Not that long ago, the state of Texas seemed to dominate the NFL draft. Longhorns here, Aggies there. Baylor and Texas Tech were in the mix. TCU and Houston players often heard their names called.
Between 2002 and 2006, the Texas Longhorns alone produced six top-ten picks. In the six drafts from 2001 to 2006, UT sent ten first-rounders to the NFL. In 2009, Baylor (Jason Smith), Tech (Michael Crabtree), and UT (Brian Orakpo) were the second, tenth and thirteenth overall selections. As recently as 2016, prospects from four Texas schools—TCU, Baylor, Houston, and A&M—were drafted in the first round.
If the NFL draft is a referendum on the quality of your college football, what state has it better than ours? Which brings us to Thursday’s opening round of the 2021 NFL draft, a day that’s likely to deliver a reminder that Texas college football is in a—delicate phrasing here—down cycle.
Down cycle is the nice way to say it. After all, we still have our pride and our memories. None of this will surprise Texas, Baylor, or Texas Tech fans, who are not exactly pleased with the state of programs that were once among the nation’s best. Based on ESPN’s latest projections, the Lone Star State will have just one first-round pick: TCU safety Trevon Moehrig, projected to go twenty-seventh overall, to the Baltimore Ravens. He’s the top-ranked safety in the draft and would save Texas from being shut out of the first round for the first time since 2008. (Things got hairy in 2018 when UT-San Antonio defensive end Marcus Davenport was the lone first-rounder from Texas.)
As for the most-talked-about players—quarterbacks Kellen Mond of A&M and Sam Ehlinger of Texas—neither is expected to be among the top one hundred picks. That could change, and dramatically, because Mond has had a string of impressive pre-draft workouts, and it takes only one general manager to see him as a potential second-round steal (which is exactly what Pro Football Focus projects will happen). This doesn’t mean that Texas is no longer relevant, only that the very early picks—the impact players, as the kids say—aren’t coming from Texas colleges at the moment.
For now, the second Texas player on the board is expected to be offensive lineman Samuel Cosmi of the Longhorns, projected to go in the middle of the second round. (Two Houston-area high school players who left the state to play college football—Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater—are also considered likely first-round picks.)
How did we fall so far so fast? That’s actually the easy part. Coaching changes happened. Successful coaches were shown the door—justifiably so in several cases—at Texas, Tech, and Baylor, and programs spiraled downward. This is a reminder about the power of one coach to elevate a program. In fact, great football coaches can change the face of an entire institution because it’s not just about the football.
Great coaches don’t just recruit the best talent and hire the most innovative offensive and defensive coordinators. They also raise money, build facilities, and become the face of the university. That affects everything, including academics. In winning six national championships at the University of Alabama, Nick Saban has helped boost the school’s application numbers and admissions selectivity, as well as attract academically talented students from out of state.
Some college administrators mistakenly believe that football programs succeed thanks to the strength of the institutions behind them. But Alabama was 26–24 in the four seasons before Saban arrived in 2007, and Oklahoma was 23–33–1 in five seasons before Bob Stoops took over the Sooners in 1999.
The University of Texas is 48–39 in seven seasons since Mack Brown was forced out, and this season the Longhorns will start from scratch with their third head coach of the post-Mack era, Steve Sarkisian. Brown built such a powerhouse, with a record of 101–16 from 2001 to 2009, that some had forgotten how low the program had sunk before his 1998 arrival (46–34–2 in seven prior seasons). When Brown went 30–21 over what turned out to be his final four seasons, Texas chose to make a coaching change rather than trust Brown to rebuild.
Enter Charlie Strong, who’d made a nice name for himself at Louisville, but then promptly went 6–7, 5–7, and 5–7 in three seasons at Texas. He was followed by Tom Herman, who was unable to replicate the success he’d had at Houston, and he too was replaced after just one top-ten finish in four seasons. Next season, Sarkisian will get his first chance to accomplish what the two coaches who preceded him couldn’t, but thanks to the pressure and expectations that come with UT football, Sark will have his work cut out for him.
The lesson, for university decision-makers and big-money boosters: If you fire a successful coach, it would be wise to have an even better successor lined up to replace him.
Or get used to long stretches of mediocrity and not hearing any of your players’ names called on the first night of NFL draft.