Waiting for Vince: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts?

 

William Mack Brown: I can't go on like this.

Greg Davis: That's what you think.

41821_bcs_championship_alabama_football

Brown: If we parted?  That might be better for us.

Davis: We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Vince comes.

Brown: And if he comes?

Davis: We’ll be saved.

Brown:  Well?  Shall we go?

Davis: Pull on your trousers

Brown: What?

Davis: Pull on your trousers.

Brown:  You want me to pull off my trousers?

Davis:  Pull ON your trousers.

Brown: (Realizing his trousers are down.) True.  (He pulls up his trousers).

Davis: Well?  Shall we go?

Brown:  Yes, let’s go.  (They do not move) *

 

 

 

[I should start off by saying that I hate the meme that "Mack Brown can't win without the greatest player of all time suiting up at quarterback."  It's both disingenuous and false, Mack Brown hasn't had a losing season since 1989.**  However, his recent comments make me think he does need peculiar personalities, those who concentrate on the fun/struggle of micro-level success rather than the glory of macro-level success, to supplement some part of his coaching makeup, even more than he needs their physical abilities.  This isn't bad, unless the supplementary parts are not there.  Now, with that out of the way, Texas just lost to Iowa State and it's time for the Inquisition.***]

Ah, the glory days of August.  Back then, we read words like this with only the mildest incredulity ""I do think this could be our best defense," Brown said, noting health and depth as variables. "We should be really, really good on defense." That was then, unfortunately Brown's plans did not survive contact with the enemy.

Now, the signs of chaos are everywhere.  Mack Brown is protecting his players like a paternal junkyard dog even as he rails against an overweening sense of entitlement.  Allegedly, top young players are thinking about leaving.  Even the defense, led by a man crowned "Boom the Gridiron Demi-God" has suffered from a lack of...something.  The coaches claim not to know what they're missing, but both fans and coaches realize the same thing.  By all appearances, the players haven't bought what the coaches are selling, they haven't bought into the blood, sweat and tears it takes to be the among the best at any pursuit, and it appears they may not have bought into themselves.  

I won't be calling out individual players, it's not my style, and it annoys me when other people believe it's necessary to question the manhood and mental acuity of young men.  At 18-22, everyone screws up on a semi-regular basis, it's just that some of us have the good fortune not to screw up publicly, in front of millions of people. That said, I will be exploring the idea of what makes this squad relatively unusual.  With all the dissection on the subject, I doubt I'll be shedding anything truly revelatory on the subject, but I think I have an idea or two about why this vintage of Longhorns doesn't look like a Mack Brown standard.  It has to do with the definition of success, and how defining success in terms of championships has gotten into the way of more mundane things, like beating Iowa State at home.

Football is a fairly complex game, as games go, but it can be broken down into a series of easily digested parts. Each player has a job to do on each play, and the success or failure of any given play hinges on the play of all the players.  It is a game most successfully approached from the smallest step up.  Don't start with winning championships, don't start with winning games, don't start with scoring drives, start with successful plays.  It is the player's job to win his piece of individual plays, and the coaches job to put the players in a position where they can succeed as a whole.  In football, as in many things, consistent micro-level success will beget macro-level success. And on that note, I want to lodge a complaint.

To be honest, I don't really like the slogan "We're Texas."  Sure it bespeaks of a simple arrogance I can identify with, but it also reveals a deep sense of entitlement.  The idea seems to be that simply because Texas (or more aptly in this context, the UT football program) has more natural advantages than just about everywhere else that it is inherently exceptional - that macro-level success is inherent without any attention paid to micro-level success.  As a coach, the idea that "We're Texas" is the most valuable, and dangerous weapon in Brown's arsenal.  Texas tends to win recruiting battles - and occasionally football games - merely by showing up.  But this year, for Texas, it seems that showing up is no longer a given.

It takes a special player, or coach, to overcome the sense of entitlement that comes with being part of the most successful football program in the biggest football state in the country.  It takes an even more unique mindset to have the will to succeed on every play, every drive, and every series - even in the face of wild success.  That is where the title comes from.  The drive to win each play, each series, and each game seems to be missing in the current vintage of Longhorns, by Brown's own admission.  

In defense of the players and contrary to popular belief in some corners, that desire is not inherent to high level athletes, nor is it always a simple "you have it or you don't" switch.**** Indeed, there are many forms of "it". Vince Young had it, among other reasons because he was a singular athelete, and competitor, who at his best appeared unaware that there was any option other than winning a play (or series, or game, or championship). Ricky, for all of his gifts and quirks, was similar. Colt had "it" to the surprise of the Burnt Orange faithful, though in 2007 there were some doubts, which he appeared to feed from until he left.  Big Roy had it because, well, "&(^! you, that's why".*****  Others, like Kindle or Ben Alexander seemed to feed off a mixture of found purpose and directed aggression.  

The key is, almost universally, they generally took each play for what it was and tried to make something of it.  They didn't try to win the game or championship on a single play - well, except for this - nor did they become so focused on macro-level goals like championships that they seemed to disregard the micro goals, like winning individual games.  Defining success at a lower, more digestible, micro-level made them both more likely succeed and more resistant to failure.  The attitude was contagious, and progress could be seen even in a disappointing season. 

The 2010 Longhorns seem to be missing the drive to win each play, and according to their coaches, seemed to be trying to run well before they can walk.  Now, they are unsure if they can do either.  They seem to be missing the will to score every series (or prevent a score), evidently because their goals for the season became unattainable and they had nowhere to go from there.  Both the players and the coaches seemed to consider a championship, or competing for one, a given while bypassing all the micro-successes in between.  Most disconcertingly, Brown after a period of high-level success, sounds genuinely confused about his players, saying variously:

"Opening Statement: ...You also have to play with passion week-in and week-out. I thought the kids mostly played hard. They did not play with passion and confidence. That’s something we’ve prided ourselves on here for a long time."

"On how hard it is to fix the attitude of a young team: ...I tried hard last week, but nobody listened. I was not surprised how hard Iowa State played, and they gained confidence during the game because we allowed them to. It’s a script of the UCLA game. They came in struggling. They weren’t sure if they could win. We allowed them to stand around and get some confidence..."

"On what is being done to motivate the team: I have more emotional motivation sayings and motivational stuff up in the locker room then we’ve ever had. You can’t even see the walls, we’ve got stuff everywhere. With this team, you have to throw stuff up on the wall and hope that some of it sticks."

The possibilities are not appealing to Longhorn fans.  Brown sounds like a coach who doesn't have a player on his roster who buys into the system, the coaches, or his fellow players.  He sounds like he's helming a group of talented, but rudderless young men who think winning is a means unto itself, rather than the end goal.  He sounds like he's alone, waiting by a tree for an inspiring player to arrive and accomplish a job that he simply cannot, but he doesn't know that player, and is not sure if he would recognize the player if he saw him.******  

Maybe that's simply fatigue and frustration talking.  Maybe the proper mindset is being fostered in the players outside the public eye, and maybe the players don't have the same reaction to motivational posters that I do.  Brown has set the stage for a time that will define his legacy, a time of adversity that must be overcome unless he wants the name "Bowden" to be casually whispered through the stadium.  Just like his own players, it will take a great deal of work to help the Longhorn fanbase believe that he's making progress, and not just aimlessly waiting for Vince.*******  I think he's up to it, but Mack, it's going to take a lot of little victories on the road to bigger ones in order to make us believe it.   



*Sometimes in life, you’re confronted with a situation that reminds you of an impish Irish absurdist pondering existentialism.  Usually I find that means someone, somewhere has screwed up something.  The words above come from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy In Two Acts.  If you haven't read it, you don't have to, just watch the 2010 Texas Longhorns and Mack Brown's post-game press conferences.  (But you should read it anyway)

**http://www.cfbdatawarehouse.com/data/coaching/alltime_coach_year_by_year.php?coachid=261

***Am I the only person who can't use that word without thinking of Monty Python?

****One of my great annoyances at college football fans is writing off 18-19 year old kids.  Few are the exact same person at 18 that they are at 22 and, I would posit, those who are didn't accomplish or overcome much in between.

*****Pure literary blogging license.

******The possibility that the mental part of VY, Colt's, Rak's, or Houston's game would be their most important contribution to the longhorns isn't lost on me at the moment.  That it's difficult to recruit young men based on personality doesn't surprise me, but the fact that the coaches have seemed unable to either pre-screen or mold the character and habits of the players necessary to implement their system is beyond merely indefensible.  It is truly absurd.

*******Or Colt.  Or Ricky.  Or Roy. Or Studdard/Blalock.
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