What happened to the once-dominant Texas athletic program?

Tuesday October 8th, 2013

The Longhorns' football, basketball and baseball programs have all struggled in recent years.
George Frey/Getty Images

AUSTIN -- In January 2010, the Texas football team played Alabama in the BCS title game. The Longhorns' men's basketball team began the '09-10 season 17-0 and spent two weeks ranked No. 1. In the spring of '10, the baseball program earned a No. 2 national seed in the NCAA tournament.

Less than four years later, all of those programs have taken precipitous dives from their perches among the national elite. Earlier this fall, BYU and Ole Miss embarrassed Mack Brown's football team, showcasing the failures of the embattled coach's recent program overhauls. The men's basketball team missed the NCAA tournament last March for the first time in 14 seasons, and a flurry of defections have left it staring at the possibility of another lost season. The baseball team didn't reach the NCAA tournament two years ago and failed to qualify for the Big 12 tournament last year.

The recent announcement that longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds would retire makes it clear that Texas' athletic department is changing. University president William Powers Jr. said in a phone interview on Monday that he expects a new AD will be in place before the end of the football season. That person will soon face decisions regarding the three most prominent remaining members of the athletic department: Brown, basketball coach Rick Barnes and baseball coach Augie Garrido.

"We have had in some major sports over the last two or three years, for us, disappointing seasons," Powers said. "I understand the frustrations of our fans and our campus."

THAMEL: Potential candidates to become Texas' next athletic department leaders

The highest stakes surround the future of Brown, who faces a day of reckoning on Saturday when the Longhorns face No. 12 Oklahoma in the annual Red River Shootout in Dallas. A Texas loss would mark Brown's fourth consecutive defeat to the hated Sooners. (The Longhorns have lost the last two games by a combined score of 118-38). That's not good for a coach who makes $5.3 million a year and is signed through 2020.

"If it's like the last couple years, the gig is up," said a high-ranking Texas official of the Oklahoma game. "If [Brown] rallied and came back and won out, I still think there would be a possibility he'd still resign. I'm not sure he wants to work for another athletic director. My guess is this is his last season."

The Longhorns are still winning at the cash register, at least. Texas takes in more than $100 million from football annually, and its $163 million total athletic department revenue from 2011-12 is the highest of any school in the nation. The school also just began a 20-year, $300-million contract with the Longhorn Network. But its three highest-profile sports have offered little quality viewing of late.

Tthe biggest priority during the next wave of changes will be the protection of all that revenue. It's expected that the new athletic director will have more business experience than Dodds, who came from a traditional athletics background. But here's the vexing question: Who will actually be making the decisions?

Will it be Powers? The university president has spent the past two years locked in an ugly battle with governor Rick Perry. Will it be the Board of Regents? Four recent Perry appointees have attempted to oust Powers, giving him little leeway with the nine-person board. Will it be the new AD? While insisting to SI.com that he doesn't get involved with Texas politics, Brown offered a reminder that former regent Tom Hicks hired him in 1997. (Dodds was hot on Gary Barnett.)

"There's four regents out of nine who would fire Bill Powers tomorrow," the high-ranking Texas official said. "There's a lot of distrust in all of this."

The political tensions spilled over into the sports pages in Austin on Sept. 19 when The Associated Press broke a story that said that Hicks and regent Wallace Hall had spoken by phone in January with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban's agent. What looked worse? The regent going rogue to engage with Saban's agent? Or the timing of the leak, which came at the lowest point of Brown's 16-year tenure in Austin?

During a lengthly interview with SI.com before he announced his retirement on Oct. 1, Dodds offered some insight into the mindset that perhaps landed the Longhorns in this position in the first place.

"We're Texas," Dodds said. "We're always going to be fine."

How did we get here?

The Longhorns' spiral from widespread athletic prominence to the depths of uncertainty has an obvious flash point. It came on Jan. 7, 2010, in the first quarter of the BCS championship game against Alabama in Pasadena, Calif. Quarterback Colt McCoy had led Texas to an undefeated 2009 season -- including the team's last victory over Oklahoma -- and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. But on the Longhorns' fifth offensive play, Crimson Tide defensive lineman Marcell Dareus crushed McCoy, ending his night with a nerve injury in his (right) throwing shoulder.

"We win the game with Colt, no question," Dodds said, his confidence as sharp as the creases in his jeans. "We win the game. That's two national championships in a five-year period."

Instead, Texas lost 37-21. And the Longhorns are still searching for a reliable replacement for McCoy. His backup that night, highly touted recruit Garrett Gilbert, pulled Texas to within 24-21 in the fourth quarter. But that comeback quickly fizzled, much in the same way that Gilbert's career did before he transferred to SMU two seasons later.

In the years since, the Longhorns haven't been able to find their footing. They have been impotent on offense and uninspired on defense, going 5-7, 8-5 and 9-4, respectively, in each of the last three seasons. Any hints of progress toward the end of the 2012 campaign were blowtorched by September losses to BYU and Ole Miss. Texas gave up a staggering 550 rushing yards to the Cougars, and allowed Rebels tailback Jeff Scott to average 8.6 yards per carry. (Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz a day after the BYU game.) Instead of turning down the heat, a controversial victory at Iowa State last Thursday actually made Brown's status even more tenuous.

The coach's departure is seen as a foregone conclusion by most Longhorns' fans, but the noise doesn't concern Brown.

"What I want to do is win games and do it within the rules, and I want to help these young men lead better lives when they leave here," Brown said. "I don't care about the rest of it."

After losing to Alabama in the 2010 BCS title game, Mack Brown's Longhorns have fallen fast.
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The basketball team's demise has been more abrupt, and Texas administrators speak most openly about their concern for the future of the program. Barnes has just one upperclassman among his 10 scholarship players after the departure of the Longhorns' four leading scorers from last season, all of whom had two years of eligibility remaining.

"I worry more about basketball," Dodds said. "If I were going to pick one [program] to worry more about, I worry more about basketball."

Added the high-ranking Texas official: "I can't imagine [Barnes] turning it around."

Star point guard Myck Kabongo declared for the NBA last April as expected. But the transfers of guards Julien Lewis (Fresno State) and Sheldon McClellan (Miami) -- and the departure of forward Ioannis Papapetrou to play professionally in Greece -- have left the Longhorns bereft of talent. Recruiting has gone dry, too, as none of Texas' four incoming scholarship players ranked among Scout.com's top 100 prospects in the class of 2013.

This is a new development for Barnes. At 59, he's the Longhorns' all-time winningest basketball coach, with a record of 358-155 in 15 years. During that time, he's lured elite talent -- T.J. Ford, Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others -- to Austin, and reached the 2003 Final Four.

"I can't put my finger on it or pinpoint exactly, but we're not getting Texas kids," Dodds said. "We've had a lot of kids come into the program that are pretty good players that have left, not to go to the NBA."

Texas hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 2008, and the criticisms of Barnes have evolved. He used to be viewed as a coach who didn't maximize the talent of players like Durant, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton. Now, people wonder if Barnes is still fully engaged in the program.

"They were the least competitive Texas team, in terms of winning and competing, that I'd seen," said a veteran Big 12 coach of the Longhorns in 2012-13. "They used to have rugged, physical dudes who playing for Texas mattered to them. Last year, they just folded, like a lot of guys on the team didn't care if they won or not."

Baseball has had the most success of the school's big three programs. Garrido, 74, has the most wins of any coach in college baseball history, including five College World Series titles (two at Texas). Still, the Longhorns have struggled over the last two years. Garrido's DUI arrest in 2009 didn't help matters.

However, a recent recruiting uptick has Dodds optimistic. "I think we can win a national championship this year," he said.

The simultaneous decline of Texas' three most high-profile programs has led to questions about administrative accountability. Until making a track hire this summer, Dodds hadn't replaced a men's head coach at the school since 2002. (Dodds doesn't technically oversee women's sports, as the school has a separate athletic director, Chris Plonsky, for women's sports.) The university has been criticized for forcing women's track coach Bev Kearney out of her job for having an inappropriate relationship with a former female track athlete, as well as for not ousting Longhorns offensive coordinator Major Applewhite for having an inappropriate encounter with a female student trainer. Kearney is reportedly planning a discrimination suit against the school. "I'm not supposed to talk about that," Dodds said.

The combination of accountability problems the question: Has everyone simply gotten too comfortable?

"I've fired a lot of people, and it's not about being able to do it, it's about knowing it's the right thing to do," Dodds said. "The day before I leave, if I needed to do something I'd do it."

There will be plenty of difficult choices to make in the months ahead, but the rapid decline under Dodds makes it almost certain that he won't have a big voice in making them.

"My guess is in the next 12 months, you'll see a new football, basketball and probably a new baseball coach," said the high-ranking Texas official. "There's going to a changing of the guard."

Football gone soft

The prism through which Brown is viewed by Longhorns fans is not the career-long one, as he has won nearly 77 percent of his games and won a national title with Texas in 2005, the school's first since 1970. Instead, Brown is judged on his recent shortcomings -- and his team's diminishing standing in the Big 12.

But the biggest indictment of Brown is how he is viewed by others in the Big 12. Many coaches and administrators around the conference are fearful of the day when Brown finally leaves the Longhorns. They worry that a coach will come in who will be able to maximize all of the program's resources and proceed to dominate the league. (The same can be said about the Texas AD position, as well.)

No one is benefitting from Texas' decline more than former Big 12 rival Texas A&M. The Aggies have rocketed past the Longhorns in the polls, lapped Texas in the 2013 recruiting rankings and claimed significant recent fundraising victories since joining the SEC last season. The Thanksgiving slot on Texas A&M's schedule once reserved for the Longhorns now belongs to LSU, and the institutional desire at A&M to play Texas in football has disappeared. "We've got new playmates," said John Sharp, the chancellor of the Texas A&M system, "and we like them a lot."

For all of Brown's success, he has won just two Big 12 titles in 15 seasons. Rival Bob Stoops has won eight in 14 seasons at Oklahoma. Even Baylor and Oklahoma State, two programs that Texas has traditionally dominated, have recently passed the Longhorns in the conference. So what happened?

The quarterback position has been the most glaring problem. But interviews with people at Texas, with NFL personnel and with opposing coaches indicate that the issues go deeper than a lack of talent. As the quarterback situation went into flux and the players slipped from elite to merely very good, the atmosphere of complacency at the highest reaches of the athletic department began to trickle down.

The contentment was most evident in the team's strength program. As evidence of lackluster training regimens, sources at the school cited everything from cramping and conditioning issues to the recent rash of soft tissue injuries that plagued stars such as Jaxon Shipley, Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat. One source called the soft tissue injuries -- strains, pulls and tears -- a "crisis," something Brown often complains about but hasn't done enough to address.

Texas brought in former Tennessee and Texas Tech strength coach Bennie Wylie in 2011 to specifically work with the football program. But people familiar with the team say that in order for Wylie's program to work, the head coach needs to give it urgency and hold people accountable for following it -- two things they say Brown has not done. This has led to undeveloped prospects, unfulfilled potential and a high transfer rate. After Diaz got fired in September, former Longhorns safety Kenny Vaccaro offered this frank assessment to the Times-Picayune: "I blame maybe some of the recruiting and some of the type of players they're bringing in," he said, later adding, "I think the mentality at Texas isn't where it needs to be right now."

Brown essentially admitted that the program went soft after a 5-7 season in 2010, pointing to inadequacies in the strength program in particular. But a subsequent makeover, which included bringing in two new coordinators, has yet to yield dramatic changes. Multiple scouts interviewed by SI.com mentioned a "spoiled mentality," a "country club" atmosphere and a chronic failure to take advantage of local talent resources.

University of Texas president William Powers (center) has clashed with the school's Board of Regents.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Gil Brandt is so close to Brown that the Longhorns coach is godfather to Brandt's son, Hunter. Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive, said he's told Brown that his evaluation system has slipped, with a major issue stemming from getting prospects to commit too early. Brandt said that Brown has recruited well but failed to target the right guys.

An NFL scout who asked to remain anonymous, concurred: "In the state of Texas, it's a crime that they don't do better in terms of talent. They don't look very talented this year. Where's the Derrick Johnson? They have a guy here and one there. They used to have the whole secondary and linebackers full of guys. They don't have any linebackers or offensive linemen."

The Longhorns haven't had an offensive lineman selected in the NFL draft since 2008. Their last offensive lineman to go in the first round was Mike Williams in 2002. Former Eagles scout John Middlekauff said that Texas has a reputation in the NFL of having a "soft mentality," adding that there's "always a piece missing" with Longhorns players.

As the losses have piled up, Brown's biggest strengths are now being perceived as weaknesses. His accessibility, political savvy and personal touch have helped him through rocky times in the past. He remembers names, asks about people's spouses and, in a business of full of coach-speak, has kept a personal touch.

While Texas' on-field performance has slipped, Brown's off-field demands have also increased. Every Monday, Brown has media obligations from 9:50 a.m. to 3 p.m. He spends time on Tuesday and Wednesday dealing with Longhorn Network shows focused on Texas practices, and he has an hour-long radio show simulcast on Wednesday. On Thursday, he does a 30-minute television show that takes approximately an hour to tape.

Mention these obligations to ADs and agents around the nation and they'll laugh out loud. In fact, many at Texas worry that the media obligations could dissuade a more reclusive (Boise State's Chris Petersen) or single-minded (Saban) coach from accepting the job. Dodds said Brown made alterations to the demands on his time this offseason, but acknowledged the complexities that come with being the Longhorns coach.

"When Mack came in here, he was probably as ready for this job as anyone I've ever seen," Dodds said. "And he wasn't ready. This is a big job. Now with the network and all those things, it's a bigger job. When the time comes when Mack isn't doing this, finding that person to do this is going to be tough."

The rest of the athletic department may find change difficult, too. A hard reset is coming.

"If Nick Saban came to this place it would implode," said a Texas official. "There's been a lot of people doing things the same way for a long time."

Political background

At the conclusion of Texas' 31-21 win over Kansas State on Sept. 21, Powers found Brown in the end zone and the pair locked in a warm embrace. Texas had been blown out the two previous weeks and lost five straight games to the Wildcats, which only heightened the level of postgame emotion.

That the two men hugged after such an unremarkable Longhorns victory underscores the relationship between Powers and Brown. Powers isn't anxious to run Brown off, largely because he likes Brown and is pleased with his clean NCAA record. Brown's relationship with Powers also means that the chances of him getting fired in an airport terminal, à la former USC coach Lane Kiffin, are slim. Brown will likely walk away on his own, and if it takes some nudging, it probably won't get to the point where the university publicly fires him.

"During my presidency, I've got to know him and consider him a friend," Powers said of Brown. "He's done wonders for our athletic program and football program and done it with integrity."

Money won't be an issue with Brown's departure. Texas will owe him less than $3 million in buyout money. This is a stunningly low number for a coach who is owed more than $35 million through 2020. A typical contract would guarantee 60 to 75 percent -- more than $20 million in Brown's case.

A more realistic scenario than any drama at an airport involves Brown calling a press conference and walking away. He has a bright future in television, and it is easy to imagine him appearing on ESPN next season. Brown's critics will point to his media schedule and say he's already evolved into an analyst.

That exit strategy could change if Powers is no longer president, something that's unlikely but not out of the question. Powers said the decision-making process for hiring an athletic director will be typical of then one used when the school hires a dean, i.e., it will be done in consultation with the Board of Regents.

At the university level, Texas is openly described as "dysfunctional," given all the tension among members of the board. The board chair, Paul L. Foster, is a Baylor graduate who has donated more than $30 million to his alma mater and $50 million to Texas Tech. The more recent appointees of governor Perry are his political and financial allies. Perry, a Texas A&M graduate and hands-on Aggies super fan, has openly clashed with Powers about such issues as reduced tuition and increased enrollment.

"A lot of it is a very strange situation," said the high-ranking Texas official. "The governor is a dyed-in-the-wool Aggie; he was a yell leader for A&M. If Texas is having problems, it's not anything that he stays up at night worrying about."

The public face of board dysfunction has become Hall, who is facing possible impeachment. Before the Saban flap became public, Hall requested 100,000 pages of public documents related to Powers' tenure. The president's allies assert that this was done to embarrass and undermine Powers, as Hall dug up such innocuous information as admissions favors, and which legislators Powers had provided with Longhorns football tickets.

"I get up every day and come and do my job on the campus," Powers said when asked about Perry and the Board of Regents. "I don't think it's fruitful to get into all of that."

Powers still has clout nationally -- Cal-Berkeley recently named him Alumnus of the Year -- and he'll soon become the chair of the prestigious Association of American Universities. But the fractured state of the board certainly isn't helping the university. It fell six places in the latest U.S. News & World Report academic rankings.

"You have a bunch of guys on the board who have no loyalty to UT," said longtime Texas Monthly political writer Paul Burka. "Their loyalty is to Perry, and that's what they were chosen for. It's just been a catastrophe for UT."

Perry has announced he's not running for re-election, and his term will end in January 2015. Whether Powers can last that long -- or cares to -- will remain a major subplot in Texas politics.

As the Longhorns have dropped in the rankings, the school and the athletic department find themselves in unusual spots. A university that once served as a model for schools around the country is now riddled with uncertainty. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the doses of humility.

"I think sometimes getting your ass kicked is good," Dodds said. "It's good for coaches and good for kids. It's good for everybody. Getting your ass kicked is not the right word. What's the right word? Getting beat. Being humbled. I think everyone needs that."

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