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The Last Night of the Longhorn Empire

I spent the afternoon of January 7, 2010 tailgating on the gorgeous lawns of the Brookside golf course surrounding the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  I spent the evening of January 7, 2010 in the second to last row of the Alabama end zone of the Rose Bowl, barely breathing as I watched true freshman backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert valiantly attempt to lead Texas back from a nearly insurmountable deficit to beat Alabama and win the National Championship.  In between, on the walk to the stadium from the tailgate, the sun began to go down over the western hills, the balmy valley air developed a distinct chill, and one giant, obnoxious metaphor reared its ugly head: the sun was setting on Mack Brown's Texas Longhorn empire.*

Gilbert did not lead the Horns to victory that night, of course, and by the time that game was over, the seeds had been sown for the remainder of the devastation inflicted on the program throughout the following eleven months of 2010, leaving us wandering in the college football wilderness on these chilly December nights.

* I realize that this is a bit melodramatic and perhaps overstatement, but bear with me.

It all started with the speed option, of course.**  It was a terrible call at the time, and it's even worse in retrospect.  Colt McCoy suffered a freak shoulder injury, and the team briefly fell apart.  The defense could not stop the run and the offense could not move the ball without immediately turning it over.  Gilbert eventually rallied the team admirably and almost completed the comeback.  It would have been the culmination of an entire career for Mack Brown, the perfect opportunity to retire and hand the reins over to his head coach in waiting, Will Muschamp.  I can't say for sure that this would have happened if Texas had won that game, but it certainly wasn't going to happen after they lost.

Instead, Mack decided that the root problem precipitating the Texas loss to Alabama was over-reliance on one player to the point where one injury could derail the entire team.  However credible that sentiment may have been (and it seems somewhat dubious considering he won a championship with that same philosophy in 2005), his questionable solution was a downhill rushing attack with play action passing -- the kind the Tide used to gash his interior defense through much of the national championship game.  But of course Alabama had been recruiting and developing this system for several years, had two incredibly talented running backs and a physical offensive line, and had an offensive coordinator who wanted to both scheme and call rushing plays.  Texas had none of those things.  And the offense failed.

Meanwhile, the Texas defense played relatively well in Pasadena, but still got exposed by several runs up the gut.  It became clear that physical teams could run in between the tackles against the lightning quick but relatively small Longhorn defense, and someone like Blake Gideon could not close once a rusher had gotten to the linebackers.  By chance or by design, Texas' opponents in 2010 exploited this weakness incessantly as they protected their inevitable early leads.  And while the defense did not fail on the same scale as the offense, it struggled at times to put the team in a position to win when the offense did little to help (something it had largely been able to do in 2009).

As the Longhorns faltered in a series of previously unthinkable losses, no players stepped up to lead the team (perhaps due to a sense of complacency that comes from years of uninterrupted success) and rumors of dissension among the players and coaches bubbled to the surface.  The team stumbled to a disastrous 5-7 finish, a potentially legacy-tarnishing season for Mack Brown.  And according to Kirk Bohls, apparently Brown believed that it was just that.  Mack had apparently planned to step down at the end of 2010 but changed his mind after his first losing season at Texas, delaying Muschamp's ascension to head coach and irking him in the process.  Instead, he (for all intents and purposes) fired half of his staff and planned to build around the remaining core of Muschamp and Major Applewhite (a core that that he had repeatedly undermined in press conferences all season as he tried in vain to explain his team's dismal performances).

But when Florida came calling on Muschamp, one of maybe three destinations (along with Georgia and LSU) for which he would consider leaving Texas, he had to think back to that National Championship game, about how he was potentially one ill-advised speed option call away from taking over the mighty Texas Longhorn empire, and about how everything that happened after that effectively delayed his ascension indefinitely until Mack Brown eventually, finally decides that his legacy is secure enough to walk away.  I can't blame him for taking that job.

And so ironically, Mack Brown's refusal to retire now in an effort to reclaim his legacy has made the road to reclaiming that legacy significantly more treacherous.  The walls are closing in and the roof is beginning to collapse around him, and you have to wonder whether a coach with such a conservative personality who thrives on program stability has it in him to weather a storm like this and come out unscathed.  Mack has, over the past 13 years, built a well-oiled machine that can withstand a kink in the gears here and there, but it remains to be seen if it can withstand a full breakdown of all of its component parts.  Quick, good hires at the coordinator positions will stem a potential revolt of 2011 recruits, but how the new staff will work within Mack's machine going forward is a complete unknown.  And if each new part doesn't find its fit immediately, the potential for disaster is great.  A regression, at the least, is practically inevitable.

And so it seems as though the castle walls are slowly crumbling and the barbarians are at the gate.  Of course, it's not over yet, and this program can and may very well rally.  It may even end up being Mack's greatest accomplishment.  But when I think back to that sunset walk to the Rose Bowl on January 7, 2010, I can't shake the feeling that the darkness it ushered in really may have been the last night of Mack Brown's Longhorn empire.  Only time will tell.

** Obviously, it didn't happen all at once.  Things like this build over years, not days, and perhaps most importantly, if this article were titled "The Last Week and a Half of the Longhorn Empire," it would begin with Urban Meyer's resignation as head coach of Florida on December 27, 2009 and his subsequent, borderline literal, change of heart the very next day.  After that, it was only a matter of time before he left for good.