Not that long ago -- about six years, in fact -- assessing the legacy of Mack Brown at Texas compared to his yearly nemesis Bob Stoops didn't exactly reflect Brown in a particularly appealing light. Consider that narrative reversed for a handful of reasons.
For Texas fans beaten down by the five consecutive losses, that reversal represents an extremely heartening trend when looking towards the future. Beaten down described not only the burnt orange faithful during that time, but also the Texas team entering the Cotton Bowl during those five losses -- groups that seemingly never believed in themselves even before the game started. Teams that were labeled soft and probably deserved it.
Starting in with the victory in 2005 and subsequent national championship win over USC, everything seemed to change for the Longhorns. The heady confidence of Vince Young certainly played a large role. He believed and so everyone else on the team believed as a result. Coaches, Players. Trainers. Fans. Everyone.
Since that cathartic victory, Texas has turned the tide in the series by winning four of the last six contests, including the resounding 45-35 win in 2008 against a heavily-favored Sooner squad and the hard-fought, ugly victory in 2009 that helped Texas continue its trajectory towards the Rose Bowl.
But what exactly has helped Texas shed that soft label and begin making inroads into Sooner dominance in the Cotton Bowl?
The largest factor by far has been Mack Brown himself. He looked himself in the mirror after 2003, assessed the state of the program, and determined, absolutely correctly, that he was stuck in a comfort zone and blinded by his loyalty to members of his coaching staff. He got rid of Tim Nunez, the wide receivers coach masquerading as an offensive line coach, replacing with him a grizzled veteran in Mac McWhorter, and by jettisoning defensive coordinator Carl Reese, replacing him with the twin-headed defensive coordinator duo of Greg Robinson and Dick Tomey, the latter the architect of the famous Desert Swarm defenses as Arizona in the mid-90s.
The second move paid the biggest dividends, as the new coordinators instilled a sense of toughness in the team by instituting more hitting in practice and requiring every defensive player on the field to meet at the ballcarrier and not blowing their whistles until they had done so. While that heightened toughness didn't result in a 2004 victory, the defense bent against Adrian Peterson in allowing the Oklahoma star to run up and down the field between the 20s, but mostly keep the Sooners out of the endzone in the 12-0 loss.
Subsequent strong hires from Brown on the defensive side of the ball, including hiring two straight defensive coordinators away from Auburn in Gene Chizik and then the beloved Will Muschamp, helped continue the trend of strong defenses in Austin. With Manny Diaz now at the helm, the Texas defense has morphed into a consistently dominant unit against the run while earning the school the nickname DBU by sending defensive backs to the NFL seemingly every year.
On the recruiting trail, the Longhorns also began to make progress. When Adrian Peterson committed to Oklahoma in late 2003, it was because he wanted to win a national championship. And could Texas fans at the time really begrudge him choosing a program seemingly much closer to another crystal trophy? Well, of course, but not without at least somewhat admitting that Peterson made a logical decision. At the time.
Vince Young did a lot to change that and despite some lazy evaluations in the two years after winning the national championship, the specter of VY has loomed large over the recruiting landscape in the state of Texas every since he stood in confetti on that fateful evening. Kids coming of age in the mid and late 2000s say for themselves that the Longhorns were champions during those formative years.
In any sport, recruiting is like an avalanche -- the momentum generated by a successful team, by a transcendent player, by young, energetic recruiters, can continue for years. Once it gets started, the only things that can derail it are sanctions, a coaching change or a prolonged period of losing.
Recruiting momentum at Texas has peaked from the 2010 recruiting class to the 2012 group that will sign in February. After dominating the Metroplex and parts of East Texas for years, the Longhorns secure commitments from players across the state virtually at will. Meanwhile, the Sooners have retreated somewhat from Texas, instead spending more time recruiting nationally -- recruitments that won't come down to the Texas-Oklahoma battles won so often in recent years by Mack Brown and the Longhorns.
Give credit to tight ends coach Bruce Chambers for helping win the Metroplex, one of the prime recruiting areas in the entire country. The former Dallas Carter head coach used his connections within the coaching community and his ability to relate African-American players to help lock down that talent-rich region and land players who would blossom into significant contributors like the Acho brothers, while also securing commitments from top talents like Jackson Jeffcoat and Darius White, both targeted heavily by Oklahoma.
It wasn't only recruiting momentum and coaching hires that helped turn the rivalry, however. Credit Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby, and Jordan Shipley as well. Each of the three went 3-1 against Oklahoma and helped change that perception that Bob Stoops owned Mack Brown. For all the three, some luck was involved in getting them to Texas at the perfect time for them to come together and lead the Texas offense to victories over the hated Sooners -- McCoy benefiting from the early departure of Vince Young combined with the de-commitment of Ryan Perrilloux, Shipley sticking around for six years because of his leg injuries in consecutive seasons, and Cosby finally fulfilling his commitment to Texas after years playing minor-league baseball.
Aided by that legendary Longhorn triumvirate, the recent success experienced by Texas in the pressure cooker of the Cotton Bowl, combined with numerous high-profile meltdowns by the Sooners, especially in BCS games, has helped completely reverse the Stoops-Brown narrative from where it was just years ago. Even if the Longhorns don't have an outstanding reputation as a team capable of rising to big moments, the two Rose Bowl victories, the appearance in the 2010 Rose Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl win against Ohio State have helped cement Brown as a coach capable of winning big games, while the reputation of Stoops has gone completely in the opposite direction.
With the strong recruiting classes of 2010-2012 and the brilliant young coaching staff put together by Mack Brown following the disastrous 2010 season -- perhaps his most inspired moments as a head coach -- make the future look extremely bright for the Longhorns. That's not to say that the Sooners haven't positioned themselves for success moving forward, but the difference in optimism for Texas fans entering this game from a half decade ago represents a stark contrast.
And it's Mack Brown who has made that all happen for the Longhorns.