Can Mack Brown complete his greatest comeback effort? (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
October 23, 2010, was the date when the Texas Longhorns blinked off the radar of the top 25 teams in the nation, only to re-emerge in early 2011, getting up to #11 in the AP poll before the OU game. With big time running against Kansas and Texas Tech jumped back to #17 after back-to-back losses before fading.
On September 25, 2010, #7 Texas was ambushed yet again by UCLA, 34-12, in DKR-Memorial Stadium, and a week later succumbed to the hands of the #8 Sooners, 28-20. Being resilient and daunting fans, when the Horns sent #5 Nebraska into the mid-western oblivion they so richly deserved the next week, many thought that maybe those two losses were an aberration and that the team could recover and get back on their rightful track and improve on the lowly #22 ranking bestowed in the wake of the Huskers' demise. That never happened. Despite the general national optimism for the Horns in 2011 with ranking much higher than the team could sustain, this year sees more modest expectations.
Despite this forbidding trail in the sand that carries the team into this weekend, those in Longhorn nation much closer to the action let the hope and optimism flow openly...and well they should. The source of this optimism is Mack Brown.
In the history of head football coaches at Texas, sooner or later, virtually every one has complained about the intense, and all too often pernicious, pressure to win, to win or else. Some fine Texas football coaches, say, like Clyde Littlefield, have felt the sting of ‘or else.' And once you win big, the pressure becomes unrelenting to stay at the elite level. No team ever stays on top for that long, of course, but in the short term it can sure seem like it. And the reverse, of being down, like Texas has been, can seem just as eternal. Texas never lost a home game from 1968 through 1976, altogether 42 straight games. In the first Mack Era ('98-'09) we came close to that feeling of security and satisfaction at home.
I cannot imagine the pressure that was on Mack Brown as his program lay in shambles at his feet after the 2010 season. Not to make light of natural disasters, but it was surely an emotional disaster for him just as it was for all of Longhorn Nation and for the great enterprise for which he is the leader.
Up until October 23, 2010, Texas had owned that aura of football power for nearly a decade, the ability to win most every game, to defeat most every adversary, and then it dissolved like ice cream on a hot summer day when a fateful cyclone blew the illusion out of our collective minds.
Mack stayed when he could have walked away, when many were openly hoping he would go, and that seems, from this vantage point now, like the fateful decision for the Texas Longhorns. We know that it took a while for him to plumb the depths of his team and himself to discover the implicit causes of the 2010 debacle. But just fixing the causes was not enough...what was needed was a new vision of the Longhorn future, of the kind of team he really wanted but never quite achieved despite a MNC. Mack wanted a running based team with the modern option passing game, one that could average 40 points a game. Mack had the implicit institutional knowledge which no outsider could supply and that made for a different rebuilding mode. He tore away the rot in his coaching staff and ultimately with his team. In a direct sense, he did start over and build from scratch.
Texas gave the triple option offense to college football. There were other option offenses in 1968, with Bill Yeoman and Houston one of the most effective, but what Emory Bellard and Darrell Royal wrought changed the way the game was played and won many national champions, starting with Texas and continuing with Oklahoma and Alabama...certainly Texas shared more details of the offense than they should have.
The modern spread passing game is the same multi-option mode...what was left was to mold the running game to the spread offenses, which Boise State seemed to have done with a modicum of talent compared to the big programs. Thus, the hiring of Brian Harsin to match with Major Applewhite could conceivably lead to such a prosperous union. We haven't really seen that on the field yet, and, certainly, if this is the goal, there was be a period when this new iteration must be modified and polished. Paired with Manny Diaz' new defensive strategies, the Horns are set to beget something quite different upon the football world. At any rate, the feeling has been like 1968 when the fans and sports writers knew something was up but really didn't grasp the scope of it until Texas came back against Oklahoma, 26-20, to prove that the wishbone could win in the clutch.
Maybe we won't see all these marvels this evening but I think we will over the course of the early schedule. Mack has poured his soul into this job, and I think the work has been satisfying and a great psychological relief. He appears so at ease now and ready to jump into the second phase, the operational one, the part that coaches really love.
Old coaches will tell you that the hardest and best coaching they ever do is when a team is losing and sometimes losing big. Winning teams merely need tuning and guidance...losing teams need part of your soul to sustain them in the rough times. That sustenance is really the commitment that Mack made after 2010. If it works, we, the fans of Longhorn nation, will be some of the prime beneficiaries.
It's possible we still have hard lessons to learn - this life has no guarantees no matter how bright the future looks - but I know virtually all of us are ready to cheer and cheer lustily for the Longhorns. We, too, have had to take stock of ourselves, to ground our expectations and outlook, to have endurance and patience.
Tonight we will find out if the future is ours.