So much noise has swirled around the University of Texas football program in recent weeks that it has been easy to overlook a larger question that could be gnawing at even the most relentlessly optimistic Longhorns fan.
Can UT still be an elite football program? Can Texas still be Texas?
While the failed pursuit of star head coach Urban Meyer has served as a distraction from another disappointing season that ends tonight against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, the real story may be whether college football’s landscape has shifted so dramatically that Texas has been left behind. This possibility won’t sit well with many Texas fans. They see what Darrell Royal did and what Mack Brown did as confirmation that the good old days are right around the corner. They also see a 6–3 season in which two of three losses—a late goal line fumble against TCU and an overtime loss to Oklahoma—could easily have gone the other way.
But the bottom line says something else. In eleven seasons since Colt McCoy played his last game, the Longhorns have won zero Big 12 championships and finished unranked in the Associated Press poll seven times. Only once has Texas been higher than nineteenth—a number nine ranking in Tom Herman’s second season.
The reasons for skepticism start with recruiting. Cover your eyes, Longhorn Fan. If Texas once had a huge advantage with in-state recruits—and it did—that’s not close to being true nowadays. College recruiting has gone digital and national. Regional advantages have seldom mattered less, and Alabama and Ohio State have joined Texas A&M and Oklahoma in out-recruiting Texas in the state. According to Rivals, of the state’s 25 best 2021 recruits, 6 have committed to Texas A&M, 5 to Alabama, and 4 to Oklahoma. So far, only 3 have chosen UT.
Television has also contributed to UT’s slippage. As college football has saturated the airwaves over the past twenty years, recruits have been exposed to fresh possibilities, as programs like Texas Tech and Baylor ran flashy offenses, wore flashy uniforms, and, in the biggest change of all, appeared on television almost as often as the Longhorns and Aggies. Gary Patterson won a Rose Bowl at TCU. Now Jimbo Fisher has unlocked the monster program many college football observers long believed Texas A&M could be.
For the Longhorns, long-term success is about finding the right coach, and so far Tom Herman isn’t that guy. In the years before and after Mack Brown, UT wasn’t very good. In the eleven seasons preceding Brown’s arrival in 1998, head coaches John Mackovic and then David McWilliams couldn’t lead UT to a finish higher than twelfth in the AP poll. The Longhorns ended seven of those seasons outside of the top 25. The school has had only one ten-win season since Brown was forced out after the 2013 season.
This isn’t about the Longhorns competing on the same level as Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State, either. At this point, those programs aren’t even in the conversation. Rather, can the Longhorns get back to being mentioned in the same breath as, say—clears throat, shuffles feet—Texas A&M? Some Aggies supporters grumbled about giving Fisher $7 million a year. Now that $7 million looks like one of the great bargain investments in the school’s history as Texas A&M has climbed into the national championship picture.
Among the nation’s top programs, coaching has consistently spelled the difference between disappointments and dynasties. Alabama was 26–24 in the four seasons before Nick Saban arrived. Oklahoma was 61–50–3 in the decade between Barry Switzer’s retirement and the hiring of Bob Stoops.
Mack Brown brought UT back in a way that a lot of school officials believed no longer possible. That he made ten-win seasons—nine in sixteen seasons—seem routine turned out to be his downfall. Decision makers at the state’s flagship public university decided they could do better after the Longhorns went 8–5 in 2011, 9–4 in 2012, and 8–5 in 2013. Now 8–5 or 9–4 would look pretty good.
Give Herman credit for doing his best to stay the course in recent weeks, as all hell broke loose around him. Even as his bosses left him hanging with their courtship of Meyer, and as Herman’s recruits fled the program and star players chose to skip the Alamo Bowl, the sitting coach did an admirable job maintaining a sense of normalcy. Herman probably understands that allowing questions about his job status to swirl could kneecap UT football over the next several years, and that the uncertainty around the program could lead to recruiting losses that will make it harder for him to hold onto the job. Herman remains the Texas coach only because UT athletics director Chris Del Conte couldn’t lure Meyer out of retirement and because Del Conte wasn’t crazy about other potential replacements.
Wait, it gets worse. After failing to land Meyer, Del Conte’s vote of confidence in Herman was so vague that he was forced to issue a follow-up clarification that Herman would indeed be the Longhorns coach in 2021. Go get ’em, Tommy Boy.
So can Texas still be Texas? Of course. All the Longhorns need is a championship-caliber coach.
Nothing else Del Conte does at Texas—fund-raising, shaking hands, fund-raising, and did we mention fund-raising?—is as important as hiring the right coach for the football team. As of now, no one seems to know how to identify that candidate. Charlie Strong was a hot name in coaching circles when he arrived in Austin and strung together three straight losing seasons. Likewise, Herman was seen as a great hire after going 22–4 in two seasons at Houston. He immediately landed a pair of top-five recruiting classes, and when his second season ended with a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia and the emergence of Sam Ehlinger as one of the best quarterbacks (statistically) in school history, the program seemed poised for greatness. Instead, the Longhorns are 14–8 since and preparing to play a bowl game in which four defensive starters have opted out.
Longhorns fans of a certain age have been here before. Lots of them—and some high-ranking UT officials—believed the program would never regain its powerhouse status before Brown was hired. At the time, UT had finished outside of the AP top ten for fourteen straight seasons and there were few signs of hope on the horizon. But Brown turned out to be the right coach and then some.
At first, Brown was tagged with the derisive nickname “Mr. February” for delivering great recruiting classes and not-so-great results. In his first three seasons with UT, the team finished with nine wins each year. Then, beginning in 2001, the program took off. Over the next nine seasons, the Longhorns went 101–16, with seven top-ten finishes in the AP poll and the historic 2005 season, when Texas went 13–0 and won the second undisputed national championship in school history. It should be noted—and Brown would be the first to note—that great players, especially great quarterbacks, make coaching legends. Brown was 75–10 in the years Vince Young and Colt McCoy started at quarterback and 83–38 with anyone else playing the position.
Crucial to Brown’s success was an everyman persona that helped him build deep, lasting relationships with boosters, UT administrators, and reporters. Those soft skills help a coach endure disappointing seasons and weather outside criticism. Since Herman took over, the Longhorns’ current coach has seemed uninterested in public relations, so in tough times it’s unclear how many allies he has. Or if he has allies at all.
And yet UT was headed for a solid season this year, until the team blew a ten-point second-half lead against Iowa State and lost 23–20 to the Cyclones. That’s the game that sped up the Urban Meyer–to–Texas rumors, which then prompted Herman to defend himself and his staff a few days later. “We’ve won a lot of games around here, a lot of big games,” he told reporters. He ticked ’em off: “Beating a rival. We’ve beaten top-ten teams. We’ve been in New Year Six bowl games. Those are the things that have happened. I mean, that’s indisputable.”
He’s right about those accomplishments, but he fails to mention his team’s shortcomings: UT did beat rival Oklahoma in 2018. But the Longhorns lost to the Sooners in 2017, 2019, 2020. Herman has coached the team to three wins over top-ten teams—and to six losses against other opponents ranked in the top ten. Texas upset number-five Georgia in Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in 2019. Tonight’s Alamo Bowl appearance is several steps down from that.
Are the Longhorns really close to being a top-ten or top-fifteen team? Or is that just what teams say when they fall short of expectations?
“If we hadn’t fumbled against TCU. If we hadn’t had a letdown against Iowa State.”
Tonight, it’s difficult to know precisely what’s at stake as the Longhorns prepare for a bowl game that could—well, okay, let’s find something—serve as a springboard into 2021. If Texas wins what could be Ehlinger’s last game in burnt orange, with four defensive starters sitting out and with Herman’s bosses kicking the tires on replacement head coaches, that would be a statement of sorts.
From the glass-half-full file comes this: great accomplishments require great challenges, and UT football has nailed half of that equation. That’s one way to look at it, and for Longhorns fans, the positive spin surely beats the other possibility. That is, that Texas football’s time has passed.