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October 17, 2012
The dilemma facing Texas and Mack Brown
If you're a Texas fan and are going to start reading this, make sure you read all the way to the end. There will be times when you want to give up, think you've read it all before or would rather be cleaning your toilets. But stick with me.
Even if the season goes sideways, with Texas finishing 7-5, 6-6 or worse, with much of the UT fan base threatening to boycott the program under Mack Brown; with the national media suddenly comparing Mack to Paterno and Bowden in their twilights; Mack Brown will still be the coach at Texas in 2013.
Yes, in spite of the 7-13 Big 12 record the past three years (seven of those losses by double-digits); the makings of the worst statistical defense in Texas history; and a third straight loss to OU, with the last two by an average of 40 points.
If things get really bad, and a third straight loss to Baylor Saturday could be the start of something really bad, there might be player defection, maybe even some assistant coach defection.
But Mack Brown would still be here. Why? Because of the very reasons Mack laid out on Monday: he has the unflagging support of Texas president Bill Powers and athletic director DeLoss Dodds.
Those two, more than anyone, know Texas would not be cashing checks totaling $15 million per year for 20 years from ESPN for the Longhorn Network if not for Mack Brown. For the first five years of that contract, at least $5 million of that money is going to Texas academic programs.
At the end of the day, school administrators want to make budget and build up resources. DeLoss Dodds remembers all too well years like 1997, when Texas was in the midst of a stadium expansion and saw fan support and financial contributions to the Longhorn Foundation nosedive under John Mackovic. Texas now has money to burn thanks to Mack Brown.
We can argue the pros and cons of LHN and if it's taking a toll on Mack or clouding the focus of the program or if another coach at Texas would want to grant the same access that Mack Brown and Texas have granted as well. (Can anyone see Nick Saban meeting with LHN producers every morning, doing three LHN shows and a bunch of sitdown interviews for the All-Access show?)
But if 2012 finishes sideways, Powers and Dodds would tell disgruntled Texas fans that Mack still has a young quarterback, inexperienced linebackers and young coordinators and deserves more time to turn things around.
The middle class of the Texas fan base may be emotionally letting go of the Mack Brown Era after Saturday's 63-21 loss to OU because they've seen enough. But the wealthiest members of the Texas fan base, whom Mack Brown has courted and given access to his program from day one, still back him.
There are two scenarios I see in which Mack Brown doesn't come back to coach in 2013 if the season continues on a downward spiral. And they are longshots.
1. If Texas president Bill Powers gets pushed out by the UT regents (something that became a possibility in the last six months because of Powers' differences with Gov. Rick Perry over tuition increases, among other things).
Perry appoints the UT regents, and Powers has found himself in real jeopardy because he has opposed Perry's desire to freeze tuition (a key Perry re-election platform for 2014). Powers is trying to finance initiatives like a new medical school at UT, and asked for a tuition hike. Perry forces didn't like it and don't like Powers.
A potential coup to get rid of Powers earlier this year appears to have died down, but for how long?
If Powers was pushed out, it could create a string of dominoes falling that could change the Texas administration structure enough that Mack Brown's support or interest in working for a new boss could be severely altered.
DeLoss Dodds is due a $1 million payment after taxes on Aug. 31, 2014, if he's still the athletic director. So you have to think Dodds, 73, will still be AD at that point to pick up that check, even if Powers was pushed out.
But would a new school president allow Dodds to continue to call all the shots when it came to Mack Brown? You would think so, but who knows? The Perry-appointed regents would have a big say in UT's new president. Who knows what that president's agenda would be?
2. If Mack and Sally Brown simply decide they don't need the headaches and stress that come with rebuilding the Texas program any longer.
Mack said on Monday he has a ton of pride and competitiveness, has new energy at age 61, and that he's not going to leave the program listing in the Gulf of Mexico. He wants it back on top, and he's convinced he can get it there.
But if things become so negative, Mack and Sally, who have grand children now as well as a home they love in North Carolina, could walk away from the stress and still be hailed as the second-most important coaching era in Texas history, behind Darrell Royal.
WHAT IF?: That would not be what Mack Brown ever envisioned. What Mack probably envisioned was winning the national title in 2009, handing the keys to Will Muschamp and maybe taking the baton from Dodds as Texas athletic director for a short stint to oversee Muschamp's transition as football coach before going into TV.
But that didn't happen.
Mack Brown obviously had a big say in Muschamp becoming the coach-in-waiting. Mack told me this summer he'll never have another coach-in-waiting. But you can bet Mack would like to have a say over who replaces him and that he'd like to probably make Austin his fall home base (North Carolina his summer home base) and be around the program the same way Darrell Royal has been.
Mack told me after the 2005 national title, when I asked him if he had any interest in the NFL, that "at my age, you start thinking about where you are going to be buried." The implication was Mack wanted to finish his coaching career at Texas, and one day be buried in Austin.
ANY SIGN OF PROGRESS: Mack Brown is on the record saying he thinks Texas can compete for a national title in the next two to three years. That means 2013 and 2014. He is absolutely convinced he can get there. If Texas can somehow turn this season around and finish 9-4 or better, Mack can say this year's team improved on what last year's team did.
He'll point to progress. That will become the mantra of Powers and Dodds and the big-money boosters.
If Texas falls short of that, Mack will start seriously spending the emotional and intellectual capital he has built up with Powers, Dodds and the top boosters, because everyone at the top, at that point, will be hearing a chorus for change. The lives of those at the top would change dramatically.
Peaceful, happy office hours in the past will turn to angst every time they open an e-mail or answer a phone call.
The cruel irony in all of this is that Mack Brown brought a fan base together in 1998 that had been divided since Darrell Royal left in 1976. Now, the fan base is being pulled in different directions by the same man in the wake of Saturday's demoralizing OU defeat.
FAMILY ATMOSPHERE AND TOUGH LOVE: The Mack Brown Era is full of those ironies. The family atmosphere at Texas, which so many recruits site as their reason for becoming a Longhorn and comes directly from Sally Brown, is also something the UT program has to overcome when recruits get on campus.
Once the players get to Texas, they can't continue to feel the warmth of that family atmosphere without some tough lough and an edge poking at them every step of the way to increase mental and physical toughness. That tough love and edge has to come from Mack, but the players see him as more of a CEO and know that he's married to Sally, who nurtures the players like her own kids.
So the tough love and edge in the program has had to come either from assistant coaches or the players themselves. Mostly from the players. And when Texas has had great, and I mean great, player leadership, from the likes of Vince Young and that 2002 recruiting class, as well as Colt McCoy and the likes of Jordan Shipley, Rod Muckelroy, Sam Acho and Earl Thomas in 2008 and 2009, Texas has had big success.
But without great player leadership, Texas has been exposed by Oklahoma, the measuring stick in the conference for nearly all of Mack Brown's years in Austin. Even in 2001, when Texas nearly played for a national title and 2004, when Texas won a BCS bowl game (against Michigan), OU handled the Longhorns.
Mack has been preaching about wanting Texas to be a physical football team since he got to Texas, but the Longhorns have rarely been as physical as OU's teams under Stoops. Why? It comes from the top down. It has to come from an undying demand for physical play from the head coach.
If Mack can't change that, who can?
EVERY DAY, EVERY PLAY: Coaches like Tom Coughlin, Bill Belichick, Nick Saban (and his coaching tree), Bob Stoops and Les Miles always seem to have physical football teams. They don't accept anything less and repeat the message every single day and demand it in practice every single day.
In the past, when the media was allowed into practice, Mack was often talking to guests at practice such as Eddie Joseph, the former head of the Texas High School Coaches Association, while the assistants carried out drills, demanding physical play.
And even though Mack has courted the Texas high school coaches better than anyone in the past 15 years for recruiting purposes, he hasn't had an offensive lineman drafted by the NFL since 2008. That's either missed recruiting evaluations or poor player development. Either way, it's on Mack Brown. And he's admitted as much.
Physical starts up front. And if Mack can't recruit players on the offensive line who can be physical and then consistently coach them with an undying demand for physical play, it will rarely be carried out by the team.
SOMETHING'S MISSING: Watching the Texas defense this year has exposed Mack Brown's lack of ability to demand physical play. For the first time, Manny Diaz is at a BCS school with young linebackers, and these guys look like they've never played tackle football at times.
There's nothing physical about this defense right now. And that's not all Diaz's fault. That demand for physical play has to come from Mack Brown.
Mack joked on his radio show after the Oklahoma State game in which OSU fullback Kye Staley (No. 9) lit people up all over the field that he showed video of Staley to his players as an example of physical play. But showing video and being able to demand that from your own players, every single day, are two, totally different things.
It's been interesting to watch Greg Davis at Iowa this season under Kirk Ferentz, a former linebacker and former offensive line coach under Bill Belichick, who has always preached a physical brand of football with lightly regarded recruits.
Davis is now operating a power running attack featuring RB Mark Weisman (105 ypg) and won at Michigan State, 19-16, with that offense last weekend. You heard me. Greg Davis is running a physical running attack. Why? Because Kirk Ferentz demands it of his players and coaches it every day.
That's what befuddles the NFL scouts I talk to recently. They say Texas should get whatever players it wants, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. But that's not what they find.
PERFECT TIMING: The fan base at Texas remembers and loves the 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009 seasons. They were the pinnacle of the Mack Brown Era and couldn't have come at a better time with realignment right around the corner.
Texas became the hottest hand in a high-stakes poker game and ended up with a once-in-a-lifetime payday from ESPN.
The fans will have Mack to thank for that $300 million for the next 18 years. And I believe Mack has always tried to run a clean program. Mack and Sally have spent countless hours on charity efforts and have reached out personally to fans and others when they were hurting. Mack wrote a personal note to me when my mother died that brought tears to my eyes.
As Darrell Royal once told me, "No coach has ever been better at P.R. than Mack Brown. He has a gift that I didn't have."
Mack Brown has given and given and given of his time and energy to the University of Texas. And that's why he gets defensive when people question if he's still the right guy to lead the program. Mack knows where Texas was when he found it and where it is now.
And he'd love to remind everyone of that, and sometimes does, when he says things like, "Texas fans have been pretty spoiled," in reference to the national title in 2005, the BCS bowl wins in 2004 and 2008 and the national title game appearance in 2009.
And the more you go back and watch that 2009 season, you realize what a miracle worker Colt McCoy was behind that offensive line.
But a Hall of Fame coach like Tom Landry, who won two Super Bowls as the Dallas Cowboys' only head coach, didn't get to finish on his own terms.
I wrote a story after Texas' 5-7 season in 2010 asking if Mack's heart was really in the rebuild. And it talked a lot about some of the things I'm talking about here.
For Mack to truly get this program to the top, he can't just hire Bo Davis and Stacy Searels and expect them to bring the physical toughness to the program. Mack has to live it, every day, every practice, until the players truly feel they are going to lose their roster spots or scholarships if they don't give it to him.
There's nothing wrong with the family atmosphere that Texas provides to recruits as long as the message every day from the top down is one that demands a physical and mental toughness that doesn't just come from the strength coach, assistant coaches or players - but from the very top down.
Mack Brown keeps calling this year's team young. Whether you agree with that or not, the message and mission statement from the head coach to team considered young is even more critical. Young players take shortcuts. Veterans don't. If the tough love message to the young players isn't constantly demanding more physical and mental toughness, more effort, more everything, they won't give it.
And in the age of social media and Twitter, when players will be bombarded with messages questioning their coaching staff, it's become much easier for players to check out.
Geoff Ketchum of Orangebloods.com pointed out in an article on Wednesday that Mack's own frustrated attitude with losing the 2009 national title game to Alabama played a key role in undoing the run Mack was on, resulting in a complete collapse in 2010.
If you don't think the right frame of mind for the head coach affects everything, think again.
And if Mack Brown doesn't get this team headed back in the direction of weekly improvement with victories to show for it, everything he's worked for at Texas for 15 years could come unraveled, even if he keeps his job.