Meeting Texas-Sized Expectations: Mack Brown's Hot Seat

My response to too many emails the past six weeks has been to stick a star next to them, to be returned when time permitted. So with time finally back on my side for a bit, I was excited to receive the following email from HornBrain, who wrote for this year's annual a comparative essay on Mack Brown's record at Texas as compared with his peers local (Darrell Royal and Fred Akers) and national (Pete Carroll, Bob Stoops, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, and Lloyd Carr).

You'll want to read the whole chapter in the book this summer, but for now, it suffices to note that the glaring red X on Mack's resume is his performance against Top 10 teams. With that in mind, Dustin's email and my response after the jump:

Peter,

I must say, doing my chapter for the Eyes of Texas has really changed my opinion of Mack.  I always thought people were exaggerating when they said Mack can't win the big game and the like, but now I'm not so sure.  You can make the argument that he's the 4th coach that you'd pick to run your program out of the six, assuming they all had equal access to talent which we know isn't true.  He'd be behind Carroll, Bowden and probably Bob Stoops.  Bob may drop a few that he shouldn't, and he's had struggles with the BCS recently, but you can't argue with the beatings he's laid into elite teams.  In fact, the only excuse you could make for his "inflated" record against top teams would be that a lot of those wins were against Mack freakin' Brown, whose teams played like crap until mid-October.  Yikes.  (This analysis excludes the obvious fact that Stoops is a whiny little s@#& and I wouldn't touch him with a 39.5' pole, to borrow from Mr. Seuss.)

So, I ask you.  You've read the article, seen the same numbers I have - what do you think?  Why didn't Mack beat a Top 10 team from 1999 to 2005?  I realize that I pointed out that he's only won one game without a Heisman trophy "winner", but I'm not using the argument that he wouldn't have won without his stars.  What I'm saying is, if Mack's such a great recruiter, why didn't we have a star bright enough to compete with the Top 10 between Ricky and Vince?  We've had the athletes, but none of them have developed.  I'm drowning in pessimism, here, Pete.  Writing that transition about how Mack has changed and blah blah blah felt like regurgitating Bill Little, and it made me want to regurgitate some Schlotzky's.  I just couldn't write an article for a season preview article that was all about how Mack is a cruddy coach.

Sure Mack's got the winningest program nationally since 1998, but I think it's pretty clear why this hasn't translated to a string of Big XII titles.  If you can't beat the top ten, you can't make it through the Big XII undefeated.  There's going to be someone along the way that will be an elite team, usually OU, and if you want to win the XII, you're going to have to beat them.  While Stoops has his problems, he can beat those good teams (usually Texas), thus giving him at least one free loss to give away to the Texas Techs of the world and still be headed to the title game.  Something is definitely wrong here, but is it Mack or Mack's loyalty to the likes of Davis?  That's the real question.  Defensively, the next two years should be some of the best we've had, but no stars are rising to fill that big black hole in the sky that Vince left 2 years ago.  So, what do you think, Peter?


I think that the ninth blog post I ever wrote, way back in 2004, was a response to a  question very similar to the one you pose today. Fortuitously, the Vince Young gravy train had just left the station at that point, making me the luckiest, happiest sports blogger on the planet for at least a full year and a half. But perhaps with last November's humiliating loss to Texas A&M we've come full circle, the Vince Young respite sufficiently historical that questions about Mack Brown's weaknesses are again ripe for discussion.

Though I'm sure my answer will be a little dissatisfying to some, at this point I am who I am as a sports analyst and I can't black-and-white these things as easily as I'd often like to. Like, say, after a Texas loss to Oklahoma. Regardless, the way Texas fans answer Horn Brain's question marks the fork in the road for the fanbase, so I'll weigh in with my own two cents.

It seems to me Texas fans are divided among three different answers to questions regarding Mack Brown's Texas track record: (1) I'm more or less fully satisfied with how Mack Brown has performed as head coach. (i.e. No change needed.) (2) I think Mack Brown has exhibited fundamental weaknesses that have precluded truly elite success without a superfreak like Vince Young, but I'm not sold on the argument that he's incapable of making adjustments/improving. And (3) I think Mack Brown is fundamentally flawed as a coach to such a degree that the top level of success is beyond his capabilities without a once-a-generation player like Vince Young.

Readers who've joined me for Texas sports talk the past four years probably know that I fall in camp two. Though I could probably write an entire book exploring all the elements of just this one question, for the Cliff's Notes version it suffices to lump my full set of reasons into two broad categories: those related to Mack Brown himself and those related to my paradigmatic view of the college football landscape (and sports) in general.

My Views on Mack

Because I've sludged through the same exasperating defeats, I have no trouble empathizing with those whose own analysis concludes in the more pessimistic view of Mack Brown's top-end abilities. However, though several of the lowest moments of his tenure pushed me right up to the line of resigned pessimism, I've heretofore resisted crossing it, in large part because I think Mack Brown is both tougher and more flexible than a lot of people give him credit for - sufficiently so to keep me out of the pessimist's camp.

For me, I think an underdiscussed point about Mack Brown is that he is both by nature and training an extremely conservative/'traditional' football coach. That's relevant to me in a number of ways. For starters, in the PB Book of Coaching Ideals, his starting point is, overall, less than ideal.1 And specifically, its various manifestations have cost Texas in the win column at times - in particular, as HornBrain notes, against the very best competition.

With that said, where I diverge from a full blown pessimist is my unwillingness to say that he's clearly hit his ceiling. To me, that view both is both inconsistent with a complete view of his track record and too definitive a conclusion for what I'd call an ambiguous set of evidence.

On the first point (his track record), I note again Mack Brown's conservative starting point. While concededly not ideal, it bears on how we evaluate his ability and willingness to make changes. I'd argue Mack Brown would not - hell, could not -  have won a national championship without enough flexibility and willingness to adapt that the VY coronation required. Even if Mack Brown needed Vince Young more than the other way around, lesser coaches would not have put it all together. To whatever extent you agree with me on that point, I think you have to credit Mack Brown adaptability points.

To put it in perspective, when Vince Young was a junior at Madison, Mack Brown was so far removed from the coach we eventually saw in 2005 that he had to be convinced by pleading assistant coaches to recruit the athletic marvel from Houston as his next quarterback. So whatever points I'd ding Mack Brown for his conservative background that very nearly prevented the Vince Young era from coming to being, I simultaneously see as evidence of just how far he had to evolve between 2002 and January 4, 2006.

To keep this post from being longer than it already is going to be, I'll refrain from laundry listing all the other examples of ways I think Mack Brown has shown that he is capable of and willing to make changes. The pessimist's response to this tends to be to note that even if he's demonstrated some ability to make adjustments, this is a question of degree. On this I agree, but to me it raises my second point: the leap to the conclusion that Mack Brown has hit a ceiling is at this time to great for me to make. The evidence seems to me a mixture of maddening fundamental weaknesses and a not insignificant willingness and ability to problem solve.

From my seat in May 2008, I have no hesitation acknowledging I've seen enough of Mack Brown to know that if he fails to identify, appreciate, and overcome some of the things that hold him back as a football coach, he has indeed more or less hit his max speed - very good but not great. I just happen to think the full weight of evidence precludes the writing in ink of the remaining Mack Brown chapters. I think he's a much tougher and more resilient SOB than a lot of people appreciate, and find the pessimist's conclusion premature. Ask me again when 2009 is in the books and I may have a different answer.

The Nature of the Beast

The discussion of the college football landscape in general and its relevance in how we evaluate Mack Brown is an enormous topic I'm not going to attempt to tackle thoroughly in this post. Instead, just a few general notes on issues worth considering when evaluating Mack Brown.

First, though the "We're Texas!" attitude ingrained in us makes it hard to fully accept, there is far, far more parity in the game than there used to be. The rich remain rich - no question about it - but they can't be tycoons like the olden days when, not coincidentally, we last saw dynasties. Though there's plenty of room to quibble about how much parity exists in the game, it's enough for now to say, first, that Mack's national best record over the past decade is worth significantly more than it used to be and, second, that in my estimation the best case position a team can (realistically) hope to be in is one in which it mops the floor with everyone against whom it's properly favored to ensure maximum capitalization in those years in which it also manges to win the games against the best of the best.2

To varying degrees, Mack Brown has done that, with a national title to show for it. The lack of elite success outside his VY window is notable, and as discussed above, if Mack fails to make appropriate changes during the twilight of his career, his VY moment may be his only crowning moment. But even that wouldn't undermine the point that the best case scenario in college football as it exists right now is making sure you're in the right neighborhood every single year. There are coaches who do that even better than Mack Brown, but I'm always a little perturbed by the extreme segment of the pessimist bloc who take the last decade for granted. Even at Texas, where we're ideally situated to achieve that position, it is far from a given. I thank my lucky stars that I was young enough that 1984-97 Texas football weren't a part of my adult life as a football fan.

Second, there's another side of the "We're Texas!" coin - our expectations for and reputation as a relatively clean program that values character and education. That expectation never has been, nor ever will be, a barrier to elite success, but neither should it be taken for granted nor considered when evaluating a coach's merits. I wrote last week about my generally cynical view of the state of amateur athletics, and though I know Texas' hands aren't perfectly clean, scuzzy business continues through the Mack Brown era to be incidental rather than endemic. I appreciate that. A lot.

Third, and perhaps most telling, the on-field standards we have at Texas are not unique. Fans at programs as richly situated as our own have the same demands as we do. And yet they all have their own list of groans about their coach and his limitations. And certainly by the standards we all hold our coaches to, not a single one passes the test. USC loses at home to the Stanford Cardinal while its reputation as a playboy mansion for the disinterested (in NCAA rules) balloons. Oklahoma fans let out collective moans of disgust after inexplicable losses to Colorado and, to a lesser degree, Texas Tech. And we could linger on OU's long history of sleaziness, but won't bother given that the fans have no demands for appropriate behavior which could be let down.

The list goes on and on, the exhaustion of which would only show that no coach has demonstrated an ability to do what it is we think Mack Brown should be doing. And even where I agree Mack Brown has plenty of room to improve, I find a pervasively pessimistic evaluation to be unpalatable.

Conclusion

I lay all that on the table as background for the points I'd make in response to Horn Brain's question:

  1. I think Horn Brain very accurately framed the top-end issue at stake.
  2. I agree with Horn Brain's pessimistic fears to the extent that I think any 'business as usual' approach from Mack Brown would continue the trend of struggles against the best.
  3. I think the question as presented is too dismissive of the value of Mack Brown's mopping the floor with non-Top 10 teams.
  4. I think that if Mack Brown has hit his ceiling, I'll count my lucky stars if every Texas coach is at least as successful. (And not sleazy.)
  5. Agree though I may with Horn Brain's presentation of the problem, I can't share in the "drowning in pessimism." Optimistic wouldn't be the right word, either, but even at the lowest moment in a long while (immediately following the A&M loss), I wrote that I was hopeful Mack Brown had it in him to shift gears. Well, I don't think you have to feel like Bill Little to like the changes we saw soon after that. While Mack's harshest critics were declaring with such certainty that he was incapable of the changes a truly elite coach would make, he started making precisely such changes for the bowl season. And when we trounced ASU and the same critics argued the win would lull Brown into complacency, he gave those critics a dose of Boom Motherf*cker, with a side of Applewhite. Mack's been left for dead many times in his career. I wouldn't count him down and out until you're absolutely sure.
  6. Finally, try to remember not just that this particular story is a familiar one at every football program with Texas-sized expectations, but that it was especially prominent right here in Austin as recently as November 2004. We were told then that Mack Brown had peaked. False.

Like I said at the outset, my thoughts on this won't exactly secure me a seat at the table of 'Around The Horn,' but I rarely find black/white, yes/no, this/that conclusions particularly satisfying. I'm pretty comfortable operating in the gray, where I can see Mack Brown's strengths and weaknesses with equal clarity.

Of course, lest anyone conclude I'm a cyborg, I should probably note that I'm greedily eyeballing 2009 as Mack Brown's next great opportunity to put together the kind of season we all want. And that if we're still talking about this at the conclusion of the season I'm so eagerly anticipating, I'll probably resign myself to counting down to Mack's retirement, so we can thank him for his good while starting to look for someone with a higher ceiling.

1 This is not to say that my prototype head coach for today's college football would be at the other extreme. Some elements of Mack Brown's conservative nature and training serve him very well and are characteristics the ideal coach would possess.

2Given the large number factors involved in determining the outcome of a single game between two more or less evenly matched teams, many of which are beyond the reach of the capital 'T' Team (not to mention the coach), which team wins the particular game that actually unfolds is at least in part a product of the fickle mistress that is variance. Again, we could spend a book's worth of material talking about this.

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