Two conference titles. Sixteen years. As much as Mack Brown will be remembered for resurrecting Texas football, he will also be remembered for being unable to consistently earn the program conference championship hardware, while Bob Stoops has eight titles, Mike Gundy has two, and Art Briles now has one. At Baylor.
Once again, Mack Brown had a chance to win a Big 12 title after Oklahoma State choked away a game to OU. Baylor is the better team, but they played a subpar game and gave the Horns every chance to stake a lead and take control. Instead, Texas refused, and in another defining game the Horns lost by three scores for the fourth time this season, a season that was supposed to be "our time." By Mack's own words, the rebuild is over, and he again failed to win the conference title
Some may argue that merely counting titles is simplistic and a bad way to judge a year. Generally, I agree; simply relying on "2 of 16" is the product of lazy thinking because it ignores context. Not all years are equal; surely that 2008 Texas team should be remembered as a much better squad than 2007 Oklahoma. Furthermore, sometimes luck just isn't on a team's side. Year to year variance happens.
However, over sixteen seasons, it is not unreasonable to expect more than two conference titles by the coach of the University of Texas. Looking at context does little to help Mack in this regard; it excuses a few seasons, but it also highlights the failures to capture the conference crown when the opportunity was staring him in the face.
Let's give a brief look at each season:
1998: First year, not a bad start. Nice win over Nebraska in Lincoln.
1999: Another win over Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers got their revenge in the Big 12 title game. I'd give Mack a pass on this year too.
2000: The first of the OU blowout losses. No conference title, but OU, in fairness, was just better.
2001: Texas backed into the Big 12 title game due to an OU loss, and they faced Colorado, whom they destroyed earlier that season. You know what happened next so I won't rehash it. Chris Simms, roughing the punter, etc. Texas blew a conference title to an inferior team and also muffed a chance at the national championship game.
2002: Loss to Tech prevented a South division win.
2003: 65-13, Oklahoma.
2004: OU was really good. Texas still had a chance to beat them, and a backfield with VY and Cedric Benson got shut out. Texas lost 12-0 and ceded the conference title again.
2005: The year of Vince Young. Texas dominated most opponents and easily won the conference.
2006: Texas was clearly the best team in the conference, and though losing McCoy was a bit of bad luck, back to back losses blew the conference title. A 12-7 home loss to a mediocre Aggie team was particularly terrible. An OU team quarterbacked by Paul Thompson and with an injured Adrian Peterson won the conference crown.
2007: The Big 12 wasn't that great this season and Texas was a mess on defense and had poor O-line play. Jamaal Charles saved this team from losing two more games. A win over A&M still wouldn't have given the Horns the conference title, but at the time we knew we had to win to have a chance. A crummy Aggies team tore the Horns to shreds through the air.
2008: Great team. Bad luck. I'll give Mack a pass on this year too.
2009: Won the conference, but it's worth noting that we almost blew the game against a Nebraska team with no offense to speak of.
2010: The Big 12 wasn't any good and the Horns were worse. 5-7.
2011: Not a bad year considering the need to rebuild, but some may say that at Texas, we shouldn't need to rebuild to such an extent. Injuries prevented an even better season.
2012: A year with higher expectations and the Horns get horrifically destroyed by Oklahoma again. However, there were a few teams better than us that year.
2013: The year Mack pointed to as the comeback year for Texas. Non conference games were a disaster, but the Horns rebounded in conference play. With the conference title on the line against Baylor, who made plenty of mistakes to give Texas a chance to win, the Horns fall behind terrible offense. Case McCoy averaged less than two yards per pass. That is not a typo.
Bringing It Together
So let's count that up:
Years that Mack deserves a pass: 1998, 1999, 2008. In the first two years, he was building up the program. In 2008, we lost a tough game in Lubbock, but all things considered it was a great year and a bit more luck would have earned him a conference and possibly national title.
Years where Texas had decent chances but didn't convert: 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2013. In Mack's defense, OU was good in those years and it's not reasonable to expect to win every year, but it'd have been nice to win at least one of those.
Years where the Horns just blew it: 2001 and 2006. Almost 2009.
Years where the Horns were far less competitive than they should have been: 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012. In some of these years, a more competent Texas team probably wins the conference.
Where does that leave us? Mack's two conference titles came with all-time great college quarterbacks and loaded defenses, not exactly reasonable to expect to have every season. He left two more titles on the board for sure. He may have ceded one or two more due to his inability to beat Oklahoma in the early 2000's or to simply win big games with the conference on the line. He possibly left a couple of more on the table when he let the program rot and fail to compete in the 2010's, so Texas was forced to play catch-up while the rest of conference was battling for conference hardware. Readers may quibble with my categorization of a certain year here and there, but I doubt it will change the overall picture.
It is undoubtedly silly to think that Mack Brown should have 12 conference titles or something. There is just too much randomness in college football even without a rival like Oklahoma sharing a division/conference. That said, even four conference titles would make this a lot better. Five or six almost makes it a nonissue altogether, though if he still let the program fall like he did, we'd still have a problem to discuss.
In the end, while counting conference titles as a catch-all argument is unenlightening, they are an indication to the underlying problems of the program. This is not just "can't win the big game" crap; this is a failure over a decade and a half to consistently get this team in opportunities to win conference titles and, when they get them, to convert. Upsets and bad losses will happen to any team; when they keep happening over such a long period of time, especially when they are paired with clear program regression, you have to start asking serious questions.
Conference titles alone do not define Mack, but they certainly begin a discussion on his many shortcomings. And those shortcomings should be soberly assessed by Bellmont as they decide where to go from here.