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Malcolm Gladwell Breaks Down The Longhorns

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker and the best-selling author of Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers, and -- most recently -- Context: History's Kingmaker, to be published this summer. Gladwell spends a chapter in Context discussing the 2008 Longhorns football team. An excerpt from that chapter is reprinted below.

At first glance, seeing the tradition and resource rich Texas Longhorns ranked in the top five at season's end hardly seems a surprise. Texas under head coach Mack Brown has finished seasons ranked sixth or better five times this decade, won five straight bowl games (including three BCS Bowls), and a national championship. The Longhorns' recruiting classes annually rank among the nation's very best and their training facilities are second to none. Of course they finished ranked in the top five, right? To borrow a famous college football catchphrase: Not so fast my friend.

What if I told you that Texas began the season ranked outside the top ten and was predicted to finish fourth in their conference? Or that they were regrouping under their fifth defensive coordinator in five seasons? What about the fact that Texas hadn't defeated the lowly Aggies since their superstar QB Vince Young turned pro? Would you still say the 2008 Longhorns were predestined for top five success?

Probably not, and to understand why Mack Brown for the first time in his Texas career exceeded expectations, we have to dig deeper. We need what I call... context.


The casual fan will peddle a surface-level explanation for Texas' success by pointing to the arrival of defensive guru Will Muschamp. That's not untrue, but to appreciate fully what that actually means we need to look much closer at the events that led to his being hired at UT.

If you weren't paying attention, you might think Will Muschamp just parachuted into Austin as if gifted by a stork. But that is not at all what actually happened. Will Muschamp's arrival in Austin was the last step in a long chain of events that began many years ago, every one of which a critical link in the chain. Let's start from the beginning.

[Discussion of Big Bang and rise of civilization omitted for length. --ed., PB]

From the key developments during the Paleolithic Period to the terror of the early 20th century Russian gulags, the very course of history shaped this story. Take away any of it and Mr. and Mrs. Muschamp never birth that child in their rural Georgia home. Context.

And what of Muschamp's predecessors in Austin? Was it predestined that both Gene Chizik and Duane Akina would be intellectually incapable of grasping the stupidity in trying to defend pass spread offenses with three bulky, slow linebackers? Of course not. To understand why Robert Killebrew was allowed to start over Rodderick Muckelroy, you'd need to know just how good Killebrew's salmon soufflet really was. And to understand that we'd have to go back to the time in Kill's childhood when his grandmother decided to sew him his first apron.

Remember the dog that chased the cat that caught the mouse that ate the cheese.... Context.


Anybody who watched Texas this year knew that their offense struggled mightily in two critical regards: rushing the football and completing long downfield passes. Deficient in both, Texas only chance at being offensively explosive lay in executing the short passing game to absolute perfection. That is precisely what they did, as junior quarterback Colt McCoy broke the NCAA record for completion percentage in a season.

Was Texas simply fortunate to have on hand the right quarterback for the right season? Perhaps... but perhaps not. Let's again dig a little deeper.

In 2002 a group of Swedish social scientists studied quarterbacks from small towns (2,500 or fewer residents) as part of their effort to estimate the chances one of their countrymen could make it to the National Football League as a passer. What they discovered is that there exists a direct inverse relationship between a quarterback's accuracy as measured by completion percentage and the size of his hometown as measured by population. Think about how astounding that is: The smaller your hometown, the better your accuracy throwing a football. What is going on here?

The answer lies in behavioral economics. There are several relevant handicaps for a quarterback who grows up in a very small town. First, there are far fewer children around who are his age. Second, because job prospects are more modest in small towns, he is more likely to be economically disadvantaged. Third, and relatedly, the schools in his small town are less likely to have the resources and facilities that kids from bigger cities typically enjoy. Taken together, the small town kid who grows up wanting to be a quarterback has to train differently than he would in a bigger town. Most importantly, he will spend more time playing by himself. Without enough kids with whom he can practice and play -- not to mention a lack of training/practice facilities he can access year-round -- the rural quarterback hopeful winds up practicing drills on his own. Without money for anything fancy, he throws the football through a tireswing. Or he creates imaginary receivers who run imaginary routes, rewarding himself by imaginary rules that require he toss the football in just the right spot.

While other quarterback hopefuls are playing sloppy games of neighborhood ball, the rural player is forced to find fun in exercises that are, at root, accuracy drills. Context.

Soon after the Swedish academics published their study in the obscure Journal Of Socioeconomic Rural Studies, a 23-year old Ph.D. candidate in economics happened across it during the course of his dissertation research on the intersection of football and religion in rural America. Can you guess the university in which he was enrolled? You're right -- it was the University of Texas-Austin.  And his name? It was Chris Jesse. His relationship to Mack Brown? He is the Texas coach's stepson. Context.

As Mack Brown tells it, Jesse's discovery of the Swedish study wound up having a huge impact on Texas' recruiting strategy during 2004-05. "Late in the 2004 recruiting season I got this call from Chris and he's talking so fast I can barely understand him," Brown explains. "Chris is a pretty impulsive and excitable fella, so I didn't think much of it, but I told him to come to my office the next day and explain whatever it was that had him all riled up."

Jesse met with Brown over lunch and laid out what he'd learned. "The enormity of the implications of what Chris was telling me were immediately apparent," Brown continues. "When he was through explaining it we both sort of looked at each other and said simultaneously: Colt McCoy."

Colt McCoy -- a senior quarterback prospect from Tuscola, Texas, population 714. Colt McCoy, who grew up throwing footballs through a tire swing because there weren't enough kids with whom he could play. Colt McCoy, who quarterbacked his tiny 2A team to a state title but received only the scantest of attention from recruiting services like Rivals and Scout.

"As I recall, we'd just lost John Brantley to Florida," Brown says wistfully. "And suddenly we're presented with this evidence that small town quarterbacks are born and bred to throw darts. I'm not sure who was more surprised when we made Colt a scholarship offer -- McCoy himself, or our fanbase. Nobody had any clue who he was or why we wanted him."

Four years later, McCoy now owns most of the passing records at the University of Texas, along with the new national benchmark for completion percentage. The two-star quarterback from Nowhere, Texas was the perfect fit for the 2008 Longhorns. But how did Brown know he'd need McCoy's specific talents?

Mack Brown chuckles as he recalls the decision-making process. "Early in 2006 I'd sat down with Greg Davis and we looked carefully at what the roster was likely to be for the next two, three, and four years. The first thing that stood out is that we didn't have much confidence we were going to be able to figure out how to thrive passing and running the ball together at the same time. Outside Vince's junior year, I'm not sure Greg and I have ever been able to do that," Brown laments. "And the second thing we noticed was that we were going to have a downfield problem with our receivers. I asked Greg if Malcolm Williams, who we were recruiting at the time, would be ready by '08 and he said definitely not. And so we sort of came around to the idea that the hyper-accurate, underneath passing game was where we were headed."

When the coaches explained this to the other quarterback prospect on the roster, true freshman Jevan Snead, he saw the writing on the wall and wound up transferring to Ole Miss. And with that, everything was set for McCoy's run to the record books.

Remember the dog that chased the cat that caught the mouse that ate the cheese...