Hallelujah, game week is here at last, the season is upon us, the slate is clean and anything is possible. This may not be the most promising season of the Mack Brown era in terms of wins and losses, but I'm nonetheless as excited and intrigued by the future as I've ever been -- including, by the way, 2009, a season set up for a title run, but which for all its promise felt as though it was setting up to be an exercise in survival. And indeed it was, as Texas' sputtering coaching staff was fortunate to survive a rocky season and a near-calamitous Big 12 Championship Game.
But five plays into the national title game, their luck ran out. Texas lost Colt McCoy to injury, lost the game to Alabama, lost its entire (two-man) offense to graduation, and then lost one, two, three, four... seven games in 2010. Not even Greg Davis could survive such spectacular failure. Will Muschamp could have, but decided not to stick around for the aftermath.
As ugly as it all was, a 5-7 catastrophe was exactly what Texas and Mack Brown needed. After 13 mostly successful years at Texas, Mack Brown was forced to hit program reset. Out with the old, in with the new, including two fresh coordinators and six new coaches in total, all of them young, impressive, and hungry.
Given the state of the program in December, it's tempting to look at the 2011 season narrative through that which was done in the months that immediately followed. Whether Mack Brown would respond well to the challenges facing him and the program was critically important, and without question his unqualified success in that regard has shaped the definition of the 2011 season.
Nevertheless, the 2011 season narrative is about more than what Mack Brown did in resetting the program. The 2011 season narrative is about what has to happen next -- about what is required for all this exciting potential to become actualized, maximized, and sustained on-field success. The 2011 season narrative is about process.
In connection with that broad theme, after the jump are four big points on process that I'm looking at to define the 2011 season.
1. Carrying over the energy, accountability, and improvements from the offseason program reset into the season.
Again, the 2010 meltdown was in many ways a good thing. As I've always insisted: Mack Brown is at his best when the going gets tough. He's tougher, wiser, and more resilient than many realize. And the manner in which he reset the program following last year's meltdown was nothing short of outstanding.
Laying that foundation was absolutely necessary, but the flipside of Mack's underrated strengths is a weakness when things are going well. When things are going well or looking good, Mack Brown has had a tendency to shift in to a mode of protecting assets, instead of continuing the process of developing them. Protecting strong assets is not inherently a bad thing, but there are real dangers in the context of a college football team/season/program. Opponents change, strategies change -- even your own players change all the time.
Mack Brown has responded exceptionally well to redeveloping and re-energizing the team and program, but one of the lessons it will be interesting to see if he's learned is how to sustain that energy, accountability, and effort to improve. It needs to carry over into the season and inform everything that he and the staff do, whether Texas is struggling or rolling.
2. Managing the team and coaching staff.
I think it's easy to misunderstand Mack Brown by his media appearances. That's not to say that there's nothing revealing about Mack Brown in what he says on camera or to reporters, but I think you have to carefully digest it through a filter or you risk mistaking noise for substance. For the most part, when Mack Brown is speaking on record, he is managing media; he is not talking directly to you or me or any of the most hardcore football fans. He is managing reporters, speaking to broad audiences, and managing a brand/message/image. Not every coach does it that way, and it doesn't particularly matter whether you like it or not, just that you digest it through that filter.
What really does matter, though, is how Mack Brown manages his coaching staff and the players. And there it's his actions, not words, that do the talking you should be listening to. It didn't matter what Mack Brown said about running the football, or what Pat Forde wrote about how he was managing the team; what mattered was what we saw in the first half against Rice in Reliant Stadium. Keep that in mind as you evaluate Mack Brown's management of this year's team, as well.
It doesn't much matter what he's saying publicly about Garrett Gilbert or managing the quarterbacks. What matters is what we see on the field on Saturdays. Are the back ups getting meaningful snaps? Do the assistant coaches appear to be protecting egos or seniority, or are the best players playing? Are we pushing to improve both when we're struggling and playing well? Win or lose, is this season developing this team and program for what's ahead, this season and next?
I don't much care what message Mack wants to try to sell through his words to the media. What I really care about is the message he's giving his staff and players. I want Mack Brown to: (1) foster urgency, (2) facilitate the use of that energy to produce development, (3) instil meaningful accountability, and (4) challenge everyone.
3. Challenging everyone.
If anyone should understand just how important it is to challenge everyone, it's Mack Brown, who by now should recognize that he responds best when he is under the gun. Everyone's a little bit different and there's room for degrees of difference in terms of approach and handling, but anyone who can't respond to being challenged is probably not someone on whom you want to rely, whether it's football or anything else.
Challenging everyone, all the time, is among Mack Brown's most important tasks this fall. If everyone is being challenged and decisions are being made the right way, for the right reasons, with the right goals in mind, that's mission accomplished, whether or not the results are optimal. Because if the process is optimal, you're giving yourself the best chance to achieve those optimal results -- the process itself is geared towards improving on the deficiencies.
That may seem a bit abstract, but it's the concrete foundation on which everything else rests. When the process started to break down in 2006, it was only a matter of time before the whole house came tumbling down. Above all else, Mack Brown's job this season is to solidy that foundation, and doing that is about instilling the right process all the way from the top on down. Mack must challenge himself, challenge his staff, and challenge his players.
4. Developing the roster.
As far back as I can remember I have memories of my father telling his favorite running joke. "Q: Who's the most popular player on Texas's team? A: The guy who's not playing."
We all have our favorites, as well our guys that we value more than others and think deserve more than they're getting. Sometimes you're the only one yammering that Chris Ogbonnaya can develop into a nifty little player and you look like a genius. And other times...
...well, sometimes you're wrong. That can't be helped, not only for fans but for coaches, too. Sometimes a kid who excels in practice proves incapable of delivering in a game. Sometimes you choose a starter but the back up proceeds to outplay him. The objective is to get your program to the point where the process provides the coaches with the right information they need to make the most correct decisions, but even in the best of times there will be a fair number of misses. But whatever the state of your program at any given time, what matters is whether (1) the right guys are getting a chance to prove their worth (whether in practice or games or both), (2) the evaluation process is thorough and ongoing, and (3) there is a commitment to making changes where needed, as needed.
Heading into 2011, Mack Brown and Texas are in a period of learning and transition. That's fine and mistakes can't be helped. It is important, however, that the staff make the most of the 2011 season in terms of player identification and development. It doesn't matter if the best player is a junior or a freshman, or whether the best player is the one you named the opening week starter or his back up. What's important in 2011 is that you challenge everyone to develop, give the right players opportunities, make critical evaluations, and be willing to adjust.
It's going to be exciting to watch and root for this team, but whether they go 7-6 or 11-1 the 2011 season can be a success if the process that led to the impressive offseason improvements carries over to how the staff and players do things this fall.
Do that, and the wins will follow. Soon, and lots of them.
Two days to kickoff... Hook 'em