This post started as Morning Coffee, but my first bullet quickly spilled over brief note territory to a sprawling in-depth treatment. I may do a third part to this series tackling some of the particulars I said in Part 1 would be the focus of Part 2. Today, though, how three sentences from Brian Orakpo spoke to the heart of my enthusiasm for the Muschamp retention plan.
About two hours after the final regular season BCS Standings were released, Mack Brown and three veteran team leaders (Quan Cosby, Colt McCoy, and Brian Orakpo) sat down and soldiered through the "How does it feel?" routine with the press. Texas' trio of representatives dutifully walked through uncontroversial statements which surely undersold their true level of frustration and disappointment.
Though the "How bad does it sting?" portion of the program read straight from a script, the news conference featured one nugget that leapt out at me: Brian Orakpo called 2008 his "favorite season" as a Longhorn--a notable characterization on Day of Snub, and from no less than a 2005 national title winner. In elaborating, the words Orakpo naturally drifted to were "fun" and "team." The first thought that popped into my mind was that Orakpo's sentiments were validation of the remarkable turnaround commitment from Mack Brown following last year's disaster in College Station, an immediate, multi-stage effort impressive in many regards--none bigger than the decision to demote Duane Akina and hire Will Muschamp.
Among the many reasons to support the Muschamp successorship decision, Orakpo's spirit speaks to the heart of why I so strongly believe this was the right move with the right coach at the right time. Even in the preseason, his practice habits and explanations to the press of his philosophies gave me great hope this coach was every bit worthy his reputation. He implemented heavy contact hitting in spring drills (including a daily Hard Hat Award for the player who laid the best lick in practice) and by August, Texas linebacker Rod Muckelroy was telling reporters that Muschamp's legendary onni-presence was literal: Texas' new defensive coordinator had begun to invade Muck's dreams. By kickoff of the season opener, all the early signs indicated Texas had on its staff exactly the right coach to fully actualize everything Mack Brown thought needed improving after things bottomed out against Texas A&M.
There has been throughout this season a discernable, bonded commitment to Team and all the responsibilities that come with it, manifest in countless little ways that count--be it Lamarr Houston insisting he make right on his mistake by apologizing to both the team and local press or Texas' trio of tailbacks unwaveringly supporting each other in a split-duties situation. Accountability, genuine love of and support for teammates, and a "You go, we go" selfless pursuit of collective goals have been on display all season long. I don't think it at all a coincidence that this is the first Mack Brown Texas team since 1998 to exceed expectations. The 11-year Longhorns head coach deserves a lot of credit for his aggressive approach to righting the ship, elevating in priority a no excuses, you're-with-us-or-you're-out attitude, bringing in Major Applewhite, and making the Muschamp for Akina swap at DC.
RECALLING THE PAST. THEN BURYING IT.
Of all the wonderful accomplishments and developments of this year's team we've talked about throughout the season, arguably the most critical is something we're not talking about: Vince Young. Three years removed sometimes seems an eternity in a fan's world, but speaking as someone deeply entrenched in Texas football fan discussion I can assure you not only that Vince Young (the player, the entity, the centerpiece of QB recruiting theories, and on and on) dominated Longhorns discourse in 2006, 2007, and not infrequently leading up to 2008 (See: Shepherd, R. vs Gilbert, G.), but the Vince Young absence/lingering-presence phenomenon extended far past bleacher banter and was a real component in various ailments of the 2006 and 07 Longhorns football teams.
This season has made it so easy to forget those post-VY identity problems that meaningfully hamstrung Texas' last two squads that I even feel a little rusty writing about him, but now is an appropriate time to make official note that the leadership vacuum after Vince's departure is now a part of history. Though no one feared a post-VY malaise would hover over the program indefinitely, the particular problems Texas suffered from the last two years and their resolution in 2008 raise several relevant points worth exploring in some detail.
LEADERSHIP YOU'RE BORN WITH
It's not uncharitable to say Vince Young was the missing puzzle piece Mack Brown needed to summit the mountain. My personal take has always been that while Mack needed VY to get to the very top, he got there, which is what he was supposed to do. Champagne toasts all around, yes? If only. There of course have been lingering critics who try to cheapen Mack's accomplishments with "Yeah, but VY," an objection I think totally misses the forest for the trees. If 2005 wound up Mack's only mountain summit, as far as I'm concerned his tenure would still have to be considered an overall success.
With that said, it sure felt last November like Texas either needed another once-a-decade player and, more importantly, superior leader like Vince Young, or else Mack Brown's last 5-8 years in the program might well hover in that 'very good but not great' zone. Though much of the fan obsession with Vince Young even after his departure was a natural consequence of his mindblowing feats on the field, beneath that fandom there was also an urgency among fans to find someone who could play and lead like Vince had. If Mack's harshest critics were outspoken in trying to use Mack Brown's success with Vince Young againsthim, unspoken among many Texas fans was an unsettling anxiousness to find the next do-it-all difference maker.
As Texas fans understood well, the importance of the kind of leadership Vince Young provided can't be overstated. It's critical for every team with aspirations of top prizes, and for the 95% of teams whose head coaches, like Mack Brown, don't posses it themselves, the ability to identify, recruit, develop, and utilize those rare players is pretty much the name of the game. While Mack Brown is a masterful orchestrator, much tougher than most realize, and far more sophisticated and intelligent than you'd expect if all you knew about him was his chosen public relations style, Mack Brown has plenty of meaningful leadership skills. But they are of a different kind than those which people like Vince Young provide, and which is an integral component of every football team which manages to summit the mountain.
I walk through all that set up to help illuminate how enormously exciting and important it is that the 2008 team has filled the post-VY vacuum. Part of it is McCoy (who if perhaps is not quite a VY-level team leader is a capable one in his own right). Part of it is the fruit of the tree Mack Brown planted during bowl workouts last year, marking a clear and decisive shift in priorities. Part of it is the new program-wide hyper-commitment to elevated standards of accountability and the like (a great example being Ken Rucker's new position). An exhaustive list would note a host of other positive contributing developments.
But none, I'm confident speculating, are as important as has been the Muschamp hire. Elite leadership (in the Vince Young sense) of a college football team is of the kind that I suspect you're either born with or not. Mack Brown is overflowing with a host of other important leadership skills, but not that natural on-field, team elevating, we'll gladly go to war and fight any army of any size on any day, kind of fire and charisma Texas was treated to with Vince Young and suffered without the past two years. Listening to the players talk, observing some of the changes in preparation, and watching the cohesion and unified spirit with which this team competes look to me very much like direct or indirect beneficiaries of the return of that kind of leadership. I only blog the freaking team, and I would go to war with Will Muschamp. Listening to the way they play together and talk about their fearless leader, God knows what the actual players would do.
It's been obvious from the first day he arrived in Austin that Muschamp is one of those rare special leaders and I very much believe Muschamp's contributions from his leadership style have extended well beyond his ability to teach defense, permeated countless aspects of the team and staff preparation and execution, and on a daily basis elevated and reinforced the absolute highest goals and expectations--a feat he achieves both in by his own example and through other manifestations of his natural, infectious, charisma and leadership.
Even if I'm overstating his importance (and I don't think that I am), there is no question whatsoever that Mack Brown's decision to pursue and hire Muschamp was the single best thing he could have done to support and further the new attitude and goals fundamental to the turnaround he was trying to orchestrate. If Muschamp "only" served that purpose during his tenure, it would have been a damn important contribution. But this is much, much bigger than that.
THAT WAS JUST YOUR APPETIZER, SIR
Assume if only for the remainder of this post that I'm right about Muschamp's particular leadership gifts that particularly help a college football team. If true, Mack Brown not only did the single best thing he could have to support a rally in the short-term, but now, with the coach-in-waiting hire, Texas football may well be set for years and years to come. While it's wonderful to bottle a genie like Vince Young for four years, the real jackpot is landing that rarest head coach who does well all the things coaches are supposed to do but also on his own possesses that particular kind of charisma and leadership that inspires and gets the very most out of individual players and the team they comprise.
Frankly, 95% of the reason I'm not totally devastated by this year's BCS bullshit is because I 100% believe the Texas football program is far and away the strongest it's been in my lifetime. Better even that 2005, which was as great a season as we could ever hope to have, but depended very much on Vince himself, which obviously is a winning formula with a very short shelf life. A successful head coach can last for decades.
The Muschamp hire ideally reinforced Mack Brown's short-term turnaround goals, was critical in this team's thirlling and unexpected 11-1 run, and led to a long-term agreement that will keep Muschamp in Austin and eventually put him at the helm, a move I obviously think outstanding. And while we're here, think about this, too: Though I'd be surprised if Muschamp-as-successor was considered by Deloss and Mack much or at all prior to his hiring, even if it had I would bet the farm that the overwhelming/probably the only reason Texas made this offer was because of what he's shown in just 9 months on campus. As Deloss Dodds recently said (and many of you pointed out when the successorship was announced), "We are the Joneses." Applied to this situation, I translate the job offer as, "We only are doing this because we believe this guy is nothing short of excellent in every important way."
Though I suppose there may be some Muschamp skeptics among the faithful--justifiable given his lack of head coaching experience--every single thing I seen from and learned about Will Muschamp over the last year has not just reinforced, but furthered, my enthusiasm for and belief in what he offers as a college football coach.
And that's why today, when I might otherwise be moping and bitching and harassing my way through the Big 12 snub, I remain in relatively good spirits, awfully excited about where this program is and appears to be headed, and thankful, even, for back-to-back losses to A&M in 2006-07--without which Texas probably does not pursue Muschamp, potentially coasts along in 'very good not great mode,' and has no set plan for Mack's replacement when he steps down in 2-3 years.
FUN. OH, RIGHT. THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN
Don't forget that Orakpo quote the next time you get into a good conversation with a buddy about this 2008 Texas football season. Underneath all the important and impressive things that have factored in its success is the abundance of Team unity, cohesiveness, spirit, and... yeah, fun.
Hey, don't kid yourself: While fun may not sound like something coaches can just whip up on a whim amidst all the grueling work required to prepare for and play through a college football season, that's because they can't. Fun isn't something you plan and coach; it's a byproduct of a unified team that's happy to be working hard together.
Don't just take my word for it, though. Think back to the last time a Texas football team was both working harder than everyone else and always seeming to be so loose and happy about it all.
Oh, yeah.... 2005. That Vince Young guy. You remember him, don't you?