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October 8, 2013

Mack vs. Stoops with everything on the line

Last Thursday night, the Mack Brown era came this close to crash-landing in the corn fields of Ames, Iowa.

When Iowa State took a 30-24 lead with 3:40 left, scenes of an historic run for Brown began flashing like a slide show - from Ricky Williams' magic carpet ride to the Heisman Trophy in Brown's first year (1998), when Brown reunited the UT program; to a national title with Vince Young in 2005; to a near-miss for it all against Nick Saban in 2009.


But if Hollywood is based on scripts filled with conflict over survival, love and money in the most dramatic of settings, then Mack Brown's continuing attempt to impose his will on a desperate situation couldn't end in Ames.

Not Ames.

That battle for survival had to be saved for the largest setting in college football, amidst the greatest game-day atmosphere in all of sports.

The Red River Shootout is settled in a divided Cotton Bowl, half burnt orange, half crimson, always full of deafening, border state hate and always smack in the middle of the State Fair of Texas.

Now, that's a setting for a showdown at high noon (or 11 am CT to be exact) between the only two coaches in the Big 12 with a crystal football, with one coach possibly pronouncing last rites over the other.

***

In the first decade of the 2000s, these October clashes between Mack Brown's Longhorns and Bob Stoops' Sooners often determined conference titles and even national championship runs.

Stoops' troops administered some hefty beatdowns in 2000 and 2003 as well as Texas' first shutout loss in 24 years (2004). The Longhorns answered in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.

But this Saturday, the stakes will be far greater than the Golden Hat Trophy awarded to the winner, which happens to be the inspiration for Texas' golden-highlighted Nike Pro Combat uniforms being worn for the game.

It could be Stoops pulling the plug on Brown's 16-year run as coach at Texas.

Like Royal and Broyles; Schembechler and Hayes; the success of Brown and Stoops has often been defined by their success against each other.

Stoops holds a 9-5 record against Brown while piling up 8 Big 12 titles in that span. Brown has two conference championships in 30 years as a head coach, both coming in the last 8 years. But three straight losses to OU, including the last two by an average of 40 points to Sooner teams that played in the Insight and Cotton bowls, were enough for Texas faithful.

They couldn't take coming to the Cotton Bowl anymore to see such carnage. This year, tickets on Texas' side are selling on the secondary market at or below face value. Tickets on Oklahoma 's side are selling for up to $150 above face value.

"I'm not going back to the Cotton Bowl in October until Mack Brown is gone," has been a common refrain on local radio shows.

That leaves many to wonder how much crimson will be on the Texas side of Saturday's game.

***

These two coaches have won in different ways.

Stoops says his program will always be about winning championships.

Read Mack Brown's bio at Texassports.com, and it talks about nine straight 10-win seasons (2001-09), a 10-4 bowl record and finishing in the Top 15 in 10 of the last 13 years.

Brown's program is known more for its family atmosphere (fostered by Brown and wife, Sally), which has attracted one top recruit after another.

For 15 years, OU's unmistakable edge of physical toughness and identity have come from Stoops himself, with a strong assist for seven of those seasons from his in-your-face brother Mike, OU's defensive coordinator.

Former OU defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek once told me he was "terrified" every day he went to practice in Norman, fearful of being singled out by coaches for doing something wrong. But Dvoracek said that fear drove him every day to get better.

The edge at Texas under Brown, however, has been ever-changing. Sometimes, it took the form of great player leadership (as was the case in the Vince Young and Colt McCoy eras) or it took the form of a Type A assistant coach, such as Greg Robinson, Dick Tomey or Will Muschamp.

The last three-plus years, an identity at Texas has been hard to find.

***

Bob Stoops lost his first head-to-head battle with Mack Brown in 1999, thanks in large part to the wile and guile of a redheaded QB named Major Applewhite, who helped erase a 17-0 deficit.

Applewhite connected on two TD passes to Ryan Nunez, one to Kwame Cavil, and Kris Stockton kicked three FGs in a 38-28 Texas victory.

In the Red River Shootout's one-of-a-kind, split-at-the-50 madness inside the Cotton Bowl, overcoming a near three-touchdown deficit can feel like trying to win a NASCAR race on the back of Bevo while pulling the Sooner Schooner.

But the next year would pound home Stoops' championship-or-bust mantra in a dramatic way. The final score read 63-14 en route to a national title victory over Florida State - the team Brown could never beat in the ACC in 10 tries as coach at North Carolina.

Suddenly, Brown, who had privately vowed to win at least one national title with Chris Simms at quarterback, became a punch line as Brown and Simms gained a reputation for folding against OU.

When his last OU game was completed in 2002, Simms was asked about going winless against the Sooners while throwing 8 INTs without a single TD pass (star receivers Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas were shut out of the end zone in four years vs OU) and getting sacked 12 times.

Brown committed an interception of his own by answering the question for Simms.

Public perception of Brown as a coddler of his players took on a life of its own.

***

After 2000, it didn't seem like it could get much worse for Brown in the OU series … except that it did … in 2003.

Not only did OU smoke Texas 65-13. The drubbing convinced Adrian Peterson to go to Norman instead of Austin.

In the days leading up to that record beating, Mack Brown had left a message for a Texas season ticket holder over some quotes in the New York Times.

The season ticket holder, who had called for Greg Davis and Carl Reese to be fired as coordinators in a NY Times article, allowed a Dallas TV station to hear Brown's recorded message.

Brown became a laughing stock on Dallas radio and was quickly gaining a reputation as a coach more consumed with controlling the message than the line of scrimmage.

The rainbow to Brown's pot of gold as coach at Texas appeared in the storm clouds that day, however.

Vince Young may have thrown 2 interceptions and completed just 11 of 21 passes with 2 fumbles (1 lost). But Young also ran for 127 yards, including a 59-yard criss-crossing of the field that left everyone in the Cotton Bowl breathless.

Even Bob Stoops knew he had seen the future of Texas that day.

Young wouldn't get OU in 2004 because of a painfully conservative game plan. Despite an inspired defensive effort under coordinator Greg Robinson, Texas lost 12-0.

It was UT's first shutout loss since November of 1980 - ending a string of 281 straight games without a shutout, the longest such streak in the country at the time.

But Young and the Longhorns got Oklahoma in 2005 in a 45-12 cleansing that probably felt like five years' worth of New Year's celebrations to Texas fans after the Octobers in Dallas they had to suffer through the previous five years.

After all the beatings he suffered at UNC against Florida State and from Stoops at Texas, Brown finally got his first ever conference title and ultimately a national title in 2005.

Brown and Texas ended up winning 4 of 5 against Stoops and OU as Colt McCoy went 3-1 against the Sooners.

That run included one of the most memorable games in the series history - in 2008 - when UT erased two, 11-point deficits in a 45-35 victory in which Sam Bradford threw for 5 TDs, but Earl Thomas picked him off twice.

At year's end, however, it was OU playing for the national title in 2008 after Texas lost a hundredths-of-a-point tiebreaker in the BCS rankings.

Texas eeked out an ugly, 16-13 victory in 2009 thanks to a defensive performance that held OU to minus-16 yards rushing; a pick-six saving tackle by Colt McCoy; and the unshakeable leg of Hunter Lawrence, who booted three FGs.

***

And then came the moment of truth in the BCS national title game against Alabama in 2009.

If Texas could have won that game, Mack Brown probably rides off into the sunset on top of the college football world with a second national title - one more than Stoops, Steve Spurrier (another Brown nemesis from their days in the ACC) and even Saban (at the time). Brown could have handed the keys to Will Muschamp, and Texas probably keeps rolling.

Instead, Texas melted down in 2010 in a 5-7 season as Brown seemed to let his anger over losing to Alabama linger. Brown called out his assistant coaches and players publicly after a loss to Iowa State. Yet he was talked into staying on as coach by athletic director DeLoss Dodds. Brown replaced more than half his staff and lost Will Muschamp to Florida.

There were reports Bob Stoops, a former defensive coordinator for the Gators, recommended Muschamp to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

The last three years have been a return to the early 2000s in this series with Bob Stoops' Sooners owning Mack Brown's Longhorns, including back-to-back blowouts in 2011 (55-17) and 2012 (63-21).

It was after that Red River Rout last year that Longhorns' faithful seriously started checking out on the Mack Brown era.

All that's on the line Saturday, it seems, is Brown's week-to-week survival with a victory over OU … or Stoops' ability to make Texas fans check out on the Mack Brown era one last time.



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