coach Brown has instilled a new kind of attitude in this team. It's not just being aggressive, it's about initiating a ‘whole team' philosophy. We've had a lot of ‘one-ness' on this team in the past, but now we're picking each other off the ground, giving each other high fives - something I've never seen before in the five years that I've been here. -- Ben Adams, Texas offensive guard (Via Ricky Williams, Dreadlocks to Ditka by Steve Richardson)
Charisma and enthusiasm had not been seen at Texas since the Darrell Royal glory years—more than two decades prior to Brown's hiring. But Brown's personality and ability to turn around a program immediately influenced both Longhorn players and Texas fans.
Brown helped bring pride back to the once divided Texas fan base. In his first three seasons, Texas upped its season-ticket base by more than 14,000, according to Texassports.com. Brown's success both on and off the field quickly captured the attention of the nation.
The Journey to the Top
The 2001 season was the first time the Longhorns finished with Top 10 AP ranking and 11 wins since 1983. It would not be the last.
Mack Brown's fourth season at Texas sparked the beginning of what would be a magical run of nine-straight double-digit win seasons, complete with multiple BCS bowl berths and two national championship appearances. But one of the most important wins came off the field after the 2001 season, when he signed Madison High School quarterback and the Rivals.com No. 1 overall prospect Vince Young.
Young's talent was not fully witnessed until 2004, when he led the Longhorns to an 11-1 record with six come-from-behind victories, including an epic last second 38-37 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Following the Longhorns Rose Bowl win, Young gave an early prediction of the Longhorns fate the following season.
"We'll be back," Young said when asked if Texas will make a second appearance in the BCS National Championship the next season in the Rose Bowl.
And he was right.
2005 was a fairy-tale season for Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns. Young helped Texas finish the season undefeated, and posted one of the best individual performances in the BCS National Championship game.
"Well, we couldn't stop them when we had to," USC coach Pete Carroll said following his team's 41-38 loss in the 2005 national championship. "The quarterback (Vince Young) ran all over the place."
When Young decided to forego his senior season and enter the 2006 NFL Draft, Brown looked to redshirt freshman Colt McCoy to fill Young's massive shoes. Unlike Young, McCoy was not a highly-touted recruit, but he embraced the role of the underdog in his breakout redshirt freshman season.
The once 3-star prospect (according to Rivals.com) continued his quest to prove the critics wrong by leading Texas to a 45-8 record during his four seasons as the Longhorns starting quarterback, including a 2008 win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, a Big 12 title and berth in the 2009 BCS National Championship game.
Unfortunately, the 2009 season did not have the storybook ending of 2005.
McCoy went down with a numb right arm in the Longhorns' first offensive drive of the national championship, which forced Brown to rely on true freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert to take the reins against Alabama's elite defense. The true freshman did all that he could in a game of that magnitude, but it was not enough as the Crimson Tide rolled the Longhorns 37-21.
Gilbert entering the national championship game and ending Texas' perfect season was the first sign of the rocky road that lied ahead for Brown.
The Fall from Grace
Following the Longhorns' loss to Alabama, Dennis Dodd asked Brown if Texas would have won had McCoy not left the game with an injury, to which Brown responded, "Wouldn't have been close." The what ifs flooded Mack Brown's brain after the 2009 season, so much that he lost focus of the future.
Texas abandoned the run game for a spread-attack with McCoy at quarterback. But when McCoy left the BCS title game against Alabama, Texas had zero run game to fall back on, which forced Brown to change the direction of the offense in 2010.
"With Colt we just went to spread passing offense, and then we just quit running it," Brown said in a 2010 Spring football press conference. "I was furious at the Colorado game that we walked out of there against a defense, which had not played great, and we could not make a 3rd-and-2. That is what we have to get back to."
It sounds good in theory, but Brown lacked two key factors in this offensive change: legitimate running backs and a talented offensive line. Those issues were just the beginning of the 2010 lacking Longhorns.
Texas was coming off of an eight-year span where upper-classmen leaders and quarterbacks led the summer workout programs. In the summer of 2005, Vince Young wrote on a bulletin board "If you want to beat Ohio State, meet me here every night at 7 p.m." The whole team showed up, everyday.
The summer program in 2010 lacked the accountability and leadership of years past, to say the least.
In July, the Longhorns lost a non-contact seven-on-seven meeting to then FCS Texas State. The Bobcats finished their 2010 season 4-7.
Texas entered the 2010 season ranked No. 5 in the nation, with high expectations among the coaches, players and fans. But what followed was one of the most epic collapses in the history of college football, triggering a difficult self-reflection of Brown and a complete overhaul of his staff.
The best example of the 2010 turmoil followed the Longhorns' October 23 loss to Iowa State. In post game, Brown said, "I'm fighting my guts out to get it turned. You've just got to stay after them every day. You can't trust your team. You can't trust your coaches when they're not getting things ready to go."
Mack's public post-game questioning of his team and coaches divided the Texas football program to the point of no return. Following the Longhorns' 5-7 season, Brown went into seclusion and sought guidance from family, friends and outside consultants on how to fix the issues at Texas moving forward.
"I felt like I had a hangover after the national championship game," Brown said of the 2009 BCS National Championship game. "I don't know if I've ever taken a loss so hard."
Brown's self-described hangover caused a ripple affect of six coaching changes following the 5-7 meltdown of 2010. But Brown was given the benefit of the doubt from his bosses—Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and University of Texas president Bill Powers—to rebuild the shattered foundation of the Texas football program.
Through all of the changes, Brown managed to hold together the Rivals.com third-ranked recruiting class in 2011 and sold the Texas fans on the idea of a brick-by-brick rebuild of Texas football. Some Texas fans bought in while others did not. But in the end, Brown finished his first rebuilding season with an 8-5 record and a speech at Texas football's annual banquet that set the tone of the Longhorns' future:
"A win (over Cal) in the Holiday Bowl will be a springboard to another national championship in the next two to three years."
Brown's 2012 season finished one win better than 2011, 9-5 with an upset over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.
Brown's remarks at the Longhorns 2011 football banquet pointed to the 2013-14 seasons as Texas' next national title runs. But after starting the 2013 season with a losing record heading into Big 12 conference play, the questions surrounding Texas football do not have to do with the Longhorns BCS national championship chances, but rather the chances of Texas slipping into the 2010 mentality in what could very likely be Brown's last hurrah as the Longhorns' head coach.
Can Mack Brown Avoid Another Downfall?
Just when the media and Bob Stoops were about to put the final nail in his coffin, good Ol' Mack Brown went out and beat the Oklahoma Sooners.
It remains unclear if the win was Brown's Red River encore and the beginning of the end of his 16-year tenure or just a blip on his career timeline. Time will tell.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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