AUSTIN, Texas -- When the Texas football team reconvened Jan. 17 after a longer-than-usual winter break, coach Mack Brown ordered his assistants to introduce themselves to the team. Whether it was a coach's first year or third year or 13th year, each introduction followed the same script.
By the end of the meeting, all the players, from the early enrollees to the rising seniors, had proclaimed Jan. 17 to be their first day at Texas. As symbolic gestures go, Brown's reintroduction to his team achieved the desired effect. "I thought we all needed to start over -- including me," Brown said. "I thought after 13 years, if I can't reinvent myself and this place and reset our goals ... then that's not fair to Texas."
Great gimmick, but those were only words. The reboot forced by a mystifying 5-7 season didn't truly become real until later that week, when players' bodies littered the floor for a half-hour as they recovered from their first taste of new strength coach Bennie Wylie's workouts, which somehow managed to cram the Longhorns' lifting and running routines into one hellish package. The new order didn't really present itself until the first day of spring practice, when defensive players noticed new coordinator Manny Diaz was wearing the same cleats they wore and was sprinting to the ball every play. "If I get to the ball first, then we're absolutely in trouble," Diaz said. "If I have to run far, then something really bad has happened."
Something really bad happened last year. Texas, a program better positioned to succeed than any other thanks to geography, history and wealth, couldn't even crack .500. Texas, which had won at least 10 games every year from 2001-09, stunk.
Why? So much ink and so many pixels have been used to try and explain how an elite program that can handpick top talent could take such a nosedive. It can't be explained in a few sentences. But some factors played a bigger role than others. On the field, Brown points to turnover ratio. The Longhorns were plus-three in their five wins and minus-15 in their seven losses. Off the field -- and this probably helped that turnover ratio get so lopsided -- complacency had invaded Austin like hipsters headed to the South by Southwest music festival. People in the program began to believe double-digit wins were a birthright instead of a goal to strive toward. "All of us probably thought we were going to win 10 games in the bad years," Brown said. "And in the good years, we were going to win 13 or 14. We started talking more about winning than the process."
So Brown pressed the reset button. On Dec. 6, 11 days after Texas A&M came to Austin and beat Texas 24-17 -- ensuring the 'Horns would not be bowl eligible -- offensive coordinator Greg Davis, offensive line coach Mac McWhorter and defensive tackles coach Mike Tolleson retired. The coaches, who had 112 years of experience among them, didn't choose the gold watch treatment. Six days later, Florida hired away defensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp. Brown didn't anticipate this, and he didn't want to lose Muschamp, but the move may have benefited both. Muschamp was ready to become a head coach and Brown wasn't ready to retire. So Muschamp got to lead his own program, while Brown could extend his staff makeover and simultaneously shed a coach-in-waiting arrangement that had turned into the burnt-orange elephant in the room. "There was more talk about when I would quit and when Will would take over than there was about turnover ratio," Brown said. "That's not healthy."
A 5-7 season didn't make Brown want to quit. On the contrary, it reminded him he still wanted to work. At the same time, the losses taught Brown that his approach had grown stale.
So Brown sought fresh ideas. Two days after Mississippi State demolished Michigan in the Gator Bowl, Diaz sat in a recruiting meeting in Starkville when his phone buzzed. Mack Brown would be calling later that day, the voice on the other end told Diaz. Diaz didn't want to leave Mississippi State. He had spent just one year there, he had some talented players coming back and he loved the direction in which Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen had taken the program.
But this was Texas.
"There might have only been one or two places I would have left for," Diaz said.
So Diaz, who graduated from Florida State in 1995 thinking he wanted a career in television, brought his unique approach to defense to Austin. At N.C. State, Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State, Diaz had improved defenses by designing schemes that looked more like offensive plays. His players loved his defense, and they thrived everywhere he went. Diaz also has a bit of Billy Beane (general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and of
Almost simultaneously, fresh ideas sought out Brown. After receiving a blessing from boss Chris Petersen, Boise State offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin contacted Brown shortly after Davis retired to express interest in the opening. After conducting interviews, Brown brought Harsin aboard to be the co-coordinator alongside running backs coach (and former Texas quarterback) Major Applewhite. Brown had long admired Boise State's offense, but not for the same reason the casual college football fan does. While untrained eyes get dazzled by the Broncos' trick plays, coaches marvel at an offense that averaged 200.2 yards rushing and 321.1 yards passing in 2010. Brown would have given a limb to have a feature back average 6.3 yards a carry the way Doug Martin did for Boise State last season. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2010 to transition away from the spread offense of the Vince Young and Colt McCoy eras, Brown hopes Harsin and new offensive line coach Stacy Searels can join Applewhite to make the Longhorns more balanced offensively.
In Diaz and Harsin, 34, Brown got what he wanted. Two cutting-edge minds who still have something to prove. "I wanted guys who were up-and-coming," Brown said. "They'll both be head coaches."
But they probably won't be head coaches at Texas, and everyone seems OK with that. When Texas hung the coach-in-waiting tab on Muschamp, the goal was to keep a great coordinator in Austin. But the arrangement wore on both men. Because a potential end to Brown's tenure had been put on paper, everyone wanted to know when the end would come. "If we'd had a one- or two-year limit on it, it would have been great," Brown said. "I think Will and I both would agree that it puts pressure on you if it's open-ended."
Besides, Brown never really wanted to retire. After taking some time to digest the season, Brown realized his agony in 2010 didn't spring from coaching burnout. It sprang from getting beaten. "It snowballed, and we didn't come out of it," Brown said. "We lost our confidence. We've played with a swagger around here, and that's what we've got to get back. We lost our fun. I didn't have fun. I was miserable all year. It wasn't fans. It wasn't media. It was losing. The kids weren't having fun. The coaches weren't having fun."
For players such as Gideon, the low point came when they watched the bowl season unfold from their couches instead of from a bowl site. "It was brutal," Gideon said. "I watched maybe the first half of the first bowl game and the second half of the national championship. I just started getting that sick feeling. That's all I could take."
Months later, talk of last season has all but evaporated. Every job is open, and Texas coaches don't intend
Gideon's coach feels the same. "It feels as much like me coming here in 1998 than at any other time since I've been here," Brown said. "There's a whole lot of new."
Now, the new blood and new ideas must help Texas return to its old habit of cranking out double-digit-win seasons. "We're a work in progress," Brown said. "We're not as good as we've been. ... There are as many question marks as we had the first year we were here. But we're going to be good again."