It is worth remembering this moment. The date is January 7, 2010. The Texas Longhorns are playing the Alabama Crimson Tide for the BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California. Exactly 3 minutes and 31 seconds have elapsed in the first quarter. Texas defensive back Blake Gideon has intercepted an Alabama pass, and his undefeated team, which is ranked number two in the country, has easily moved the ball to the Alabama 11-yard line. Longhorns star Colt McCoy, the winningest college quarterback in history, is under center. Though this is only Texas’s fifth play from scrimmage, many of his teammates will later recall feeling, in that moment, that they are simply better than their number-one-ranked opponent. They already believe that whatever Alabama does, it cannot stop McCoy.
There is a sense too that something even larger than the national title is at stake. A victory for head coach Mack Brown—his second championship in four years, on top of his already-stunning record at UT of 128 wins and 26 losses—would guarantee his canonization. After a four-decade wait, the Longhorns football program would finally be restored to its Darrell Royal–era glory. Brown would retire a conquering hero, while his designated head-coach-in-waiting, the brilliant Will Muschamp, would seamlessly take his place.
McCoy takes the snap. He keeps the ball, moving to his left and turning upfield. At the line of scrimmage he is tackled by Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus. As McCoy rises from the pile, there is no immediate evidence that anything is wrong. But in fact the world has changed—deeply and catastrophically.
That’s because Dareus has hit a nerve in McCoy’s right shoulder, which has caused his throwing arm to go limp. McCoy leaves the game, never to return. For Texas players and fans, what happens next is pure heartbreak. Backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a true freshman who has thrown only 26 passes in his college career, will throw four interceptions. In spite of those errors, the Longhorns manage to draw within three points of the Crimson Tide with 6 minutes and 15 seconds left to play. But Gilbert fumbles, then throws the game away. Final score: Alabama 37, Texas 21.
Thus do dreams die. Mack Brown’s moon shot burned itself out in the eucalyptus-scented air of Southern California, and the team lugged itself back to Austin, shattered by its strange defeat. But the nightmare wasn’t over—not by a long shot. That school year, 2009–2010, was the culmination of one of the greatest runs in the history of college sports. In 2002 Sports Illustrated had named the University of Texas the “Best Sports College” in the country. Three years later, the Longhorn men won eight Big 12 titles in five sports and two national championships, in football and baseball. The women did almost as well, winning track and field national championships at the outdoor level in 2005 and indoors in 2006. The softball team went to the College World Series in 2005 and 2006 with its incomparable ace, Cat Osterman, while the women’s tennis team finished second at the 2005 NCAA tournament. In 2009–2010 the men’s basketball team started 17-0 and was ranked number one. That spring the baseball team was the second national seed in the NCAAs. Men’s swimming won the national championship that same year. The University of Texas, it seemed, was unstoppable.
And then in a sudden, epic collapse, it all went to hell. In the fall of 2010, Brown’s bizarrely inept Longhorns football team went 5-7. At the end of that season Muschamp abandoned UT to become the head coach at Florida. Over the four years that followed the loss to Alabama, the Longhorns football team’s record in the Big 12 was 18-17. In other words: full-blown mediocrity. The other big men’s sports, the so-called revenue sports, went into weirdly simultaneous swoons. Men’s basketball had two NCAA tournament victories in four years. In 2012 the baseball team failed to make the NCAA tournament. In 2013 its record was so bad it did not even make the Big 12 tournament.
The list of woes was not limited to win-loss records. Augie Garrido, Texas’s legendary baseball coach, was convicted of drunk driving in 2009. Its equally legendary women’s track coach, Bev Kearney, was forced to resign in 2013 for having an affair with a student-athlete. That case led to revelations that Major Applewhite, a former UT quarterback and current offensive coordinator, had had an affair with a student trainer at a bowl game a few years earlier. Later in 2013, basketball coach Rick Barnes watched helplessly as his four highest scorers defected, three to other colleges and one to the NBA draft, where he failed to be selected.
The football team’s lowest point came in a single week in September 2013, when it was humiliated first by BYU 40–21 and then by Ole Miss 44–23. As though to underscore the dysfunctional mess that UT football had become, five days later the Associated Press ran a story saying that UT System regent Wallace Hall and former regent Tom Hicks had, without the knowledge or authorization of UT officials, contacted the agent for Nick Saban, the head coach for Alabama, to ask if Saban was interested in taking Brown’s job.
All of this was happening at the same time that in-state rivals Baylor and Texas A&M were lighting up the college football world with Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel, local boys who had attended high school within two hours of Austin and went on to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies in 2011 and 2012.
The final straw came last December, after UT’s lopsided 30–10 loss to Baylor in the final regular-season game. The Longhorn community dissolved into a frenzy of anger, blame, and recrimination, and Brown was called everything from a “has-been” to a “clown.” “The game has blown by Mack Brown like he is in reverse,” read a typical blog post. “Mack is a failure,” read another. The attacks raged for a full week and culminated in Brown’s departure on December 14. It was a cruel end for one of Texas’s greatest coaches. “I think Mack’s departure was handled poorly,” says Steve Hicks, the vice chairman for the UT System Board of Regents. “It should have been a celebration of his accomplishments and not something that embarrassed him the way it did.”
Two months earlier, the empire had suffered another blow: legendary UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds announced that he was resigning. Dodds, who had held the job since 1981, had been the architect of Texas’s athletic dominance. He had engineered the enormous money machine that ran it all and used that wealth to lure the best athletes, build the best facilities, and hire the best coaches, including Brown. Thus did the University of Texas’s most successful sports era end in more than a little pain and turmoil. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. With all this bitterness and controversy, and with Dodds and Brown gone, what would happen next?