Ten Questions For Texas Football: (2) We're Texas

"We Are Texas."  That's the slogan Mack Brown's football team has adopted for their 2009 season, and while I had personally grown quite fond of HK's suggested "Leave No Doubt," I'm not with Big Roy, who isn't feelin' it, or Scipio Tex, who couldn't resist (quite humorously) snarking it.

Mocking the Belmont marketing machine is fun sport, but I'll step up to be the one to talk about this as though there's more to the team slogan than all those consumer-oriented banners and posters that they adorn with the words and a logo they paid GSD&M $800,000 to create. While we may not care much about this (or any) slogan as a synthetic gimmick of the sales trade, we often do care about the values it is meant to convey. Slogans may be a laughing matter, but team leadership, attitude, and unity are not -- which is I didn't give much thought to Texas' 2006 "Do Your Part" campaign, but I crapped a twenty-pound turkey watching the team indifferently lose to A&M.

I won't spend any time caring about this year's magic words, either, but I can promise you I care whether this group of Longhorn coaches and players have a championship make up to match the championship-level talent. You want your team to have both, so join me after the jump as I dig deep to channel my inner Bill Little for (1) a few words on why if Texas runs the table for another shot at Rose Bowl glory, those three little words might tell the story of the team's, and Mack Brown's, triumph; and (2) a timely excerpt from this year's Eyes of Texas annual.

2. What does it mean to say, "We're Texas"?

According to Jordan Shipley, the team adopted We Are Texas as its 2009 slogan "because we have moved forward on the Big 12 tiebreaker and the BCS. We aren't worrying about the system, we are just concerned about what we can control, and that's how we play."

It wasn't long ago when increasingly restless fans were fairly criticizing Mack Brown for appearing too comfortable with Very Good, a characteristic which was holding him and the program back from being Great. It wasn't that most Texas fans were unaware of, or dissatisfied by, Brown's considerable successes, but that they began to perceive his coaching behavior -- his unwillingness to trust even the most capable of freshmen, the over-valuation of seniority in the depth charts, reactive game planning, and the like -- as that of a coach who only knew how to try to look good by ensuring he never looked bad.

So how did we get to where we are today? Looking across his career years in Austin, there's been something of an inverse relationship between Mack Brown's preoccupation with perception and the performance of his teams on the field. When Mack oversold Top 10 rankings and 10-win seasons, we dropped 5 straight to OU... When Mack let go with VY, we all danced... When he coasted on the goodwill of the national title, we lost to Ron Prince and Dennis Franchione. Twice... When he angrily rebooted after A&M '07, we fired on all cylinders, upgraded the coaching staff, dusted OU, and nearly made Miami...

Everything we've seen from this team in the eight months since, including, perhaps, the team slogan, suggests Mack Brown and his squad are anything but satisfied with last season's success, and hell no they're not interested in playing the victim. Instead they went home pissed off, licked their wounds, and then furiously went to work channeling that anger into becoming better, faster, stronger, smarter. The giant that is Texas football has been awake for some time; now it's angry.

All of which is why I grow more confident by the day that while this year's title hopefuls won't have the indomitable Vince Young, the 2009 Longhorns look ready to attack the season with just as much confidence, hunger, can't-lose resolve, and, yes, even swagger... The only difference will be in the huddle, where Texas won't ride fast-and-loose alongside a quarterback who made sure every one of them knew "We Gangsta", but one who they'll fight fearlessly alongside until everyone knows "We Are Texas."

 

Anger a giant at your own risk.

 

 

 

When I read about our slogan last night I was nearing completion of the next in the Ten Questions series, asking what potential impact the 2009 season might hold for the legacies of both Mack Brown and Colt McCoy. I might get to McCoy in another question (with a few thoughts on Brown), but the announcement of the team's slogan today presents a timely opportunity to publish for everyone one of the articles from this year's annual, titled... you guessed it, "We're Texas."

I've already shared a few thoughts on how one might interpret this year's slogan to be a reflection of an exciting attitude among the coaches and players. In the article below, I detail some 40 years of "We're Texas" talk, and why Mack Brown has succeeded in giving meaning to the phrase for the first time since Darrell Royal took the program to the top.

 

 

WE'RE TEXAS

By Peter Bean

"We are the proud and privileged guardians of a rare and priceless book called the Gutenberg Bible...and a Longhorn named Bevo.  Amen.  We're Texas."

--Walter Cronkite, for the University of Texas-Austin--

"We're Texas." The University captured in two words, thank you very much. So good is each of the campaign's TV spots, it almost feels wrong to name a favorite, but if I had to I wouldn't hesitate in choosing the 30-second Gutenberg Bible spot, the script of which is quoted above. As far as I'm concerned, it's the Platonic Ideal for a television ad, and I could easily devote every word of this article to its many merits-from the cleverly scored accompanying music, to the playful, pitch-perfect delivery of the script by Walter Cronkite, if there is a masterpiece division for 30-second television advertisements, this one surely belongs.

Though this article won't be an exploration of those videos, it will be one of their theme: "We're Texas." In particular, my focus is on two related lines of thought: First, I'll lay out my theory as to how several manifestations of the mindset captured by "We're Texas" has been unhelpful to the development of the football program for nearly 40 years. And second, I'll build on those conclusions to explain how familiar Texas-centric biases have been important driving factors in the pervasive doubt about Mack Brown's coaching ability.

 

1. Texas's Fall From The Top

            When in 1970 Darrell Royal won his third national championship in eight years, Texas Longhorns football had reached the top of the college football mountaintop. It was no fluke. With the right coach leading the program, the resource rich Longhorns had at last fully capitalized on the abundance of opportunity they almost uniquely enjoyed: their university sat at the epicenter of an enormous pool of talented high school players, and the program had the resources, tradition, and support to recruit them in droves to Austin to play college ball.

The success the program found itself enjoying was the dominant pinnacle Longhorns fans had long thought possible, and they summed up that success in two words: "We're Texas." Though at one level it was harmless boasting typical of any fan whose team was king of the hill, it was more than a celebratory "We're #1!" It was intended, first of all, to be a statement about how the Horns' advantages in location, resources, and recruiting opportunities helped fuel the program's rise to the top. But just as important, it was meant to say that the elite success would last.

On the latter count, they were wrong. By the early 1970s, integration of African American players had begun to fundamentally change the sport, and Texas's fortunes changed right alongside it. Integration in the Southwest Conference as a whole lagged behind most of the nation, but when it did begin in earnest Darrell Royal found recruiting African Americans to his own program to be especially challenging. The difficulties were not, however, rooted in a lack of interest: Royal understood that integration was a competitive necessity, and more than that, he harbored a deep belief that it was morally the right thing to do.

Nevertheless, integration proved to be an uphill battle as Royal navigated obstacles at home and abroad. Outside Austin, UT's rivals negatively recruited Royal's program by telling recruits they wouldn't feel welcomed with the Longhorns. However, arguably more damaging to Royal's efforts was the resistance he faced at home from influential boosters of the program.

As Keith Heugatter compellingly observes two articles ahead in this annual, it's almost impossible to imagine that the lamentably slow pace of UT's integration resulted from the city and university community being more prejudiced against African Americans than its counterparts across the rest of the Southwest Conference-racial biases were at least as prevalent at and around every other SWC campus at the time. Keith's observation is astute, but I'll take it a step further-uniquely compounding UT's problem was the seductive power of a different flavor of bias...namely, that the Longhorns didn't need to integrate. Why not? "We're Texas."

Though it's dangerous to paint any group with a broad brush, I do think there's something to the idea that the particularly burdensome resistance Darrell Royal faced was not a result of UT's supporters being more prejudiced against African Americans, but of being more prejudiced towards Texas.

By way of contrast, consider Oklahoma. Though integration of the football program was much more rapidly embraced in Norman (1956) than in Austin (1970), it was not because the Sooners were more morally enlightened, but rather that they were desperate to attain a competitive edge over a Texas team that had been their superior for most of the previous fifty years. Longhorns fans, meanwhile, viewed their program as the biggest kid on the block and, as such, vastly underestimated integration's impact on the game, while overestimating Texas's ability to remain elite without progressively evolving alongside it.

Royal steadily pushed integration along best he could, but the cumulative damage of Texas fans' miscalculation and opponents' opportunistic negative recruiting very quickly put the Longhorns in a deep hole. By the time fans began to realize the transformative impact integration was having on the sport, it was too late. Just like that, one of the key ingredients to Texas's success-dominance in recruiting-had disappeared.

            As college football rapidly changed, the Horns not only fell quickly behind, but the hated Sooners-who had integrated early precisely in furtherance of this advantage-were perfectly positioned to slip through the open door. OU led the charge into the modern era of college football with a dominant five year run from 1971-75, including five straight wins over Texas. In 1976, a weary Darrell Royal ended the losing streak with a 6-6 tie in the Red River Shootout and, at the end of the season, bowed out from coaching with typical grace.

            Almost as quickly as it had taken hold, Texas fans' dreams of sustained dominance had crashed and burned. Stunned though they were, most fans assumed the good times were sure to return soon. After all, "We're Texas."

 

2. A Slow Start Becomes a Thirty-Year Slump

            After mourning the legendary coach's decision, Longhorns fans turned their attention towards returning the program to the ranks of the nation's elite. Successor Fred Akers very nearly took Texas right to the top in 1977, his first at the helm of the program. Akers' Longhorns were a perfect 11-0 during the regular season-including a 13-6 win in the RRS over #2 Oklahoma-earning UT a #1 national ranking and a Cotton Bowl date with #5 Notre Dame.  It was a forgettable performance (the Irish trounced the Horns 39-10), but Darrel Royal's successor had seemingly proven in his debut season that Texas could and would remain competitive under his watch.

            Over the next six seasons from 1978-83, Akers' Longhorns won 9, 9, 7, 10, 9, and 11 games. Texas went 4-2 in the Red River Shootout (with wins over OU squads ranked #3, #12, #10, and #8), 4-2 against Arkansas (3 wins over Top 10-ranked Hogs teams), and 4-2 against the Aggies (including back-to-back wins by 32+ points in 1982-83). Against ranked teams during that six season stretch, Fred Akers' Longhorns went 16-8; against Top 10 teams they were a dazzling 12-5.

            Despite all that, when the 1983 season ended just like the '77 season-this time with the 11-0 Longhorns losing a heartbreaking 10-9 contest to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl-the perception of Akers became dominated by discontentment with what he hadn't done. The five seasons of nine or more wins, including four final rankings in the AP Top 10-much of that success was taken for granted because, well, "We're Texas."

            For his part, Akers never really recovered from the shock of the Georgia loss. Texas dropped four games in each of the next two seasons, followed by a six-loss campaign in 1986, and just like that he was fired. Replacing him was his old defensive coordinator, David McWilliams, who struggled to a 16-18 record over his first three seasons. His tenure drew a breath of hopeful air in 1990 when a group of overachievers went on their Shock The Nation tour, but a 5-6 encore in '91 sealed McWilliams' fate after just five seasons.

Texas' next head coach, John Mackovic, was a modest improvement, but in the end lasted just one season longer than had McWilliams. By the time Mackovic's loss in Waco guaranteed 1997 would be the last of his six years at the helm, the Texas program not only was nowhere near the nation's best...it was no longer the state's best. Unthinkably, that honor belonged to Texas A&M. How had things gone so incredibly wrong?

            Even with the benefit of hindsight, there are no short and easy answers to that question, but at least part of the problem was that for too many, for too long, there was little inquiry at all. It was enough to note that Texas enjoyed many natural advantages and should be better: "We're Texas, for crying out loud."

            If the first big consequence of our prideful mindset was the role it played in Texas's slow integration and its accompanying competitive disadvantages, then the second is the way it blinded many from rigorously evaluating the program's slump. Identifying the problem that needs fixing may be a necessary first step to finding its solution but it is not sufficient on its own, and too often that's as far as things got with Texas football-stating the problem: "Texas should be better." Ultimately, that's as unhelpful as would be a visit to the doctor in which he does nothing more than take your temperature, observe the presence of a fever, and pronounce you ill. "Thanks, Doc...But, uh, is it a cold or malaria?"

3. Mack Brown Mythology

            Texas fans were decidedly optimistic about the coach Deloss Dodds hired in 1998 to revive the program-Mack Brown. But if there was any doubt whether the "We're Texas" mindset would persevere into the 21st century, Brown's first 10 years in Austin put those to rest. After seven seasons, his performance arc eerily tracked that of Fred Akers. Brown's teams won 9, 9, 9, 11, 11, 10, and 11 games, including a 15-2 ledger against teams ranked #11-25. Brown's Longhorns were 6-1 against Texas A&M and from 2000-04 UT finished ranked 12th, 5th, 6th, 12th and 5th. And yet, also like Akers, at the end of his seventh season Mack Brown was being defined by what he was not. His sins: a 2-10 record against teams ranked in the Top 10, and a five game losing streak to Oklahoma.

But unlike Fred Akers, who fell apart after his devastating loss in the Cotton Bowl in year seven, Mack Brown rallied from his (a 12-0 loss to OU in 2004) to win his next 20 games, including Texas's first national championship in 35 years. Nevertheless, when Brown's teams stumbled down the stretch in each of the next two years, familiar criticisms returned to catalyze a fresh round of tiresome debate between the extreme wings of the fan base.

Everyone was happy during the 20-game win streak during '04-05, but before that, and then again following the disappointments in 2006-07, there was a rift among the most vocal segments of the fan base, mostly carried out on internet message boards. At one extreme were those willing-seemingly eager at times-to criticize Brown and downplay his accomplishments. Central to the critique was a belief that Mack Brown was a pedestrian game day coach who was the beneficiary of the outrageous resources and talent surrounding him. At the other extreme was a group who would recoil in horror at even the slightest mention of displeasure with Brown-whether the critique was indeed unfair, or measured and on point. Endless shouting matches dominated the conversation on many message boards, as extremists wielding branding irons vigilantly jumped in each and every thread, labeling various commenters "Haters" or "Sunshine Pumpers."

            For all their differences, it always seemed to me that both viewpoints suffered from related strains of Texas bias. Those most skeptical of Brown tend to undervalue his accomplishments by overvaluing UT's resources. And on the flipside, those who would undermine even healthy discussion of Mack Brown's strengths and weaknesses betray an unhealthy overconfidence in the sustainability of success achieved.

The pervasiveness of both misperceptions is concerning, but the bigger problem lies in the fact that neither is particularly new. Though there's little about 1960s college football relevant to what's happening on the field today, there is article started way back with Darrell Royal's peak and traced Texas's 30-year slump: the same misconceptions still figure prominently today. Given that history, it's worth trying to understand not only how Mack Brown restored Texas football to elite status, but also whether it's likely to last. Because that is the way to give content to the otherwise limited idea: "We're Texas."

            Notwithstanding my concerns about the potential consequences of particularly nefarious manifestations of "We're Texas" mythmaking, the baseline idea is perfectly sound: in terms of resources and baseline advantages, there may not be another football program quite as well situated as is the University of Texas. It was no accident that soon after Texas found the exceptional Darrell Royal, the Longhorns won three national championships in an eight-year span. When Texas has all its ducks in a row, that's the ceiling-multiple national championships in a decade.

            The danger, however, is in the ease with which those advantages can be confused as causes of success. Ultimately, it's the same in college football as with anything else: Though abundant resources inarguably provide substantial advantages, they are not self-actualizing, and absent an efficient, highly functional production model their utility is drastically limited. Like crude oil needs a refinery to become gasoline, a football program needs a system capable of amassing, refining, and transforming its own resources into a successful on-field product.

To be fair to us Texas fans, we're hardly the only ones to have been seduced by myths about head coaches and what constitutes their success. If anyone doubts the argument that these tainted perceptions can carry tangible, long-lasting consequences, consider the mainstream media-driven myth of the "genius head coach" and its role in the Charlie Weis debacle at Notre Dame. Shortly after being hired as the new head coach of the Fighting Irish, Weis boasted about the "decided schematic advantage" he was about to unleash on the college football world. "Now it's X's and O's time. Let's see who has the advantage now."

When Notre Dame won nine games during Weis's debut season, the subsequent media gushing was typically obnoxious. The genuinely shocking overreaction came from Notre Dame itself: a mere seven games into that first season, the university extended Weis's contract to a guaranteed 10 years, at the highest per annum salary in college football. Just two seasons later, of course, the Fighting Irish lost the most games in school history (9), including their first setback to Navy in over 40 years. Last year, Notre Dame went just 6-6.

Many fans fairly concluded from Weis's flop that he simply isn't the playbook genius he and the media had purported him to be. That's assuredly true, but the better lesson might be that there's no such thing as a football genius. Or put another way: Even if Weis, or any coach, does have a great mind for play design and game planning, it's value is just as limited as is a great business idea with nothing more-building something successful from it requires more. A lot more.

4. The Big Breakthrough

            Evaluating Mack Brown through a system-building lens helps pull everything into focus. First and foremost, the actions Brown took from his first day on the job suggest he was acutely aware of the comprehensiveness of the task in front of him (system building) and had a cohesive, long-term, strategic vision for completing it. He embraced the program's culture and traditions in a dozen different ways, starting with the relationship he cultivated with Darrell Royal. He tirelessly marketed the program directly and indirectly-be that by making himself available to fans, aggressively branding and developing an online presence, or partnering with the business community. Under Brown's direction, fundraising was elevated to unprecedented levels-in both emphasis and volume. And he began implementing a plan to establish himself and his program with high school coaches throughout the state.

            Almost immediately, Brown's aggressive, holistic approach to rebuilding the program returned the Longhorns to a nationally competitive level. But when in his seventh season Texas lost for a fifth consecutive year to Oklahoma, more and more fans and pundits took to characterizing him as a "CEO" masquerading as a football coach-an attempt to downplay the value of Brown's system-building accomplishments by divorcing them from the field of play, where Texas was less successful. After a brief recess during Vince Young's run, by the end of the rocky '06-'07 campaigns, familiar criticisms had returned, as it became clear that a substantial number of observers outside the program, and fans within it, didn't fully comprehend, or particularly trust, Mack Brown's success. The brilliant 2004-05 run meant most of the 2007 complaints were markedly more tempered, but it was difficult for Texas fans-myself included-to avoid focusing on Mack Brown's apparent limitations, while wondering whether it was time to conclude that he was "merely" a very good football coach, a bit shy of great.

            And then 2008 happened. For all my finger-wagging about troublesome misperceptions, truth be told I couldn't quite connect all the dots around Mack Brown until last October's 45-35 thriller in the Cotton Bowl, when for the first time in ten Stoops-Brown clashes, the lower ranked team emerged victorious. Though the Horns were denied a shot at last year's title, and nobody wants an asterisk, the 2008 turnaround season brought into sharp focus what it is that Mack Brown does exceptionally well, and why he's a great head football coach.

After back-to-back losses to mediocre A&M squads, it's hard to blame fans in 2007 for missing just how big and powerful Mack Brown's machine was becoming.  A year later, however, it's much easier to see why Brown has succeeded: (1) he understands the importance of, and how to implement, steady, long-term development and strengthening of the program "system" as a whole; (2) he has demonstrated a willingness and ability to make substantial changes in the system when things break down; and (3) in evaluating problems and considering solutions, he manages never to overreact, but moves forward in a measured and sensible way compatible with longer-term objectives.

Upon reflection, the 2008 season wasn't a Cinderella story, but instead a breakthrough Mack Brown has been building towards for a long time: While Brown was picking up an enormous amount of experience from 10 full years of striving to meet his and his teams' countless near-term goals (day-to-day, game-to-game, full season schedule, etc.), he simultaneously continued growing and developing the program's infrastructure.

But because after 2007 nobody understood just how strong Brown's machine had become after a decade of vigilant attendance to his twin goals, everybody was surprised that the post-A&M round of substantive changes to the Texas machine-ditching the depth chart, shaking up the coaching staff, giving freshmen a chance to play-yielded such immediate, extensive improvement. To be sure, Brown needed to make those important changes before the machine would be capable of running at its full, awesome capacity, but therein lies the beauty of the all the groundwork that Brown had laid over the previous decade. After a full ten years of dedicated development, the Texas football program was fundamentally much stronger than most realized, which explains the incongruence between observers' expected and the team's actual 2008 improvements: if it had been fighter aircraft instead of football, the fan perception was that the design on which Mack Brown was trying to improve was an original F-14 Tomcat, while in reality the starting point was the much more highly developed fourth-gen F-18 Hornet. Fans were no more likely to conclude that Texas would achieve the success that it did than they would be to think realistic transforming the Tomcat into the fifth-gen F-22 stealth-cruiser patrolling Air Force skies today. 

The 2008 season thus brought the Texas fan base back full circle to its controversial starting point: Mack Brown, system builder. What started in 2000 as a statement of his limitations became in 2008 the source of fan excitement and optimism about the program's near- and long-term future. Everyone agreed Mack Brown was a very good head coach; what we weren't sure about was whether or not his approach had hit its ceiling.  Only time will tell how the final few chapters of Mack Brown's career will read, but following the enormously successful turnaround in 2008, the retention of Will Muschamp, the exciting potential this fall during Colt McCoy's senior season, the exciting potential of his successor Garrett Gilbert, and the exceptional recruiting class Austin-bound in 2010, the program's future has never been brighter. Not in the sport's modern era, at least.

Not only is Mack Brown worthy of discussion alongside his friend and mentor Darrell Royal, but since Brown's arrival his legendary predecessor has sagely counseled him, including as to the importance of staying ahead of the crowd. Whereas Royal's peak was interrupted because UT was too slow adapting to fundamental changes in the sport, in many important ways Mack Brown is the one fundamentally changing the game. He pioneered an important evolution in recruiting practices. Few, if any, have better utilized the internet and online media. He has understood the relationship between resources and capability. And he has patiently avoided overreactions, focused on creating and developing a system, avoided catastrophic setbacks, made key adjustments, and grabbed opportunities as they arose. If his efforts are rewarded with another national title before he bows out, he'll cement his place on the short list of the game's great coaches in the modern era.

Build a huge machine, fine tune the gears, gather raw resources, and put it all together...It took nearly 30 years for Texas to find a head coach who could do for the program in the modern era of college football what Darrell Royal was able to do in the preceding one, but this is how amazing resources can be turned into lasting success.

And this is what you need to be able to point to when you boast to another fan, "We're Texas."

Amen.

 

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