Despite ugly exit, Mack Brown's Texas tenure defined by success
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, then 61, announced his retirement in December 1997 just a few weeks before leading the Cornhuskers to their third national title in four years. "I thought it was probably wise to back off, before someone tells you you have to go," said Osborne.
If only more coaches were so prescient.
Most, like legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, tend to stay for too long. Coaches are competitors with massive egos. No matter how bad a team's downturn, they're convinced they're just one prized recruiting class or one new coordinator from turning things around. They spend their days surrounded by supportive staff, then go home at night to even more supportive families. They're not deaf to the masses calling for their heads, but, in many cases, that only makes them more defiant.
Texas' Mack Brown, resigning after 16 seasons, stayed for too long. His once-dominant program lost its way, and no matter how many assistants he fired, no matter how many rosy interviews he gave, the Longhorns could not climb back among college football's elite. Even after humbling early-season losses to BYU (40-21 on Sept. 7) and Ole Miss (44-23 on Sept. 14) in 2013, and after emails leaked about regents plotting to replace him with Alabama coach Nick Saban, Brown refused to go quietly. The fact the 'Horns actually entered their regular-season finale at Baylor on Dec. 7 with a shot at the Big 12 title likely emboldened him, even as the rest of the football world saw an underachieving team mired in its fourth straight campaign with four or more losses.
It would have been better for all involved had Brown taken a cue from another former national championship coach, Michigan's Lloyd Carr, who announced his retirement on Nov. 19, 2007, two days after the conclusion of a regular season in which the Wolverines lost to Appalachian State and got crushed by Oregon and Ohio State. He was promptly feted like a hero before and after the Wolverines' Capital One Bowl upset of Florida. Today, most Michigan faithful remember Carr fondly for his 13 years of service. One would never know he was a lightning rod for criticism during the latter part of his tenure.
Will history eventually be kind to Brown once the ugliness of his ouster subsides? It should be. His accomplishments dwarf those of all but a handful of his contemporaries. For nearly an entire decade, from 2001-09, Texas never won fewer than 10 games. It claimed one national title ('05), played for another ('09) and won two other BCS bowls (the Rose in '04, the Fiesta in '08). The Longhorns finished in the top six of the polls in six of nine seasons.
A who's who of college and NFL stars came through Austin during that span: Roy Williams, Casey Hampton, Quentin Jammer, Cedric Benson, Derrick Johnson, Nathan Vasher, Vince Young, Michael Huff, Jamaal Charles and Colt McCoy. In total, 16 first-round draft picks and 52 All-Americas played under Brown at Texas. Brown's program was an absolute juggernaut at its peak.
Not that everyone saw it that way.
Brown went 158-47 (.771) overall, but he went just 7-9 against rival Oklahoma. Sooners coach Bob Stoops was the source of many of Brown's most heinous indignities. Oklahoma had a thing for not only beating the 'Horns, but embarrassing them, by scores such as 65-13 (2003) and 63-21 ('12), respectively. While Stoops has won eight Big 12 titles in 15 seasons, Brown won just two in 16. Kansas State's Bill Snyder retired for three years, came back and has the same number of conference rings as Brown. Can a coach be considered one of the greats in his sport when he's arguably not one of the two best in his own league?
That debate can go on for eternity. However, there's no disputing the impact Brown had on not only the Longhorns program, but also the university and the state.
Today, Texas is regarded as one of the sport's most powerful names, particularly considering the muscle it flexed a few years ago in conference realignment, the launch of the Longhorn Network and its unrivaled revenue spigot. "All the money that is not up at the Vatican is at UT," booster Red McCombs joked this week. Yet at the time Brown arrived from North Carolina in 1998, Texas was not exactly one of the sport's premier brands. In the Longhorns' previous 14 seasons, they averaged 6.5 wins and failed to finish in the top 10. Brown's predecessor, John Mackovic, had managed to alienate the entire state.
Brown changed that culture quickly with a heavy dose of folksy salesmanship. The Tennessee native fully immersed himself in all things Texas: the tradition, the boosters, the Friday Night Lights culture. With Ricky Williams' 1998 Heisman Trophy season serving as a catalyst, Brown immediately established himself as an unparalleled recruiter, landing the nation's No. 1 class in '99 (highlighted by national players of the year Chris Simms and Cory Redding) and quickly turning Texas into the "it" school among top Lone Star State prospects.
While it would be a few years before he produced a team that lived up to those sterling recruiting rankings, 'Horns fans were hooked. According to Orangebloods.com, season-ticket sales at Royal-Memorial Stadium jumped from 38,100 in 1998 to as many as 84,500 in 2010. The stadium expanded by 20,000 seats and underwent multiple renovations. Brown, of course, was the face of all the fundraising efforts.
Brown's uber nice guy personality -- always responding to reporters by name, referencing his wife, Sally, at every possible opportunity -- was unique in a profession full of closed off, socially awkward savants. In some ways, it helped stave off closer scrutiny of his program's shortcomings. In others, it worked against him.
Even when he won a national championship, Brown lacked a specific X's-and-O's identity like Chip Kelly's or Gus Malzahn's offenses, or Saban's vaunted defenses. "Ambassador" was the word most commonly used to describe his management style. Brown hired a string of then-renowned defensive coordinators (Greg Robinson, Gene Chizik, Will Muschamp) and -- for his first 13 years at the helm -- entrusted the offense to the oft-maligned Greg Davis, a frequent punching bag despite mentoring two quarterbacks who went on to become Heisman finalists. Brown received ample credit for recruiting the likes of Young and Benson, but almost none for their development. People assumed that if a coach recruits top-five classes every year, the assembly machine simply perpetuates itself.
Clearly that's not the case, or the 'Horns would have kept rolling forever. Instead, they precipitously plunged from a 2009 campaign in which they went 13-1 and landed a spot in the BCS championship game to a '10 season in which they finished a disappointing 5-7. Brown tried all manner of reinventions, including overhauling his coaching staff and overhauling the offense (twice). But though Texas gradually made some progress (it went 8-5 in '11 and 9-4 in '12), something was still missing. A quarterback, for one thing. But more significantly, the Longhorns lost their edge.
All around them, the landscape was changing. Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Manziel transformed Texas A&M into the state's new "it" program. Art Briles and Robert Griffin III made longtime Big 12 doormat Baylor relevant. Oklahoma slipped but continued to win 10 games every year.
There was hope that Texas would return to glory this season behind a veteran roster, but when BYU quarterback Taysom Hill made mincemeat of the 'Horns' defense in Week 2 -- prompting Brown to fire defensive coordinator Manny Diaz the next day -- it was clear Brown would not be back in 2014. It was just a matter of the mechanics. Deeper problems and political infighting at the school and in the state, along with the accelerated retirement of Brown's longtime advocate, athletic director DeLoss Dodds, helped turn a coaching change into a full-on soap opera.
All of that is still raw as Brown's final days play out. He'll coach the Longhorns one last time in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30 against Oregon in what will likely be three and a half hours of televised adulation. But for now, the sport is more fixated on his possible replacement. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the coaching searches.
Still, don't expect Brown to ride off into the sunset. He'll likely remain a highly visible figure in the sport. He's already been a part-time television host as the Texas coach, and most expect he'll transition into a full-time media role -- perhaps as the next Lee Corso? -- beginning next season.
With time, the public will move on from these ugly past few months and all of the recent drama. The Longhorns fan base will throw their support behind the new coach. Given some distance, there will likely be a long-term appreciation for the Mack Brown era of Texas football beyond what accompanied it in real time. History is usually kinder to successful coaches than the present, and more forgiving of those who stayed past their prime.