Is Mack Brown still coaching the University of Texas football team? Of course. But since the Longhorns lost to Oklahoma, 63-21, three weeks ago, Brown’s bosses in the media, on message boards and Twitter are calling for his resignation. The psyche of the UT football fan in 2012 is such that every lost yard, suspect play call or too-placid post-game interview inspires a referendum on the fitness of the greatest Longhorns coach since Darrell Royal.
Fortunately for Brown, he doesn’t work for the Internet’s knee-jerk class, but for UT’s athletic director, DeLoss Dodds. When Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman asked Dodds if Brown’s job might be in jeopardy, the A.D. treated the subject the way White House press secretary Jay Carney might approach the topic of Barack Obama’s citizenship.
“What are you talking about?” Dodds, 73, said. “Have you been drinking at lunch?”
Surely not, though perhaps the columnist was still punch-drunk from that Oklahoma beating. UT was 6-2 headed into yesterday’s Texas Tech game, but Brown’s third straight loss—and ninth in fifteen seasons—to Oklahoma, the Longhorns’ biggest rival (now that Texas A&M is off the schedule), and last week’s near-upset at the hands of Kansas has made talk of firing Brown a sober proposition.
“If the Longhorns lost in Lawrence, Brown might have boarded a plane separate from his team — one bound for his mountain home in North Carolina,” wrote ESPN’s Travis Haney. “He still might be headed that way at season’s end if things don’t improve.”
Maybe, but probably not. Dodds is obviously loyal to the man who helped him build the football program into a money-making empire, and Dodds has a longer memory than fans. He knows Brown is still the guy who led UT to its first national championship since 1970 in 2005, and took the Horns back for another challenge in 2009.
Since then the Longhorns have gone an unacceptable 5-7 in 2010 and an adequate 8-5 in 2011. Between those two seasons, Brown made moves to re-energize the program, including hiring new coordinators. And Dodds thumbed his nose at Brown’s detractors this past January by extending the coach’s contract from 2016 to 2020.
Symbolically, Brown suffered a major blow prior to the 2011 season when associate head coach and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who’d been contractually anointed as UT’s future head coach, moved to the University of Florida. Muschamp’s second season with the Gators has gone well, giving those who want Brown out a grass-is-always greener figure.
But the grass is rarely greener, something a Horns fan should know better than most. In 1976, after a four-year stretch that included both a 10-2 team and a 5-5-1 team, Darrell Royal, who clashed with UT regent Frank Erwin, was eased into retirement at just 52 years old. Fred Akers, who coached UT from 1977 to 1986, went 66-17-1 in his first seven seasons before slowing to 20-14-1 in his last three. That got him fired. And if Akers wasn’t good enough to fill Coach Royal’s boots, his replacement, David McWilliams, wasn’t even worth a sock, with three losing seasons in five years. McWilliams’ successor (and Brown’s predecessor), John Mackovic, didn’t live up to the program’s lofty expectations either.
Dodds, who fired Akers and has hired every coach since then, knows that Brown is the best thing to happen to UT football since Dana Bible hired Royal in 1957. That’s not to say that Brown should coach forever on the strength of his past glories, but he wouldn’t be so easy to replace.
It’s become fashionable to compare Brown to former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, both legends who hung on too long at programs which improved immediately without them (even as Penn State serves four years of NCAA sanctions). But Bowden and Paterno were both in their eighties, and both had seen more than a decade pass since they last played for a national championship.
Brown is more like Michigan’s Lloyd Carr and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer, two title-winning coaches who were muscled out after their "time had come." Both Michigan and Tennessee are on their second hires since then, and Tennessee, which has yet to win a game in the Southeastern Conference this year, may yet need a third.
Closer to home, Brown is also more like R.C. Slocum. The winningest coach in Texas A&M history had a Hall of Fame career, but couldn’t keep up with UT or Oklahoma once the Southwest Conference gave way to the Big 12. Aggieland demanded someone better, but neither Dennis Franchione nor Mike Sherman improved the program.
A&M is now on its third coach since Slocum stepped down in 2002, former University of Houston Coach Kevin Sumlin, who is young and energetic and has exceeded expectations for the Aggies’ first year as a member of the SEC.
The most shocking thing about the 2012 college football season in Texas is that UT might have a worse season in the watered-down, ten-team Big 12 than Texas A&M will in the SEC, which had five of the top eight teams in the most recent Bowl Championship Series standings.
Mack Brown won’t get fired because an expected 9-3 season might turn into a 7-5 letdown. Mack Brown shouldn’t get fired just for losing to Oklahoma (again). And he can’t get fired for losing to the Aggies. But if kids from Dallas and Houston start deciding that they want to play for the invigorating Sumlin and take on LSU and Alabama instead of TCU and Oklahoma, that’s when Brown’s time will be over.