When Mack Brown arrived in Austin in 1998, legendary former coach Darrell K Royal told him that Texas is a powerful place, but that the BBs had gotten scattered. The task before Brown, then, was to once again gather them to focus the power of Texas football in a coherent and united direction, like a magnifying glass uses the rays of the run to incinerate ants, for those who are inclined in such a direction.
And Brown and his Texas teams incinerated a lot of ants in the following years, with nine seasons of at least 10 wins that still left fans often disappointed by the lack of conference championships and some efforts that fell just short of more significant significant accomplishments than double-digit wins.
In some ways, it wasn't surprising -- Brown had shown that he was a turnaround artist at Tulane, where his first team went 1-10 but this third and final team made a bowl game, and North Carolina, where two 1-10 seasons to start his tenure were only building blocks for a run of success that would include five consecutive bowl games starting in the 1992. In his last season, the Tar Heels won 10 games for only the third time in program history (and the second time in his tenure), capping off a run that was historically significant at the longtime basketball school.
Those qualities were in large part what helped draw Texas athletic DeLoss Dodds to Brown at a time when Dodds had hardly nailed his first several hires at the helm of the sleeping athletic giant.
But Brown conceded in a recent conversation with CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman that he has a fatal flaw in regards to his program-building talents:
What I've realized is that I like building a lot more than maintaining. We did get to the point where winning seemed so easy and recruiting seemed so easy. We never were in a position where we didn't work. We never felt like we did anything different, but we missed on more kids, and I'm not sure we were looking at videos and maybe not following up as much with a kid. We were looking at stars.
The staff may have been working, but they weren't working hard. One story goes that an assistant coach in 2010 basically packed it in some time during the fall and simply stopped recruiting, while others were known to spend a significant amount of time on the golf course -- Stony Point coaches, for instance, were rather put off when no one from Texas stopped by to inquire about high-level prospects like PL Lindley and Jordan Wade, both of whom were good enough to end up at Oklahoma.
And so the BBs once again got scattered as the effects of years of complacency took a vice-like grip on the program, resulting in the disastrous 2010 campaign that exposed all the flaws that had been lingering under the surface for years.
It's hard to stay on top of the sports world, which is why true dynasties are so few and far between. Brown notes that the staff didn't do anything different, but that was precisely the problem -- college football in general, schemes employed therein, and the best practices for running a program were changing and the Texas head coach and his staff never showed the intellectual curiosity and drive to stay ahead of the curve, instead lingering in their comfort zone as the world passed them by. Eventually there came a cruel and inevitable wake-up call.
Getting into the numerous ways in which that complacency manifested itself probably isn't worth repeating, but they were extensive and systematic, once again creating the tension necessary for Brown to seriously re-assess the state of the program.
Those situations -- those "oh shit" realizations that the sensation you're suddenly feeling is that of free falling -- are exactly why a coach like Nick Saban attempts to constantly create tension within his staff and with his players, a trait that co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite seems to have picked up from the Nicktator when he talked about the program improving in the offseason by making the coaches and players "uncomfortable."
Creating that tension on a consistent basis, even when things are going well in every way conceivable, requires an almost psychotic, constant sense of the need for forward momentum, a single-minded dedication, and something approaching paranoia, if not outright fear, of falling behind. It often leads to micro-managing and always includes an obsessive attention to and quest for the smallest details that could provide an edge.
Those aren't particularly healthy traits, which makes Saban's lack of issues in that regard rather unusual, though Urban Meyer has certainly suffered from health issues as a result of a similar focus.
Brown's immediate reaction after the 5-7 season was one that also seems telling:
Sally and I sat down with the president and the athletic director [of Texas] after that season. We basically said, "If y'all are disappointed with us, we'll go do something else."
They said, "Do you want to stay?"
I said, "Yeah, we'd like to stay. We're obviously not in a great position, so it's going to take us some time to get this thing back." They were great. They said they wanted us to stay. What Sally and I decided to do was hire some younger coaches and get it back where it should be.
Instead of instantly embracing the challenge of once again building, or at least recovering, Brown's immediate reaction was a willingness to give up and slink away on the lowest note of his tenure.
And, from the sound of it, it seems that his wife was a driving force behind pushing him not to give up:
At that point, Sally and I had to make a decision: Are we going to put the energy back into this thing and go full-speed ahead to get it back? Or is it time to let somebody else have it?
She said, "You can do what you want, but you shouldn't back away until you're finished."
One of the Brown's greatest strengths has always been his loyalty, especially to assistant coaches and those in his inner circle, but it's also one of his greatest weaknesses -- he likes his comfort zone and he needs people he trusts deeply around him because he tends to regard anyone else as the "other" and seems to have a harbor distrust .
The realization of the program's situation sparked him into action, hiring what appeared to be his best staff ever, though defensive coordinator Manny Diaz certainly showed his weaknesses as a tactician last fall and doesn't seem to have made some of the fundamental changes necessary to rectify the larger issues within the Texas defense and there were limitations to Harsin's scheme as well, though his work was positive on the whole in his two years.
What has become crystal clear, however, is that besides recognizing the need for change, Brown struggles to maintain the intellectual curiosity to constantly asses the situation and create the tension and discomfort needed to maintain a high level of play -- it may just not be in his nature.
That tension has to either come from strong player leadership or from the assistant coaches. It didn't come from either place in 2010, but now it appears that the primary driving force behind the entire program is Applewhite, as evidenced by his comments moments after the Alamo Bowl win and other stories that have trickled out before and after.
Whether or not Applewhite has the chops as a playcaller to implement an offense set to use concepts with which he is not entirely familiar from his time at Texas or previous coaching stops, and then problem-solve during games both remain unknown.
However, there is mounting evidence that the former starting quarterback possesses many of those traits mentioned above in association with Saban and Meyer, traits that are probably essential at a program like Texas for a head coach. Traits that often exist in the border region between tangible and intangible, but may be the essential ingredient of the next head football coach in Austin.
Unfortunately for the last several years of the Longhorns football program, they aren't a part of Brown's makeup.