Staples: Despite his popularity, Mack Brown had to go
maintained popularity in the Texas
locker room, but the team's performance led to his firing.
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- The girl couldn't have been older than 6. She stood in a tunnel beneath the Alamo Dome on Monday night with the rest of the families of the Texas football staff. She wore a Texas cheerleader costume. She had heard enough.
"There's just too much people crying," she yelled to her mother as tears fell all around her. Mack Brown had just given his final address to the Longhorns in a locker room so stuffed that cornerback Carrington Byndum and safety Mykkele Thompson had to stand outside the doors and crane their necks to hear even the tiniest hint of Brown's voice. After he spoke, they clapped. They didn't roar. They didn't wail. It sounded more like the applause a golfer hears when he taps in for par after lipping out his birdie putt.
Moments earlier, Brown had walked off the field, his right arm raised, his index and pinky fingers pointed to the sky in that universal Longhorn salute known as Hook 'Em. Burnt orange-clad fans crowded around the opening and cheered through their final glimpse of Brown as the Texas coach. They yelled like people cheering a monumental victory.
Texas had just lost the Alamo Bowl to Oregon. The score was 30-7.
In that tunnel, amid those crying folks who so vexed the little girl in the cheerleader costume, it became clear why this had taken so long. As Brown's wife, Sally, stood at the doors of the locker room and hugged every person who walked out or as player after player embraced Brown, the love radiated. Brown had built a loyal football family at Texas. Partly because it was his gift and partly because they loved him so much, he had made them believe for the past few years that he could pull the Longhorns out of the spin that began in 2010.
On that field, Brown and his team made it painfully clear why things ended this way. Quarterback Case McCoy, who was pressed into action early in the season after a concussion felled opening-day starter David Ash, threw a pick-six to Avery Patterson on the Longhorns' opening drive. After going down by 10, Texas showed signs of life with a 16-play touchdown drive that featured 52 of tailback Malcolm Brown's 113 first-half rushing yards. He got 40 more of them on a first-down run late in the second quarter. Then, inexplicably, Texas coaches called three consecutive passes. All fell incomplete. Texas punted, and Oregon zipped 88 yards on seven plays in 84 seconds to tack on another touchdown before the half.
After Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone returned McCoy's second pick-six with 8:55 remaning, the stands began to empty. Retiring Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, not Brown, would get the fitting sendoff. Aliotti's defense outscored the Texas offense. Quarterback Marcus Mariota played quite well. He was the best player on the field, in fact. But the saddest part of Mack Brown's swan song is that even if Oregon's vaunted offense hadn't set foot on the field, Texas still would have lost.
That's not entirely true. The saddest part, as it is whenever a coach gets fired, was watching the families of the staffers stand around wondering what comes next. While fans may celebrate a firing because it brings new hope, the act has a very real effect on a lot of non-millionaires who now must find new jobs, sell their homes and explain to their children why they must uproot their lives. Brown will be fine. If he wants to coach again, someone probably will hire him. If he doesn't, Texas will pay him a princely sum for the next seven years to do pretty much whatever he wants. It won't be so easy for those further down the organizational chart.
But the Alamo Bowl made abundantly clear why the power brokers at Texas had worked behind the scenes for at least a year to oust Brown. The coach of the wealthiest football program in America, with access to his choice of players from one of America's top recruiting hotbeds, had fielded a fourth consecutive mediocre team. They expect better at Texas, and they expect it because Mack Brown made them expect it. It was Brown who inherited an apathetic program following the 1997 season and turned it into a juggernaut.
"He made the program nationally relevant," said Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who played quarterback for Brown from 1998-2001. Brown won Big 12 titles in 2005 and 2009. With the help of quarterback Vince Young, he won the national title in 2005. From 2001-09, Texas won at least 10 games every season. Thanks to Brown and athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who was forced out earlier this year in very much the same fashion as Brown, Texas filled its stadium, filled its coffers and became the envy of every other program in the nation. "He should hold his head high," Applewhite said, "understanding that he absolutely changed the face of that program."
But since losing the BCS title game following the 2009 season, Texas hasn't broken the double-digit win barrier. Texans Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel have shot to stardom at quarterback for other schools while the Longhorns have searched in vain for worthy successors to Young and Colt McCoy. Oregon didn't play its best game Monday. If it had, the game would have been a bloodbath. But it was quite obvious that there was one elite program slumming it in a non-BCS bowl and one program that belonged there. Oregon may have Nike and Phil Knight, but give the resources at Texas and the geographical advantage, the Ducks should never have the better program. At the moment, Oregon has a much better program than Texas.
That can change quickly, though. Texas has all those resources, and the Longhorns bring back some excellent players. Ash should be ready to play again next season. Freshman quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, who played a few series Monday, will be older and could push Ash for the starting job. Sophomore defensive tackle Malcom Brown will be back. So will sophomore tailback Johnathan Gray. If athletic director Steve Patterson -- or the search firm he hired or the former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein -- finds the correct coach, Texas can come roaring back. Plus, these players have heard for a while that their coach needs to go. They might respond better to a coach who has unconditional support. Monday, I asked Applewhite how hard the last two months have been for the players. "The last two months? Try the last three years," he said. "It's been hard. Seriously, it's been tumultuous. Quite honestly, the three and a half, four hours that they play each week is about the only damn peace and quiet they get."
If the hire -- which should happen sometime in the next two weeks -- goes well, everyone will be pulling in the same direction. Brown hopes to see that for the sake of his now-former players. "Sometimes you get to a point," Brown said. The last time Texas reached that point was when John Mackovic was fired and Brown was hired. "We got here and the fan base needed to be pulled together because it was very divided in 1997. We pulled them together. We had a great run," Brown said. "But the BBs got out of the box. Now there's some for you, some against you. That's not fair to these guys. They need to have positive energy all the time. That's what I want for them. I'm excited to get back to that."
Brown won't be the one who brings the Longhorns back to that point. He created this monster, and it grew too big for him to manage. Now, someone else will attempt to add to the foundation Brown so ably laid. All those tears Monday served as a reminder of just how much Brown did for Texas. All those points on the wrong side of the scoreboard Monday served as a reminder of why the Longhorns had to make the change that made those tears fall.