The arc of dynasty may sustain so long that many think it is a normal state of being, but the arc is precisely that. In the end energetic rules apply, and a program will regress to the mean.
Keeping a dynasty going well above the mean requires a tremendous amount of energy and attention. Just as a team on the field needs the leadership of a play making quarterback, a football program needs a leader to consolidate its potential assets to achieve its highest efficiency. As long as the institutional structure is cohesive, a few bumps in the road can be tolerated. But if the structure loses its cohesion, the road to championships becomes too slippery to manage. You get stuck, become inconsistent, you get surprised, you get passed by other programs, and life for the regular fan becomes a roller coaster ride as expectations get blindsided on a regular basis.
Texas athletics lost its institutional cohesion in the mid-1950s, as the great teams of the ‘40s and storied players like Bobby Lane faded, culminating in Ed Price's '56 team going 1-9, that one win a 7-6 squeaker over Tulane in the second game, and the Horns lost every conference game. This set the low water mark for the program and ushered in the Darrell K Royal era, as the young coach rolled up his sleeves and pulled together all elements of the program, from recruiting down to the burnt orange jerseys.
Darrell K Royal
The Longhorns didn't beat the Okies that first year, but Royal did end it with a 9-7 victory over the Aggies and Bear Bryant. The program muscled up and by November, 1961 earned its first No. 1 ranking (both AP and UPI), only to lose it a couple of weeks later to TCU, who proved the real nemesis to Royal in those early years up to 1968 -- not OU or A&M, as those two were stomped regularly.
Royal created the basic modern foundation of Texas football, setting standards for both offense and defense, for recruiting, imagination and invention, preparation, cold-blooded nerve on the sideline and usually humorous interaction off the field. He won but he never catered to arrogance with his massive accomplishments, and thus well-represented the state institution as well as the working people of the Southwest.
He was a common man with an uncommon touch.
In October of 1962 Texas again rose to No. 1 only to have it marred by a 14-14 tie with Rice. Remember in those days TCU, Rice and Baylor had fine coaches and were serious opponents. Texas wound up No. 4 despite losing to a tough LSU team, 13-0, in the Cotton Bowl.
The next season started with a No. 5 ranking, and the Horns possessed a great defense, allowing no team to score over 13 points all season along with a couple of shut outs led by sophomore middle linebacker Tommy Nobis, and an offense that just barely got by.
They slid by the Aggies, 15-13, on a muddy Kyle Field only six days after JFK's assassination, then crushed Navy and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, 28-6, in the Cotton Bowl to finish undefeated and earn Texas' first MNC.
In '64 Texas rose to No. 1 again, but a 14-13 loss to Arkansas would become the only smudge on another great season as the Longhorns whipped Alabama and Joe Willie Namath in an exciting Orange Bowl, 21-17.
These were the champagne years and expectations were soaring. Forget the beans and cornbread, bring in the big juicy steaks and all the fixin's. Only it didn't sustain and the champagne ran dry by the end of '65. Three years with four losses each saw the Texas natives get restless and the inglorious end to 1967 brought out as much verbal savagery as DKR would ever hear in Austin. In modern terms, it was a meltdown thread of epic proportions as the Horns lost to TCU, 24-17, at home in one of the most pathetic offensive games I'd ever seen under Royal. Then they fell at A&M, 10-7, for the first time in Royal's tenure.
Texas was stuck offensively. The rest of the program was holding its cohesion, with a great recruiting class coming in featuring Steve Worster. What had been ballyhooed as great classes after the '63 and '64 seasons never quite met expectations, although there were truly great players that emerged.
Royal, a quarterback, a defensive back, and punter while at OU, always had a hand on the offense even though his teams had been better known for their vicious defenses. It was a critical time, and Royal directed the re-invention of his offense, via Emory Bellard and the offensive staff, and in essence re-invented the Longhorns (few things in football are really invented, merely recycled and rearranged).
This was one of the critical actions every head coach eventually faces on one or both sides of the ball. A program can't stand still. It's the next play, the next game, the next year...the head coach must be as visionary as he is practical. And last but not least, the head coach can't let up because the whole program goes slack and bad things will happen.
In the period from 1971 to 1975 the Oklahoma Sooners (and Alabama) used the wishbone and the detailed information that came from the Longhorns to surge into the elite ranks...OU beat the Horns five times in a row. Royal would have some good seasons, including 10-1 in 1972 and 10-2 in 1975. But the teams in the Southwest Conference began playing more and more outside the lines in the recruiting wars.
With accusations of spying against OU Coach Barry Switzer before the '76 OU game, Royal began to feel the length of his 20th year in the hotbox known as Texas football. Switzer would later admit the cheating but for the longest time stonewalled the issue with denials. The game ended in a 6-6 tie and a definite chill in relations. Back-to-back losses to A&M revealed more vulnerability for the Horns as the program seemed to be losing its edge. Just before the final game against Arkansas, DKR decided to retire. No mess, no bother, no plan...Hog coach Frank Broyles also retired right after the game and suddenly two legendary coaches were gone.
Royal did have a favorite to replace him, long-time assistant Mike Campbell, but the athletic director and the athletic department didn't see it that way and chose former Royal assistant Fred Akers, then at Wyoming for a quick two-year stint to get experience. (And this was the start of the Texas/Wyoming connection.) The decision was a bit of a shocker and seemed to push Royal away from the program...some cohesion within the program was lost, although there was continuity of institutional knowledge (of opponents).
Fred Akers' 1977 team got off to one of the best starts in football history, at least from a points perspective: Texas beat Boston College, 44-0; Virginia, 68-0; and Rice, 72-15. When Rice scored at the 10:13 mark of the third quarter, Texas had amassed 166 straight points; the finally tally for the three games was 184-15.
Holy smokes, this wasn't gonna be such a tough transition for the blue-eyed wonder from Arkansas. The real clincher came in the next game versus OU when the team finally faced serious adversity.
In the second quarter both the starting and back-up quarterbacks for Texas, Jon Aune and Mark McBath, went down with serious knee injuries. A third stringer with limited experience named Randy McEachern came into a brutal defensive game while the Longhorn Nation held its collective breath as the future swayed in the balance.
McEachern managed the game well. There was only one touchdown all game -- Heisman bound Earl Campbell scored from 24 yards out -- while Russell Erxleben kicked field goals of 64 and 58 yards to offset two OU field goals. OU had 239 total yards, Texas gained 209, but the Horns won, 13-6, to break the streak and put the series back into play, although it would remain a dogfight until Switzer retired.
The next week they overcame a tough Hog team, 13-9, and the defense had given up only 30 points total for the season. With a win over SMU, Texas moved into the No. 1 ranking until January 1. That's when Notre Dame blew into the Cotton Bowl and dismantled the Horns, 38-10. Still, at 11-1 the program seemed as strong as ever and, with Campbell winning the first Heisman in UT history, national acclaim was the order of the day.
However, Akers would gain the No. 1 rank only two more times, once for a week in 1981, another time for two weeks in 1984. That week in 1981 was notable because the loss that caused the Horns to lose the ranking was at Arkansas in an inexplicable 42-11 pounding that had Longhorn fans walking around in a daze, something that would occur more frequently over the next decade and a half. The Hogs still gloat over that one, the Shootout that they won.
In 1983 Akers team had a real shot at the MNC anchored by a defense the equal or greater of the '77 squad. This was not a high-scoring team but after an initial No. 3 ranking they held at No. 2 the rest of the season while winning all 11 games.
They drew Georgia in the Cotton Bowl and essentially had the game in hand with just under four minutes remaining while holding a 9-3 lead, all field goals on a chilly day. Stopping the ‘Dogs once again, Fred Akers made the decision not to send in his regular punt returner, Jitter Fields, who had returned five that day for only 15 yards, and sent defensive back Craig Curry instead.
The punt bounced off Curry and Georgia recovered, then quickly scored on a 17-yard run with 3:22 left and took a 10-9 lead. And it stood until the end. It wasn't until later that New Year's Day that Texas learned that No. 1 Nebraska had lost and Texas' last best chance at a MNC in the 20th Century had bounced away in the cold northwest wind in the Cotton Bowl.
For 14 years Longhorn football kept sliding off the road, with a few great seasons and valiant victories sandwiched around some bitter disappointments and jaw dropping loses. Elite college football is tied to four prime areas of performance: adaptation, invention, recruiting and playmakers which in turn provide continuity and cohesion. Texas had it but let it slip away.
In 1984 Texas moved up to No.1 the third week, beat Rice, then drowned in a watery 15-15 tie with OU, losing the top slot for good. The waves of change started pounding away at the program, complaints about lack of offense surfaced more often, and when Akers lost four of the last five games to Houston, Baylor and A&M and then got pounded by Iowa, 55-17, in the Freedom Bowl the natives became more restless.
Akers could not reinvent himself and would stumble through two more lackluster seasons. A 5-6 record in '86 was the end. The program was losing ground, its cohesion was strained, recruiting was suffering as out of state teams took advantage of Texas and Oklahoma declining fortunes, and Texas A&M was on the rise. This was a bleak time on the 40 Acres.
Texas turned to native son David McWilliams, a great guy and a players' coach, fresh off a stint at Texas Tech to gain some head coaching experience. However, the burden of the situation was heavy and McWilliams could barely keep things above water: 7-5, 4-7, and 5-6 seasons gave way to the one good run he had, the Shock the Nation tour, so named after an opening win at Penn State, 17-13. They did fall in the next game to Colorado, 29-22, but then they won nine straight, including one-point wins over OU, 14-13, and A&M, 28-27. Texas represented the SWC for the last time in the Cotton Bowl.
The Miami game was one of those stunning losses that inform you in the rudest way that the football world had changed...and that you weren't part of it. 46-3. Fans were shaking their heads for days but there was no explaining away the dominance of the Hurricanes. Speed, particularly defensive speed, was the new game, and Texas was playing catch-up.
McWilliams lasted another year and then the powers-that-be decided on a new direction altogether, bringing in an offensive guru named John Mackovic. The relationship between the university and high school football coaches seemed to recede even though Mackovic's mission was to bring Texas back to the elite. Great curiosity abounded about what would happen the coming season, with some morbid wonder among the hard cases. This was new territory in many ways, and there were inherent doubts Mackovic could accomplish the mission.
The very first game (of 1992) with a new coach, staff and team is always going to have its share of kinks and miscommunications but at least Mackovic had it at home. However, the enemy on that day was no ordinary opening opponent, and it seemed to me that the lack of institutional knowledge was critical.
No one seemed to have whispered in Mackovic's ear that the opposing coach was a bitter enemy, one that held a top post on a short Longhorn list: Jackie Sherrill, now at Mississippi State...the same maroon in a different site. Sherrill wouldn't just beat you, he'd pull your britches down and show your ass to the world.
The year before McWilliams' team had lost their opener at Starkville in one of the more sluggish and poorly executed efforts in a long time. At Memorial Stadium, Sherrill stayed a step ahead of the Longhorns, delaying sideline signals until the very last second. The Bulldog D sacked quarterback Peter Gardere five times, intercepted a couple of passes, plus a fumble, and held Texas to 101 yards rushing. After jumping to a 13-0 lead, Sherrill played the cat-and-mouse game en route to a 28-10 win in the Mackovic's first time out of the chute.
Then #9 Syracuse put a second bump on the Horns noggin, although Texas had a 21-13 late in the third before losing 31-21. Rough start. Mackovic would win the next five, including OU...he didn't quite know that Gardere was solid gold in Dallas and he ought to have played all the games there. The Horns lost three of the last four, and ultimately the 5-6 debut was depressing. The next year he went 6-5, losing to the Aggies for a second time, and confidence was fading.
In '94 Mackovic's squad came alive, starting with three opening wins before going down to No. 4 Colorado, 34-31. The Horns rebounded with a win over OU and earned a No. 12 ranking. Then they inexplicably lost at Rice, 19-17, on a rainy night in Houston and gained only 16 yards on the ground on 22 tries and had only 179 total for the whole night; Rice only netted 252 yards. The Horns were later blasted at Tech, 33-9, and by A&M. Wins over Baylor and Houston netted the Horns a Sun Bowl invitation against North Carolina (and Mack Brown), which Texas won with two Priest Holmes' TDs late in the fourth quarter, 35-31. The 8-4 season was encouraging despite the slippage.
The next two years, '95 and '96, became the peak of Mackovic's stay in Austin. One featured the demise of the Southwest Conference and the other the beginning of the Big 12. The Horns developed a good nucleus on both sides of the ball: a good quarterback in feisty James Brown, great running backs in Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes and Shon Mitchell, solid receivers in Mike Adams, Wane McGarity, and tight end Pat Fitzgerald and some fine defensive players in Tony Brackens, Bryant Westbrook, Taje Allen, Aaron Humphrey, Casey Hampton, Chris Carter, Stony Clark and a great kicker in Phil Dawson. So many good players, in fact, that in listing these, I've undoubtedly left others out. My apologies because there were good players galore, and some great games in which they excelled. Texas started playing like Texas.
The '95 season opened with two wins: at Hawaii (that featured Ricky Williams' debut) and at home against Pittsburgh. Texas visited Notre Dame in a bid to get back into the big time. The Horns stayed close until mid-way through the third quarter when Notre Dame kicked it into gear and scored four TDs and a pick six to win going away, 55-27. The Horns held the Irish to 273 yards total offense but gave up five turnovers. This wasn't as bad a loss as it seemed. The following week a 24-24 tie with Oklahoma (the last tie in that series) kept both teams hopes alive.
The next game came down to Phil Dawson, who kicked a 50-yard field goal into a stiff south wind at Memorial Stadium as time ran out to give Texas a 17-16 signature win over a ranked Virginia team. The amazing kick ignited the team for the rest of the season.
Zebbie Letheridge and Texas Tech can strutting into Memorial Stadium only to find one of the most enthusiastic and boisterous Texas crowds since the Houston game in 1990. After the prior year's loss in Lubbock, the Horns were out for blood and got it by the gallons. Featuring a pressing defense in receivers' faces all night long and great pressure up the middle, Texas got six sacks and six other tackles for loss. Behind the running of Ricky Williams (15-113), Shon Mitchell (11-105, 3 TDs) and James Brown (6-34) for 305 yards, plus Brown passing for 174 and 2 TDs and a 33-yard fumble return by Robert Crenshaw, Texas rolled to a 48-0 third quarter lead and finished 48-7.
The Horns rolled into Kyle Field with a chance to clinch the final Southwest Conference title ever. James Brown had bad wheels that day, both ankles heavily taped, but he played one of the most valiant games in the modern era, leading the Horns to the title with a 16-6 triumph and broke A&M's 20-game home winning streak to boot. With a 7-0 conference mark and a 10-1-1 record at that point, Texas was chosen to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. The Ron McKelvey/Weaver imposter story broke before the game and somewhat poisoned the well, so to speak (see here if you aren't familiar with it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Weaver)
Texas led Virginia Tech 10-0 nearing the half when a 60-yard Tech punt return got them back into the game. However, the Horns got wiped out in the second half as Tech scored three TDs to win 28-10. Texas finished 10-2-1 and ranked No. 14. Most fans thought that it was a good taste of what they expected to come in the future. 1996 wasn't the downhill roll many expected but there were major accomplishments.
The first game versus Missouri was struck by a tremendous thunderstorm during which Ricky Williams scored two touchdowns to essentially seal the 40-10 win in their first Big 12 game. After disposing of New Mexico State, No. 9 Notre Dame came to Austin. Texas was ranked No. 6 and the hosts pulled out all the stops for national TV and brought in Willie Nelson. The Horns trailed 17-14 at the half but would tie it up 17-17 and again at 24-24. The Irish kicked a field goal as time expired to win 27-24. It was a hell of a game. Texas had more than a share of its chances to win. Optimism still abounded in Austin but the next week it took a big hit.
In another rainy night game, this time in Virginia, the Horns, still ranked No. 13, couldn't handle Tiki Barber and No. 19 Virginia. Barber scored three TDs early and Texas never got close, falling behind 24-0. A Priest Holmes touchdown and two Dawson field goals were all they could muster and they lost the out-of-conference game, 37-13. The next week Texas pounded Oklahoma State, 71-14, but couldn't escape OU, losing the first ever OT game in the series, 30-27.
Another loss to No. 8 Colorado, 28-24, and the Horn fell out of the rankings. They had lost four of five after the opening two wins, so 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the Big 12 South wasn't very inspiring. But they righted the ship, winning the last four games with a ending flourish over A&M, 51-15, and taking the Big 12 South with a 6-2 record. That earned them the chance to play No. 3 Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship.
Unranked, the Longhorns weren't given much of a chance against the powerful Cornhuskers, but you know, there's something about playing Nebraska that brings out the best in the Horns. You got it: Roll left, one of the best plays in Mackovic's era and frankly one of the best in the school's history: James Brown rolling left looking as if to run on fourth down nursing a lead late in the game, then he suddenly tosses gently to Derek Lewis wide open downfield. Lewis sprints down to the 10 or so, and a play later Priest Holmes ices the game. This was the best it got for Mackovic - all that was left would be dark and bitter.
Texas lost to No. 7 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, 38-15, to finish an 8-5 campaign. The next season the Horns were ranked No. 12in the AP poll, No. 10 by ESPN. After beating Rutgers, 48-14, in the opener, they moved up to No. 11/ No. 10. The future looked bright.
On a 93-degree, partly cloudy September day in Austin, it seemed like Texas was going to sustain and improve on the last two years; hopes were particularly high right up to kickoff. Until the moment it started happening, this never seemed like it could be one of the most searing losses in Texas history, the great blind-side collision that no one but no one saw coming: Rout 66.
UCLA quarterback Cade McKown tossed five touchdown passes...in the first half. It was 45-0 before Texas could clear the cobwebs from their eyes. A lone Phil Dawson field goal in the third quarter kept it from being a shutout. Eight turnovers, even split between interceptions and fumbles, meant Texas never got off its knees. Everything went to hell after that. Mackovic was a goner.
If blogs had been active back then, this would have been the most epic meltdown thread ever. The memory still haunts us today. At the time, the shock wave across the Texas football program collapsed the Mackovic era, which ended with a 4-7 reading. The recent '95-'96 seasons seemed like a distant dream. In the shambles of that time when continuity was a half-assed goal and cohesion eventually just fell apart, the call went out for a coach to pull it all together, to re-establish the program, to re-ignite the dream. In walked Mack Brown and a new era sprouted from the cold ashes of the last three. Longhorn Nation began again.
Here's a list of nine win or better seasons for the three coaches prior to Mack Brown:
1996 John Mackovic 10-2-1
1990 David McWilliams 10-2
1983 Fred Akers 11-1
1982 Fred Akers 9-3
1981 Fred Akers 10-1-1
1979 Fred Akers 9-3
1978 Fred Akers 9-3
1977 Fred Akers 11-1
Brown, of course, had nine straight from 2001 to 2009, including accomplishing what Akers, McWilliams and Mackovic were never able to do -- bring another national championship back to Austin.