DeLoss Dodds saw this coming.
In early 2013, Mack Brown’s Longhorns had just finished a 9–4 campaign, including a 63–21 shellacking at the hands of Oklahoma, plus a pair of Big 12 season-ending losses, to TCU and Kansas State. But when it came to the notion of getting a new football coach, the University of Texas athletics director reckoned that the FieldTurf wasn’t always greener.
“Look at the programs that made changes,” Dodds told the Austin American-Statesman’s Kirk Bohls, referencing other big-name schools where long-successful coaches had seemed to reach their expiration date. “Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, R.C. Slocum at A&M. They all had great runs and then two or three average years and have been through two or three coaches since.” As Dodds well knew, UT itself also had been there. After Darrell K Royal retired in 1976, the Longhorns cycled through Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic before hiring Brown away from North Carolina in 1997.
For once in his career, Dodds had failed to read the room. In October 2013, the 76-year-old AD retired. Two months later, Brown stepped down, a “mutual decision” among him, new athletics director Steve Patterson, and UT president Bill Powers that was reportedly influenced by boosters and the Board of Regents. After sixteen years, the time had come. It would for Patterson and Powers too.
But if Dodds was dead wrong about the politics of keeping UT’s greatest coach since Royal, he was dead right about the folly of replacing him. After going 13–1 and losing the BCS championship game to Alabama in 2009, Brown went 5–7, 8–5, 9–4, and 8–5 in his last four seasons. His replacement, Charlie Strong, finished with a losing record three years in a row, prompting the Longhorns’ frantic pursuit of then University of Houston head coach Tom Herman in 2016.
Herman’s tenure has been more successful, if still short of the standard that the University of Texas sets—or at least imagines—for itself. After a 7–6 campaign in 2017, the Horns went 10–4 in Herman’s second season, with a win over Oklahoma (in the Red River Showdown), a loss to Oklahoma (in the Big 12 Championship Game), and an upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. “We’re back!” quarterback Sam Ehlinger famously exulted in New Orleans, the first and last time somebody will say that without irony until the Longhorns win another Big 12 championship—something even Brown managed only twice in sixteen years. When the Horns slipped to 8–5 last season, Herman replaced both his offensive and defensive coordinators. This is the first move that a head coach under fire makes, and it’s sometimes the last as well.
With a revamped coaching staff, three years of Herman’s own recruits, and a star senior quarterback in Ehlinger, this was supposed to be a big season for the Longhorns, even with the sport, and life itself, completely shaken up by COVID-19. In this pandemic college football season, UT is now a disappointing 2–2, with wins over UTEP and Texas Tech followed by crushing losses to TCU and Oklahoma. When they said that college football coming back would give us all a sense of normalcy, who knew that meant Texas losing to the Sooners—and Texas fans losing patience with their coach—as usual?
“Herman had better run the table or go 5–1 down the stretch and go to a big bowl if he wants to save his job,” Bohls wrote on Tuesday, even as he acknowledged the horrendous optics of UT boosters cutting a big check to cover Herman and his staff’s potential $35 million buyout while the university loses money during the pandemic. The fallout has included layoffs, furloughs, and salary cuts across the athletics department. The cuts extended to Herman and most (but not all) of his staff: the head coach gave up more than half a million dollars of his estimated $6 million salary. Except, as Steve Berkowitz of USA Today and Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman reported based on public records requests, Herman is merely deferring, not forfeiting, the money. He’ll get it back by the time his contract is up in 2023—or maybe sooner, if the Longhorns can’t beat Baylor.
All of which is ludicrous, of course. It’s ludicrous to treat this season like it’s normal. It’s the height of privilege to actually care if Herman goes 4–6, 5–5, or 7–3. It’s not even clear that this season should be happening: Baylor (UT’s next opponent) and the University of Florida (Texas A&M’s last opponent) are currently dealing with coronavirus outbreaks, and on Wednesday Alabama head coach Nick Saban announced that he had tested positive. If nothing else, from a pure football perspective, can we really judge the effectiveness of Herman and his brand-new staff in this completely screwy season, when there wasn’t even normal spring and summer practice? Yeah, it’s the same for every school, but that’s why Oklahoma also has two losses, while Iowa State and Kansas State are leading the Big 12.
Everyone who follows the Dallas Cowboys or the San Antonio Spurs knows a team’s success or failure always starts with ownership. It doesn’t matter how many times you change the roster or the coach or the assistants if you have an interfering owner, while a well-run team can weather anything. The University of Texas is no different from the Cowboys, except instead of one Jerry Jones, there are ten or twenty or one hundred, from the monied boosters to the Board of Regents (a group that sometimes overlaps) to the governor and the Legislature (and as I’ve written before, the owners are also us).
This year there’s an extra bit of trouble: the ongoing debate over the racist history of “The Eyes of Texas,” which came to a head again last weekend when, in a photo that went viral, Ehlinger appeared to be the only Longhorns player on the field acknowledging the fans and the song after the Oklahoma game. (At Herman’s Zoom press conference on Monday, he said that “some of the team” also joined Ehlinger.) It was the main topic of conversation at the press conference, and it’s a topic that is not likely to go away. In his weekly newsletter to fans on Wednesday, athletics director Chris del Conte wrote that he still expects athletes to stand for the song. “I have had many conversations with our head coaches outlining my expectations that our teams show appreciation for our university, fans, and supporters by standing together as a unified group for ‘The Eyes,’ while we work through this issue,” del Conte wrote.
If Herman’s 2–2 team can do as Bohls suggested and go 5–1 from here, fans—if not the players—will likely move on from the “Eyes” controversy and get ready for a decent bowl game. But if they finish 3–3? Right now, you’d pencil them in for wins over Baylor, Kansas, and West Virginia, with losses to Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Iowa State, and that probably means another coach.
Which brings us right back to Dodds’ comments. Will year one of [insert coach’s name here] really go better than year five of Herman? Michigan, Tennessee, and Texas A&M have now had ten coaches among them since 2008, and, like Texas, have yet to win a conference title or be in the national championship conversation with any of them. Kevin Sumlin, A&M’s third hire after R.C. Slocum, made it through six years in College Station, but when the Aggies had an opportunity to toss him over for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, they gave Fisher a ten-year, $75 million contract.
At the time of his hiring, Fisher was a unicorn: one of just four active head coaches to have previously won a national championship. The others were Nick Saban, UT’s booster fantasy circa 2012; Dabo Swinney, who is still at Clemson; and former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who is now the current object of Longhorns Twitter/message board fan-fic—or of abject horror, depending who you ask (but that’s another column).
As it happens, there’s a fourth guy with national championship credentials who returned to college football just last year. He’s currently coaching the fifth-ranked team in the country, which also happens to be a school he coached before. As Republican political consultant and Longhorns fan Derek Ryan joked on Twitter during the Red River Showdown: “I’m hearing good things about the coach of North Carolina. Maybe Texas should hire him.”
Correction 10/17: A previous version of this article stated that Sam Ehlinger said “Texas is back!” at the Sugar Bowl. It has been amended to reflect that he said “We’re back!”