The Definitive Case For Will Muschamp, Part 1

Man the news cycle moves fast these days. On balance, that's not a terrible price to pay for all the benefits of the all-hours, all-access media world, but... when Life got in the way of my getting back until Wednesday afternoon my thoughts on the Muschamp decision, I honestly had to pause and ask, "Wow, is this piece already dated?"

At least as far as a first round of reactions (many, many of them thoughtful and well-reasoned), most of the points I drafted Tuesday evening have since been made. But no one has yet written 3,000 words on the topic! And BONizens know well I love sinking my teeth into debates like this one. And then slowly eating the meat. Playing with the bone. Burying the bone. Digging up the bone. Contemplating bone as metaphor for Muschamp. Re-burying bone. Honestly, I can't be offended if you skip these too-long posts.

Though I'll necessarily tread on some well-covered ground, I'm still diving in on the Muschamp hire both because of its obvious importance, but also because in the lightning round of first reactions, the one conversation I haven't seen fully develop here or anywhere else is one that attempts to systematically ask and answer the following three questions: First, setting aside all the Muschamp particulars, what kinds of skills and qualities and experiences and so forth would the ideal successor to Mack Brown possess?  Second, what lessons should we take from the program's lean years and from the ways in which Mack Brown launched the program back to national prominence? And third, how can our answers to the preceding questions help us identify the most appropriate questions for evaluating the Muschamp move?

Those three questions are the basis of the discussion in Part 1, found after the jump. Though I'm not sure yet when I'm going to have the block of time to do it, Part 2 eventually will walk through particulars of the what-why-how-and-when of this decision, tackle some of the objections that I've seen most frequently raised, and tie everything together, arguing that evaluated in the context of all the relevant considerations, there exists overwhelming support for the conclusion that this was more than a good move. It was the Right move.

I've spotted numerous engaging debates about particular issues within the decision (e.g. the value of prior head coaching experience, or whether successorships generally are a bad idea for any program--and particularly for Texas). Those are excellent questions, but as most of the best arguments I've seen have done, a meaningful 'thumbs up/down' conclusion here really has to be based on a holistic evaluation of all the factors in play in this particular decision. Unless you're willing to go all the way by asserting a normative claim like, "Under no circumstances should Texas hire a head coach with no prior HC experience," or, even, "Under no circumstances could a Will Muschamp hire as Head Coach be a bad decision," then it pays to work systematically through all the circumstances and considerations related to the job.

When I resumed breathing after 10 straight minutes of fanboy hyperventilation of the word "Boom" into a paper bag, I started to think through all the circumstances at Texas right now, but quickly stopped myself and changed course. Wrong question. To answer "Is Will Muschamp the right hire--now or at some point in the future," we really should think through first what it is we actually want our next head football coach to do.

WHAT DOES THE IDEAL TEXAS HEAD FOOTBALL COACH LOOK LIKE?

Besides paying hyper-attention to citing publicly the greatness of the state of Tech-suss and all that comes with it? I've chosen seven other areas I think most important for Texas' next head coach. This list is not exhaustive; chime in with your own needs and wants in the comments.

Recruiting:  A head coach who scores exceptional marks in every other category but isn't a superstar recruiter in the state of Texas: (1) squanders one of the program's biggest advantages, (2) does so largely to the benefit of conference rivals, and (3) drastically reduces his margin for error in other facets of the program. Conversely, an excellent recruiter builds and sustains a foundational advantage over his competitors and enjoys a much wider margin for error in other aspects of the program.

Program growth and support:  Because recruiting is the most fundamentally important aspect of college football, overall program health--including fan enthusiasm, donor support, and facilities maintenance/expansion--is vital in facilitating the kind of top tier recruiting required to compete consistently for conference and national titles. (Much more below on this aspect of the head coaching job, Mack Brown's role in it reaching the level of importance it has, and what it means for Muschamp.)

Ability to put together and utilize the right support staff:  Regarding staff hires, Mack Brown during his tenure has both hit home runs and swung and missed badly, but perhaps his finest set of moves in this arena came in the post-2007 reshuffle. I don't think it a coincidence that this 2008 Longhorns team is the first since 1998 to overachieve. Conversely, some of Mack Brown's lowest moments can be attributed in large part to surrounding himself with what was comfortable. An ideal head coach is one who can identify outstanding staff members who will both support and challenge the head coach, bring them to Austin, and get the most out of them.

Football Acumen:  The ideal head coach would be one who equally appreciates, enjoys, and thrives on studying the finer points of football preparation and in-game strategy. He needn't/shouldn't micromanage to the point of potential oppressiveness, but to whatever extent he understands and takes seriously the importance of these things, the more on-field success he's likely to achieve from the same set of players. (Following up on the note about putting together a winning staff: the ideal head coach needn't be an X's and O's mastermind himself if he excels at surrounding himself with the tactically talented coaches.)

High prioritization of Strength and Conditioning Program: College football is changing fast--double entendre intended: The spread revolution has rapidly taken hold and the new name of the game is speed. There's a reason Urban Meyer posts a large sign in his staff's office that says: "Recruit the fastest team in America." And he means on both sides of the ball: Defending the spread requires more speed and athleticism, with quicker, more versatile linemen; truly sideline-to-sideline linebackers; and an army of playmaking speed in the secondary to allow efficient, four-quarters administration of the nickel and dime packages required to defend the pass spread attacks of the Big 12. For all these reasons, my ideal head coach will want and prioritize for his team what Rick Barnes has for his in Todd Wright--an S&C guru out at or near the front of his field, who creates and implements training programs that prepare players for what they're actually doing. Certainly relative to its importance, S&C is the most under-discussed aspect of college football.

Appropriate representation of the University of Texas:  We needn't be naive and kid ourselves that Texas football always sets or meets the gold standard in academics, behavior, community involvement, and the like. But there's absolutely no question that Texas' administration and fans very much expect a program that overwhelmingly strives to do things the right way. If expecting perfection in these regards is equally naive, where there are bad apples or embarrassing incidents... they must be just that--exceptions to the rule. The ideal head coach not only should understand and meet the minimum standard (not embarrassing the school), but achieve top-end on-field success while actively caring about and promoting high values. Mack Brown has done well in this regard.

"Make Up" for Success:

The most commonly made mistake by Mack Brown's detractors--especially outside Austin, but at times 'Horns fans as well--is falling into the trap of basing their criticism on flawed or incomplete ideas about what an elite college football coach Must Look Like: They point loudly to Mack Brown's relative deficiency in one of the traits in my list (most commonly Football Acumen), excessively penalize him for that weakness (or, equivalently, hyper-inflate the importance and value of the trait), and in so doing throw the baby out with the bathwater, their measure of the coach's actual value distorted by overvalue in one area at the expense of a full factor analysis. And what I'm calling today "make up" for success is by a wide margin Mack Brown's least appreciated strength: Though I do think many of the criticisms he's faced are very often fair, on-point appraisals of one or more of his (actual) weaknesses, those deficiencies have not proven to be crippling weaknesses--as they would be to a coach lacking what I'm calling a "make up" for success.

Now, I readily admit I'm introducing to the discussion a rather wishy-washy concept which suffers for being both a challenge to articulate in just a few sentences and, more importantly, a trait I suspect would be rather difficult for a hiring committee to consistently identify in a set of interview candidates. But insofar as I can get across to you the general idea of what I'm thinking about, it's the ideal lens through which to look at Mack Brown's decade in Austin and understand why it has been absolutely fascinating to me.

It's still a little hard to talk about the forest while we're still clearly amongst the trees, but walk through this with me: Though memorializing Mack Brown's career is a task for another day, at least two of his accomplishments--for two related, but slightly different reasons--strike me as containing within them important facts and lessons relevant to the present successor discussion:

  1. Brown envisioned and then actualized the project of bridging the very wide gap (defined by 20-some years of program mediocrity) between what Darrell Royal and his predecessors were able to accomplish in and at Texas and the fan base's continued expectation that "We're Texas" still meant something. 
  2. Not only has Mack Brown successfully bridged that gap, but in so doing he has been the sport's most influential head coach in the last 10 years.

On point one, Texas fans in the post-Darrel Royal era were both right and wrong: They were correct that Texas still had all the tools and resources it needed to be a consistently Elite national program. But fans and boosters were wrong insofar as they were slow to identify and react realistically to an enormous paradigm shift in the game of college football--the very one, ironically, that led Darrel Royal to decide on retirement at the age of 52.

We'll stop short of a full history today, but it's important to understand that when we fans today comfortably type at BON "We're Texas," it contains within it much, much more content than it did 10-20 years ago. The truth is that Mack Brown was the first Texas coach in the modern era to figure out and actualize a plan for turning kinetic the program's abundance of potential energy.

In looking back today at this preseason post, I chuckled a little both for its Muschamp content (Putin is in!) and because it provided me a second opportunity this season to claim on point an analogy between 21st century Texas football and 19th century China: It's not enough to be sitting on mountains of resources; you have to be figure out how to systematically and efficiently use them to serve your goals. China suffered through nearly two centuries of woeful economic underperformance relative to resources because it struggled to fully comprehend, and then react to, first the Enlightenment's development of the scientific method and not long thereafter, the tIndustrial Revolution it made possible. Similarly, Texas was painfully slow to appreciate the fundamental change of the college game to what we now call the modern era, and even when it did, the first two decades of efforts to recapture the state and restore Texas to national prominence was on the whole a rather embarrassing failure.

If it was indeed true that Mack Brown arrived to take the reigns of a program sleeping on an abundance of resources and advantages, there was absolutely no guarantee that he'd be the one to wake the Giant. So while it's no sin for Texas fans past or present to revel in the program's privileged position, to expect excellence because of it, and even to take for granted that anything short of excellence is--all things considered--a failure. Just remember and credit Mack Brown for being the one to restore real meaning to "We're Texas."

I'll hold off on explaining why that's relevant to Muschamp because I want to discuss it in conjunction with my second, related argument: Some may disagree, but a good case can be made that Mack Brown has been the most influential head coach in the sport over the last decade. Like all long-standing institutions, the sport of college football periodically goes through paradigm shifts, some more fundamentally important and wide-reaching than others, with things like the advent of the forward pass and the inclusion of African-American student athletes one side and conference realignments or coaching from skyboxes on the other. Many of these paradigm shifts are hard to identify while they're taking place or, more often, meaningfully evaluate in terms of the scope and duration of their impacts on the sport.

Future bloggers and historians will be better positioned to evaluate the importance of the past decade's developments in terms of ilasting mpact on whatever awaits the sport down the line, but I think even today it's possible to identify the ways that the manner in which Mack Brown revived and restored to prominence the Texas program has had far-reaching, arguably sport-altering implications. First and foremost, Mack Brown knew Texas' return to the nation's elite meant a return to dominance in recruiting. Easier said than done, but the machine Mack Brown envisioned and quickly built took the standards of the day for Recruiting Ops and elevated them up to unprecedented levels of thoroughness, preparation, and network-building. Almost overnight, the apparatus Mack Brown put into place to take back state of Texas recruiting sent a jolt felt far outside Austin. First, mostly by direct competitors, but within a few years, early camps, early networking with high school coaches, early systematic player evals--early, early, early--all that early recruiting jazz catalyzed a national stampede to catch up; in no time at all, there existed a new nationwide norm. Given the gradual but steady comoditization of the sport, nationwide Hyper-Recruiting, may have been an eventual incident of inevitability, but as with Texas' awakening generally, Mack Brown was the pioneer.

The second part of Mack Brown's plan to restore Texas to national relevance was to build another dominant machine--a money machine. From the moment he was offered and accepted the job, Mack Brown exactly identified, processed, and comprehended how to utilize every little facet of Texas Football, the Entity. Move 1: Not only consult Darrell Royal for guidance, but restore and aggressively promote his active presence in the program--a mentor for the present and reminder of past glory. Move 2: Convince Ricky Williams to stay for his senior season and a Heisman run. Move 3-through-1,000,000: Start shaking hands. When eight months after Mack Brown was hired Texas kicked off its 1998 season, Darrel Royal was on the sidelines, Ricky Williams was a consensus frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, and both the seats of DKR and the coffers of the Athletic Department were filled as they hadn't been in years, if ever at all.

It's almost hard to remember now, but it's important to look back at how mediocre the state of affairs were before Mack's arrival--and not just the on-field product. Many won't admit as much, but the fans were very slow to adjust to the new realities and challenges in college football's modern era. The majority of the iprogram's mportant boosters were behind-the-times at worst, or if not, lacking in the vision needed to put together a plan to modernize Texas football and build a new machine which could be dominant in the new era. For his part, Deloss Dodds would rather you forget everything about his pre-Mack Brown tenure. (Not to mention Gary Barnett.) And so on and so forth.

Looking back at the overall state of the program during the bulk of the 1980s and 1990s helps illuminate how vast Mack Brown's impact has been. Mack Brown not only figuratively modernized Texas, but literally, too: Among the many innovative and aggressive projects he launched over night was a play to dominate the internet, of all places. MB-TF.com was the first of its kind and by the time five years later everyone else was offering what Texas did, MB-TF was launching into 2.0, which dusted every other school's site and continued to evolve and improve to become the endless vault of information, news, analysis, and video that Texas fans now utilize daily. If Mack Brown was aggressively pioneering a plan for Texas in areas as surprising as the internet, the story is predictable in the dozens of more traditional arenas: Fundraisers, alumni relations, facilities upgrades--down the line Mack Brown has been determined to build a monster machine in Austin. Obviously he has, with Texas football perennially ranked among the nation's best and the athletics department the richest in the country.

When you really think about all that, it's almost hard to believe that the football coach who has been with on-field decisions mostly conservative and at times slow-to-adjust is the same one who has been singularly (or among the first generation of creators/users) in virtually every aspect of the explosive growth and 21st Centurization of college football programs nationwide.

COMPLETING THE CIRCLE: THE RELEVANCE OF MACK BROWN'S PARTICULAR STYLE OF SUCCESS

Whether or not you buy the argument that Mack Brown has been so frequent and forceful a pioneer at Texas to be the most influential football coach of the last decade, I really detail Mack Brown's revival of Texas as a necessary supplement for the  Muschamp discussion forthcoming in Part 2 of this post. In asking and answering now "What does the ideal next head coach look like?", Mack Brown's story helps shine light on numerous important questions, but most important, it speaks directly to the three questions most fundamental to the Muschamp decision: "First, what is the state of the program and, based on that, what are our priorities and objectives? Second, does one kind of coaching hire--a sucessorship or a traditional nationwide search down the road--better support those priorities and objectives? And third, who is the right person to deliver on our goals?"

Keep this discussion of Mack Brown's Austin revival in mind, then, when thinking through some of the tougher questions about the wisdom of hiring Will Muschamp now. In particular, I'm focused on:

  1. Mack Brown is an excellent example of the proposition that great coaches come in many different flavors. Certainly if we properly look at all of the important skills and responsibilities requisite of today's college head coaches, the best of the bunch are more like snowflakes--substantially similar by virtue of being exceptionally strong in enough areas to overcome weaknesses/mistakes along the way, but individually unique in terms of their particular combination of ability or disability in the many different skills and responsibilities that constitude the job. What can we learn from the successes and failures that have accompanied Mack Brown's combination of strengths and weaknesses?

  2. Where Mack Brown's weaknesses have undoubtedly hurt Texas in specific games and seasons, it may well be that the very best thing that Texas could have had happen in 1998 was the arrival of a coach with Mack Brown's particular vision, ability, and enthusiasm for building a machine for the modern game. And though he certainly put Texas natural advantages back to good use, he also pioneered new ways to get ahead of the game.

    In bridging that wide gap between Royal-era excellence and sustained elite status in the modern college football world, when Mack Brown steps down he will be handing to his successor keys to a gigantic, well-oiled, churning-at-near-capacity machine. Given Mack's success in restoring Texas to superpower status, what can we take from the story of the man who built this apparatus? Specifically, how much value might there be in an on-site, in-person, multi-year training by Mack Brown, of his successor? Likewise, and back to point one, what from Mack's story can we project about the strength-weakness combinations best suited for the program in its present state?

  3. What from the way Mack Brown has achieved his successes at Texas speaks to why Texas--a program in peak form--might opt for a Muschamp successorship instead a traditional vacancy search? Shouldn't one of the benefits of handing off such a high performing, highly developed machine be that Mack Brown and Deloss Dodds can fairly conclude--arguably even should/must conclude--that the legitimate questions and risks that accompany a Will Muschamp successorship lose out when weighed against:

    (1) the 2008-2010/11 conference and national title chances adversely impacted by Muschamp heading elsewhere,
    (2) the potential for all involved in the 2-3 year overlap period to identify and address Muschamp hurdles/weaknesses,
    (3) the obvious ability and immediate impact Muschamp has demonstrated in less than a year on campus, and
    (4) how the strengths of the machine lessen the risk of Muschamp's potential weaknesses, while Muschamp's demonstrated strengths strongly suggest he can and will hit the ground running, competing from Day 1 for conference and national championships.

  4. And finally, what, if anything, might we learn from the painful twenty-year dark ages when the program's leaders couldn't actualize what "We're Texas" is supposed  to mean? What does it tell us about how much we should value having the man who finally bridged that gap able to groom an in-staff successor, teaching him everything about sustaining and growing the Texas program in the 21st century.

    And on the flip side of that coin, should we be concerned about the potential danger in assuming that just because Texas Resource Power does in fact guarantee that virtually all worthwhile candidates will have interest in the job, the (presumably) more experienced head coach to emerge from the nationwide search will better able to transition Texas than would be a coach of Muschamp's caliber, aided by successorship preparation and guidance? 

    Put another way, if Deloss Dodds and Mack Brown undertook a serious analysis weighing Muschamp's weaknesses against his many demonstrated strengths, plus what they know Mack Brown can do to help transition him, and their conclusion was a firm, unhesitating "Muschamp would be great for this job," then it follows that the value in a nationwide is very much a gamble of its own. It's a bet that based on the desirability of the job, Texas will among the candidates properly identify and hire a head coach whose experience provides the basis to outperform Will Muschamp after in-house training. It's also a gamble that Will Muschamp isn't the best coach for the job. And it's a gamble that the wait for a nationwide search is so valuable as to justify the opportunity costs that will accompany Muschamp's departure to Tennessee or Clemson or wherever he's gobbled up.

    If "We're Texas" is a perfectly legitimate way of saying that the job is guaranteed to have a long line of attractive-looking takers, the lean years should tell us something about the very real difference between having  resources and knowing how to put them to proper use. And in that regard, given what we know about Mack Brown, what we know about Will Muschamp, what we know about the big prizes Texas might win in the near term if Muschamp stays on as DC, what we know about the likely benefits of a 2-3 year head-coach-in training work from Mack Brown, and what we don't know about whomever in the national pool would look best in 2011... why wait? .
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