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December 8, 2013

The Evaluation of Mack Brown

The storybook finish for Texas disappeared in a freezing wind in the third quarter of a 30-10 loss to undisputed Big 12 champion Baylor, which has now beaten the Longhorns three of the last four years.

It was UT's third loss by at least 20 points this season. The Longhorns' four losses (to BYU, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Baylor) were by an average of 21.3 ppg this season.

And Texas now has its fourth straight season with at least four losses.

In the past four years, Mack Brown's program is 30-20 overall (.600), 18-17 in Big 12 play (.514) and 14-11 at home (.560). Texas, which has also lost its last eight home games against opponents ranked in the AP Top 25, lost only 9 games at home from 1997-2009 (13 years). Are those numbers the Texas standard?

In the freezing tunnel outside the Texas locker room in the bowels of Floyd Casey Stadium, Brown was asked to size up where his program is and where he sees himself heading into next season:

"We just gotta keep playing and keep winning," he said. "We had our chance to get in the Big 12 championship this year.

"And our guys will go out recruiting tomorrow and go back to work and try to win the bowl game and get your ninth win. Go back to spring practice. We've got spring practice in February, so it happens fast."

Then Brown was asked if he's decided whether he wants to be back at Texas next year or not?

"I'm not talking about any of that tonight," Brown said. "I'm in the same position I was when I've been asked the other 15 times. We'll talk about the team tonight."

So here's where things stand: There's a high-powered group at Texas that helped drive a change in athletic director, in part, to try and land Nick Saban. And there's school president Bill Powers, who has to decide if Mack Brown has earned the right to go out on his own terms or if Texas needs to encourage Mack Brown to retire so change can happen.

(I'm told Saban is still a possibility).

And then there's Steve Patterson, UT's new AD, who has been on campus less than a month. They will all be headed to New York City together on Sunday for the College Football Hall of Fame activities (Jerry Gray is being inducted this year).

But when it comes to what's best for Texas, has it simply reached a point - no matter what the previous success - where it's simply not working?

For Texas? For Mack Brown? The fans? For anyone?

And that's where Mack Brown has a lot to think about.

He's undoubtedly pissed off that a regent and former regent were flirting with Saban's agent in January and could now be unable to call his own shot after helping build Texas athletics into a $163 million cash register.

Mack's best friend/lawyer/Texas booster billionaire Joe Jamail threatened a lawsuit against anyone trying to drive Brown out.

Mack's undoubtedly pissed the Saban talk won't go away - the same Nick Saban who Brown is convinced he would have beaten for the national title in 2009 if Colt McCoy hadn't gotten hurt. And that would have been Brown's second national title to Saban's one (LSU).

Brown could have dropped the mic and walked off with Darrell Royal's coach emeritus status at Texas.

Mack's undoubtedly pissed that such a potential outcome in 2009 has been replaced by all the rumors, doubters and detractors constantly harping on his job security. It's been hell on damage control with recruits.

That's why Texas gave him a contract extension after an 8-5 season in 2011 - to make rumors about his job status go away.

This is never what Mack had envisioned. So he's undoubtedly pissed about all of it.

But what would be better? Returning as coach at Texas because he's pissed and determined to keep trying to show up his critics? And simply because he can (with Powers' blessing)?

Or getting away from all the negativity?

Because Mack and his wife Sally and their entire inner circle listen to all the negativity. They read it. They seek it out. They let it affect their moods and their decision-making. To them, any criticism isn't business. It's personal. And that's an ill-advised way to live a coach's life.

And if Mack returns in 2014, it's likely to get worse. There was a drop in season ticket sales after 2010. There will be a another drop if Brown returns. There's still a waiting list for football suites, so Texas hasn't felt the financial impact of disgruntled fans.

But it's probably coming.

And if Texas loses to BYU on Sept. 6 or to UCLA in Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 13, the same UCLA Bruins that started Mack's spontaneous combustion in 2010, Brown's life will be miserable, and his legacy at Texas could go from dented to totaled.

Here's the problem: it appears Mack doesn't see it. He may be too busy trying to point backward at past successes that have led to current riches to see what's happening now.

With 19 starters back from a 9-win team, Brown said the team was talented enough to win all the games.

When you say your team is going to be that good, and you lose four games (with or without injuries - because fans don't care at this point), you lose big chunks of your fan base.

So maybe Brown is in denial. Maybe that's why he doesn't see the team's 1-2 start this year was all his fault because he brought Manny Diaz back, even though, I'm told, he had doubts about Diaz after spring practice. And that 1-2 start was the impetus for the forces driving change in the athletic department right now.

That bad start is why Nick Saban climbed back on the radar of some in Texas' camp.

The Diaz decision and 550 yards rushing later cost Texas the BYU game. The need to replace Diaz with Greg Robinson cost Texas the Ole Miss game. Mack said so himself Saturday night when I asked him to size up the season from his perspective:

"Coming back with 19 starters and some depth, we felt like we had a chance to win all the games," Brown said. "Disappointing start, obviously, at Brigham Young.

"I've said I thought Ole Miss was on me, because I made a coaching change and then the kids fought back. Hit a wall against Oklahoma State.

"Then put themselves in a position to win the conference championship. And I told them this morning, I was very proud for them to do that.

"But it doesn't matter unless you win, and that's what they did. We got here and didn't finish, and that's the disappointing thing for us tonight."

In the loss to Oklahoma State, Brown has admitted it was his idea to keep throwing and trying to get into field-goal range before the half. That's when Case McCoy threw a pick-six that sunk UT into a 28-10 hole from which it never escaped.

In his team's fourth loss of the regular season, with Baylor getting the ball in the second half, Brown decided to also put a 15-to-20 mph wind at the back of the nation's highest-scoring (55.4 ppg) and most explosive offense (No. 1 nationally: 635.1 ypg; pass efficiency 180.83; and passing yds/completion 17.8).

And the only reason I'm making the wind a big deal is because Brown has made going into the wind a big deal as a negative for an offense for all of his 16 years at Texas.

"We had to make hard decision at halftime do you take the wind in the third or take it in the fourth?" Brown said. "We felt like we could hang in there and keep pressure on them in the third and then win it in the fourth. It just didn't happen."

By giving Baylor's offense everything it could possibly want to start the second half, it was an open-invitation for a team averaging 66 ppg at home before Saturday, to grab the lead and make Texas chase.

And that happened. Baylor outscored Texas 17-0 in the third quarter and grabbed a 20-3 lead. The Longhorns never got closer than double-digits the rest of the way.

Despite the injuries to David Ash, Jordan Hicks, Johnathan Gray, Chris Whaley, Josh Cochran, Sheroid Evans and even a first-half ankle injury to RB Joe Bergeron, Texas was tied with Baylor 3-3 at halftime.

Thanks to Oklahoma, it was all set up for the Longhorns to come back from the dead, win the Big 12 against Baylor and a BCS bowl berth in the Fiesta. Thirty minutes to a championship.

After one half, Texas had an offense running it down Baylor's throat - thanks to Malcolm Brown, who had 17 carries for 118 yards (6.9 ypc) by halftime - while Case McCoy was throwing ducks in the wind after opening 2-of-12 passing.

It was bad enough Baylor was getting its heart-and-soul leader on defense back from a targeting suspension for the second half - senior S Ahmad Dixon (who ended up doing little but negating a Case McCoy pick-six in the final minutes).

But the one place Texas never wanted to be in this game was chasing from behind. Not with Case McCoy's arm. Not in that wind. Not with an offense whose identity was to pound it on the ground and throw deep every once-in-a-while.

Texas needed the wind at its back in the third quarter so it could keep pounding Malcolm Brown on the ground and taking a shot or two deep and try to get a lead. Then, let its defense win the game in the fourth quarter.

Instead, Malcolm Brown got only 8 carries in the second half, because Texas was too busy throwing the ball trying to catch up.

Brown doesn't coach the offense or defense. At practices, he's not in drills working on players' technique. As a CEO coach, he's usually talking to boosters while his assistants take care of the details.

Mack's most important decision-making during a game isn't how to change a defense to take away the QB running game (BYU) or how to tweak the offense to score (second-half of Ole Miss). It's whether to take the wind or fake a punt or call a timeout or to keep throwing to set up a FG before the half.

Does Brown even make those decisions well anymore?

I have to make it clear again how great Mack was for the Texas program when he arrived in 1998 through the 2009 season. But fan dismay is growing. If Saban is an option, those fans want him. If he isn't, they want Texas to go after Urban Meyer or Mike Tomlin or John Harbaugh or Mike McCarthy.

Mack tried to call his team's season a success because it was in contention to win the Big 12 on Saturday. A Big 12 title in a league in which 5 teams have a combined 11-34 record in league play.

It was also a year in which Texas looked mostly ugly (losing four games by a combined average of 21.3 ppg and barely won games vs 3-9 Iowa State and 4-8 West Virginia) and looked good in three games (Kansas State, OU and Texas Tech).

I get that an outright Big 12 title and trip to the Fiesta Bowl (if Texas had beaten Baylor) would make it hard for Bill Powers to encourage Mack Brown to go enjoy life after coaching. Brown has made Powers job a lot easier by generating so much money.

But, at some point, you have to step back and look at the entire body of work of Mack Brown and what LED to the four years of mediocrity in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013:

* He oversaw the disaster recruiting classes of 2008 and 2009 that whiffed dramatically at QB, OL and LB.

* He waited until 2013 to hire a player personnel director and build a football office on par with other top programs such as Stanford (which hired that position in 2007 under Jim Harbaugh) and Alabama (which hired that position in 2009 under Nick Saban). Mack failed to take advantage of this position even though he was starting to miss badly in recruiting almost immediately after his 2005 national title (UT hasn't had an OL drafted by the NFL in 7 rounds since 2008 (and that player, Tony Hills, was recruited in 2003).

* He burned the program to the ground in 2010 by allowing his "Alabama hangover" to alienate 1) his assistants; and 2) his players, who quit on him ... and then fired assistants and had one of his most trusted assistants (Duane Akina) leave voluntarily before coming back.

* He has lost 3 of his last 4 to Baylor (after having never lost to the Bears in his first 12 years at Texas) and now is losing recruiting battles to Art Briles. (WR K.D. Cannon, WR Robbie Rhoades and DT Andrew Billings, etc.)

* His program had five recruits de-commit last year (Kyle Hicks, Durham Smythe, Ricky Seals-Jones, Daeshon Hall and A'Shawn Robinson)

* Mack, who has 2 conference titles in 30 years as a head coach, is 6-9 vs Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who has 8 conference titles in 15 years as a head coach (all won in the same conference as Mack Brown).

* His program has lost its last eight games (0-8) at home vs opponents ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, dating to 2008.

If you're going to evaluate Mack Brown, evaluate him critically on those points on a $5.4 million salary, and praise him for all the success he had through 2009 and for all the money he's brought in.

But you also have to look at his team and staff going forward and determine if he's built a program that can win next year - or if it would simply be more negativity and questioning surrounding his week-to-week relationship with the UT fan base.

Will Greg Robinson be back? Could Major Applewhite get a call from Will Muschamp at Florida? Or perhaps Stacy Searels?

Even if David Ash is healthy, is he a championship QB? What do we know about Tyrone Swoopes? We know Mack wouldn't allow true freshman Jerrod Heard to come in and run things with all that experience ahead of him.

UT loses 10 senior starters: WR Mike Davis, OT Donald Hawkins, OG Trey Hopkins, OG Mason Walters, QB Case McCoy, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, DT Chris Whaley, S Adrian Phillips, CB Carrington Byndom and P/K Anthony Fera.

The Big 12 may not be great again next year. But Texas was a near-interception and/or a near-fumble from losing to 3-9 Iowa State and fourth-and-7 from losing at 4-8 West Virginia.

Or if Case McCoy doesn't hit D.J. Grant with seconds left to beat Kansas last year?

That's how razor-thin the margin of error has become for the Mack Brown era.

Losses in any of those games and Powers and Brown would have already known it's time for Mack and Texas to part ways and move on for the betterment of both.

Has Texas football become Mack Brown's personal house of cards, where he can live as long as he likes?

Texas NEWS


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