In this second installment about the legacy Mack Brown leaves behind, we look particularly at the years that made Brown's legend at Texas. As Billy noted in his excellent first piece placing the beginning of Mack's tenure in context, he came into a situation with a fractured fanbase and a downtrodden team coming off a terrible second season in the Big 12. Ricky Williams' magical run to the Heisman kicked off the Mack Brown era, and it was up to the coach to build from there.
From 2001 to 2009 there was not a better, more consistent coach in the country than Mack Brown, and he had advantages over any other coach who might lay claim to that distinction. During that period, Mack didn't cheat (unlike Jim Tressel or Pete Carrol), didn't quit on his teams (unlike Urban Meyer or Nick Saban), never Bomar'd and found tremendous success on the football field.
We were high school seniors from out of state in 2001, considering attending The University, and it was the first time we paid attention to Longhorns football with more than casual eyes.
Mack's teams saw extraordinary success book-ended by two experiences that will haunt Longhorn fans who saw them: Bizarro Roy Williams vaulting into the end zone in 2001 and Colt McCoy's freak shoulder injury in 2009. During Brown's peak between 2004 and 2009 the Horns went 68-9, winning two conference titles and three BCS games, going 4-2 against Oklahoma, and winning the greatest college football game ever played featuring probably the greatest single performance by a player in college football history.
And all the while, a lot of players graduated from the University of Texas and there was never even a hint of NCAA violation. Although it's clear Mack Brown is merely human and has his flaws, it was this combination of off-field accomplishments that made us say for years that we'd rather be mediocre with Mack Brown than elite with a dirty coach. Unfortunately, it turns out that's a lot easier to say and feel when being mediocre is a distant, unlikely eventuality.
Only Darrel Royal's 1968-1973 stretch compares in the annals of Texas football history.
If Chris Simms weren't Chris Simms in 2001; if Colt McCoy didn't get hurt in 2006 and 2009; if either Blake Gideon could catch or the BCS weren't ridiculous in 2008; then Texas could've reasonably won two, and played for up to five national titles in nine years during Mack Brown's heyday.
We know if ifs, ands, and buts were candy and nuts the world would be a better place, but it really is remarkable how consistently close to the national title Texas was during that stretch. You can't disparage the 2013 team with "we were two plays away from 6-6" without also acknowledging how close Mack Brown was to playing for three more national championships.
The early portion of the Mack Brown Glory Days was defined by a quarterback controversy that seemed to draw interest from the entire college football universe. In a certain sense, the very fact that we, at the time two high school kids from SEC country, knew the particulars of the Chris Simms vs Major Applewhite battle illustrates how successful Mack's first few years were -- Texas was nationally relevant enough for folks all over to care who played QB.
That said, it seemed to be the universal opinion of the college football world that Simms was the starter due to his last name, and that Applewhite would be the better choice. But based on the hard numbers, it's hard to really second-guess the coaching staff even all these years later; Simms was physically more gifted and Applewhite was more beloved for the "intangibles." Simms started every game in 2001 and led Texas to an 11-1 record. Tough to complain.
That year's Longhorn team lost 14-3 to No. 3 Oklahoma after the aforementioned Bizarro Roy Williams Play, but didn't lose another one in what would become a Mack Brown trend. No one else played the Longhorns particularly close; the tightest win was the regular-season finale, a 14-point W over the Aggies.
Then came the Big 12 Championship game. Neither Texas nor Colorado was expected to be there even a week earlier; OU was supposed to beat Oklahoma State and Nebraska, ranked No. 1 at the time, was supposed to hammer CU. Neither happened, and suddenly Texas found itself in a position to play for the BCS title just by beating the underdog Buffaloes -- which, in and of itself, was only possible because Florida lost at home to Tennessee earlier in the day.
Texas had already destroyed Colorado by 34 points in the regular season. But Simms was responsible for four first-half turnovers, staking Colorado to a 29-10 lead. Simms hurt his finger just before halftime, and Major rode to the rescue; but a late roughing-the-punter penalty put the kibosh on the comeback, which fell just short as CU won the Big 12 by a 39-37 score.
Still, Texas had arrived as a national player and Mack didn't let it become a one-year event. The 2002 team went 10-2 in the regular season, losing 35-24 to OU and then climbing back into the top 5 before falling victim to a maddening Texas Tech team in Lubbock.
They finished the regular year with a 50-20 drubbing of the Aggies, after which Simms endeared himself to these two UT freshmen with the following quote, delivered with a smirk: "it's always fun to beat the Aggies." It's hard to describe, but the near-flippancy with which he said that felt like he was saying "beating the Aggies is like going to lunch with friends -- there's no challenge to it and it's just a pleasant all-around experience." Texas then dominated an LSU team that was one year away from a national championship in the Cotton Bowl.
Then began the Vince Young Era. In 2003, Young and Chance Mock split time at quarterback, with Young taking more and more snaps as the season progressed. A Week Two home loss to Arkansas and an absolute disaster at the State Fair (65-13 OU, who at the time was being referred to as the Best Team Ever) had Texas as a two-loss team through just six games.
They regrouped and won out the rest of the regular season, and that run included one fantastic in-game coaching move by Brown. At home on November 15 against a Texas Tech team with a typically explosive offense and typically awful defense, Texas blew a late 14-point lead as the offense sputtered to a halt and Young turned it over three times.
With two minutes left in the game, Texas got the ball back on their own 14-yard line trailing 40-35. Mack turned to Mock to take his first snap of the game, needing to go 86 yards to no timeouts. He did it with time to spare, hitting Real Roy Williams for 54 yards and closing the drive with a nine-yard floater to BJ Johnson in the endzone. Mock then scored the two-point conversion himself for good measure.
Tech's prolific offense marched to the Texas 31 in basically no time at all, but a missed 48-yard field goal sealed the 43-40 win for Texas. Johnson's catch was the loudest we have ever heard DKR. Chance's insertion was the kind of bold move at quarterback many Texas fans would've liked to see a couple of weeks ago against Baylor.
2004 began the best six-year sequence of Mack's tenure. The only blemish on a team that was now firmly Vince Young's was the excruciating 12-0 loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. OU was undefeated before getting steamrolled by USC in the Orange Bowl, giving the Trojans one and a half national titles in two years (after winning the AP title in 2003).
Texas had a scare against a so-so Kansas team in Lawrence, leading to Kansas coach Mark Mangino's famous "dollar signs" press conference. Of course, the bad call Mangino complained about also allowed Exhibit A in the Vince Young Legend to take place: his 4th and 18 scramble. No words.
The other defining moment of the 2004 regular season happened to be your author's final home game as a student. Les Miles' Oklahoma State squad had a 28-point lead very late in the second quarter before Texas scored to reduce the deficit to 35-14. Texas then proceeded to play the most perfect second half of football we have ever seen after hearing Mack Brown tell them at halftime that "Longhorn pride is gonna make this sucker 42-35." As Brown would recount after the game, he had undersold his team -- they blew the doors off the Cowboys 56-35. That's the kind of performance that reflects a confident, well-coached team.
After whipping the Aggies yet again, Mack won even more favor from the Longhorn fan base with his unashamed lobbying for Texas to get an at-large Rose Bowl bid over Cal. It worked, as just enough Coaches' Poll and AP voters pushed Texas up to move the Longhorns in front of the Bears in the BCS standings.
Texas made it clear the voters had made the right choice, as Vince gave a preview of what was to come on the Pasadena turf. A spectacular performance by the Texas quarterback was Exhibit B, and a last-play, game-winning field goal by Dusty Mangum made the Longhorns Rose Bowl champs over Michigan and set the stage for 2005.
Texas lost three great players to the 2005 NFL Draft -- running back Cedric Benson, tight end Bo Scaife, and linebacker Derrick Johnson. But the rest of the key players returned, and Mack Brown had finally gotten to the point in the recruiting cycle where he had a perfect storm: experience, other-worldly talent all over the field, and a transcendent quarterback. When it's all said and done, and the emotions from this last, failed rebuild calm down a bit, what Mack Brown accomplished in 2005 will be the first thing most Texas fans think of when they consider his legacy.
There's very little we can say about that team that hasn't already been written. A fan base that expects to be in the national title hunt every year seems to forget that, between 1970 and 2005, Texas won exactly zero national championships.
Yes, they came very close in 1983. They also came very close in 2001 and 2004, both under Mack Brown -- Mack was the only coach since DKR who won a championship at Texas, and the only one who even threatened multiple titles. The fact that the 2005 team made it looks so easy against every non-top-5 team it played may have eventually, and perversely, hurt Brown in fans' estimation -- i.e., "See? That wasn't so hard! Do it again!" But, just as fans legitimately note that Mack deserves blame, not sympathy, for the fact that Case McCoy was the second option after Ash got hurt this year, he also deserves immense credit for the roster being loaded in 2005.
Texas played two close games in 2005: a thrilling comeback victory over Ohio State in Columbus that included Exhibit C in the Vince Young Legend -- a late-game touchdown pass to Limas Sweed that gave Texas the lead for good. Texas would later take out years of frustration against Oklahoma by a score of 45-12, and beat a game Aggie squad by 11 in College Station. (Are you sensing a theme of the Mack Brown glory years against A&M? We are!) The Longhorns then effectively ended the practice of playing major college football at Colorado by pounding Ralphie 70-3 in the Big 12 title game. Without scoring in the fourth quarter.
Mack Brown and Vince Young ended their time together at Texas in the only appropriate way. Everyone reading this will remember the game, but what some may have forgotten is that in the hype leading up to that Rose Bowl ESPN had a special SportsCenter feature. They had the network's college football analysts idiotically comparing 2005 USC to each historical college football team that might lay claim to the title of "greatest ever" to determine whether the Trojans were, in fact, the best the game had ever seen.
Texas fans were treated to "analysis" like Mark May and Kirk Herbstreit talking about how the 2005 USC team would absolutely destroy the Army teams from the 1940s. As if the 2005 Sam Houston State team wouldn't have done the same. The month-plus of USC drooling made Vince's run to immortality that much sweeter, and provides context for the accomplishment that defines Mack Brown's tenure at Texas.
Despite Young's graduation, Brown kept Texas in the national conversation for four more years.
In a rare No. 1 vs No. 2 game early in the 2006 season, Texas was led by redshirt freshman Colt McCoy at home against Ohio State and took something of a beating. They regrouped and won their next eight games, including a second straight win over OU, behind a revelatory freshman season for McCoy.
But in the penultimate game of the regular season, McCoy hurt his right shoulder scoring a touchdown in the Longhorns' opening drive against unranked Kansas State. Fellow freshman Jevan Snead took over and played fine, but some crucial fumbles and defensive failures allowed the Wildcats to take a 45-42 victory.
McCoy would play the next game against the Aggies, but was not himself in throwing three picks. He also suffered two serious cheap shots, and Texas lost 12-7. They were arguably a Colt McCoy shoulder injury away from getting a shot at a second straight national title, but instead finished 10-3 after winning a close one over Iowa in the Alamo Bowl.
Texas fans may have grown weary of Mack touting the "10-win" standard of excellence, but reaching double-digit wins in '06 despite some awfully tough breaks at the end of the year really was an accomplishment worth praising. And it speaks to the standards Brown established that we were all disappointed.
2007 was another 10-3 season in which a bowl win was necessary to reach the 10-win plateau. Two of the same teams that had bitten the 'Horns in '06 did it again, as K-State continued its voodoo curse over Texas and Texas A&M, weirdly, beat Texas for the second year in a row in Dennis Franchione's last game at A&M.
The other loss was a tough 28-21 affair against Oklahoma. McCoy played hurt in that one as well, toughing it out for one of his better performances of the year. Although he was still a perfectly good quarterback and leader, the general consensus was that 2007 on the whole was a bit of a regression from his remarkable freshman year.
Running back Jamaal Charles was spectacular, though, highlighted by a 290-yard performance in a tight win over Nebraska. The most incredible thing about Charles' Nebraska game was that 216 of those yards and three touchdowns came in the fourth quarter to key the comeback victory.
Another thing that might make the more jaded among Texas fans roll their eyes when discussing Mack Brown's final couple of years at Texas is his enthusiastic sunshine pumping after the close win over Oregon State in last season's Alamo Bowl. Brown said it could be a launchpad for a far more successful 2013. In hindsight, obviously, that prediction doesn't look great. But Mack had a precedent for believing the bowl game could lift spirits around the program and lead to big improvements.
After the 2007 season, most Longhorn fans were left with a sour taste in their mouths from the season-ending loss to an Aggie team so bad it had gotten its coach fired. In the ensuing Holiday Bowl, the Longhorns absolutely dominated Arizona State. The 52-34 score was not indicative of the level of beatdown Texas laid on the Sun Devils. Coach Brown touted the win as the first in what he believed would be a special 2008.
One trait that defined the Mack Brown approach to Texas football was, at least in public, relentless positivity about the team's direction and abilities. It's the kind of thing that looks "out of touch" when followed by failure, but like a brilliant motivational tactic when followed by success. In 2008, it was the latter.
The 2008 season was simultaneously one of the most fun and most heartbreaking during Brown's tenure. Here was a team with a great quarterback and team leader returning for his junior year, surrounded by solid talent despite having lost guys like tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Jamaal Charles, and offensive line Tony Hills to the NFL. In other words, a similar setup to 2005.
They sailed easily through the early part of the schedule, including a 52-10 shellacking of Arkansas. They had climbed to a No. 5 national ranking going into the Red River Shootout, and in that game they scored 45 points. Oklahoma scored 35 points, which is ten less than 45.
Expressed in mathematical terms, 2008(T) - 2008(O) = 10, where T=Texas and O=Oklahoma. (We are aware that is probably not the best way to frame the formula for that joke, Jeff Haley.) Texas found itself ranked No. 1 in the country after defeating the previously top-ranked Sooners, but they were just getting started on a brutal four-game stretch. In their next two contests, they pounded No. 11 Missouri and squeaked by previously undefeated No. 8 Oklahoma State. That's three straight wins over teams ranked in the top 11, including the number one team in the country. ESPN's Beano Cook said at the time that the only other squad to have faced a tougher run was the Marines in the South Pacific.
But, alas, there remained one more major challenge before the Longhorns were in the clear. The unbelievably strong Big 12 (it really wasn't that long ago!) also included undefeated and fifth-ranked Texas Tech, complete with all the advantages of playing at home in the opponent-unfriendly confines of Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock.
Texas fought back from a late deficit to take a 33-32 lead with a minute and a half to play. Predictably, Graham Harrell marched Tech right back toward field goal range, needing only three to secure the win. The Horns' last, best chance literally slipped through their fingers; a Harrell pass deflected off the helmet of running back Baron Batch and floated into the Lubbock sky. Texas safety Blake Gideon was in position to snag it out of its slow, graceless flight, and at first it appeared he had done so. Interception. Ballgame. Smooth sailing to the national championship. But it was not to be, as Gideon couldn't hang on.
Harrell's ensuing touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree was a mere formality and still stands as the biggest play in the Tech program's history.
Texas won out with ease, including a 49-9 win over A&M. But due to Big 12 rules, with a three-way tie for the South Division the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings went to the title game. Voters in the polls making up the BCS formula conveniently forgot the aforementioned mathematical truth, placing Oklahoma just ahead of Texas and giving the Sooners the right to once again embarrass themselves against an SEC opponent in the national championship game. Texas, meanwhile, followed Colt to a comeback win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl -- a bowl win that, once again, helped catapult Texas toward an even better season.
The calendar year 2009 began with Mack Brown illustrating to us, on a personal level, why he'll always be "our coach." Despite all his responsibilities, he took time to record a video toast for your author's wedding. When finished, he asked whether it was good enough and offered to do it again. Then he proceeded to lead the Longhorns to an undefeated season and an appearance in the national title game.
Like the 2005 team, the 2009 squad played only two truly close games prior to the national title game. First was the second-straight win over Oklahoma, a 16-13 victory that was undoubtedly aided by the fact that Sam Bradford was injured and unable to play quarterback for the Sooners.
The other was the well-known Big 12 championship game against Nebraska. Trailing 12-10 in the waning moments, McCoy scrambled to his right and, finding no one open, threw the ball out of bounds. The clock ran down to zero and Nebraska thought they had won the Big 12 and derailed Texas' national aspirations.
A video review, however, showed the ball struck a stadium railing out of bounds with one second remaining, and Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence earned his place in Texas lore with a game-winning field goal as time expired. Pelinis were not happy; and, truth be told, Texas' two tough wins in 2009 illustrate as much as anything else that there is an awful lot of luck involved in championship football. No one knew it at the time, of course, but it would be the last win of Mack's glory years -- a period in which Texas didn't always get the lucky bounce, but was consistently good enough to be in position to take advantage when it was their turn.
Everyone reading will remember the national title game loss to Alabama that, in many ways, started us down the path toward Mack's resignation. The obvious factor that bears mention is, after Texas had started the game with all the momentum, Colt McCoy was injured on an option play during the Longhorns' first possession.
Our position on that has always been the following: it is silly for any Texas fan to claim with absolute certainty that the Horns would have won the game with McCoy, and it is equally silly for an Alabama fan to claim with certainty that the injury had no impact on the game's outcome. By definition, what would have happened had McCoy not been injured is not knowable. The one thing that's certain is that the injury deeply reduced Texas' chances, and McCoy was thus robbed of his shot at the storybook ending Vince Young had earned four years earlier.
What happened next is beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say, though, that Mack Brown has just been gently pushed out the door after an 8-4 campaign, his fourth straight season that failed to achieve the level of success he enjoyed from 2001 to 2009. We understand and agree that not all 8-4 years are created equal, and it is time for new blood at the top. But the reason any 8-4 season was bad enough to end Mack's career is that Mack created the standard.
Yes, perhaps he pointed that out in press conferences himself a bit more often than he needed to. But that doesn't diminish its truth. As Billy's prior post explains, there is nothing inherent about winning at Texas or anywhere else. Name a major college power and you can find extended periods of mediocrity. That period for Texas was cut down at the knees by Mack Brown, and his successor has huge shoes to fill.
Darrell Royal will always be the "Greatest" coach in Texas history. His name is on the stadium for good reason, and he established Texas as a national power for the first time in the modern era. But there is an argument for Mack Brown as the "Best" coach in Texas history.
Yes, he won only one national championship (one more than every Texas coach but Royal). He won only two conference championships, despite being agonizingly close a number of other times. He won fewer games than Royal.
But context matters. Mack Brown, especially between 2001 and 2009, led Texas to national prominence in an era wherein parity was far more prevalent than in Royal's day. More resources at more schools lead to more competitors for more talent; more high school talent and fewer scholarships mean other teams can compete even if Texas gets every recruit it wants; and more media and bigger dollars mean even more pressure for coaches than in Royal's heyday. Mack Brown gave Texas fans nearly a decade of expecting to be in the hunt for major hardware despite these challenges.
He also gave them 16 years of getting to claim vicarious credit for his basic human decency: "Your coach may win, but he's slimy; my coach wins and consistently does it with class." To the extent that The University means more to you than wins and losses, and you care about its reputation beyond football, you can't have asked for a better public face of Texas.
Hook 'Em, Coach.