A Remembrance of Things Past, and a reminder that things don’t last

I wrote the following in the Jones Top Ten this week:

Texas and Florida are headed to the same place for very different reasons.

While I fully believe that Urban Meyer has lost his passion for the game, in Mack Brown’s case, the evidence mounts that the game has simply passed him by. Impossible for a coach whose team played for a national title ten months ago? On the surface maybe, but college football history suggests otherwise.

It bears a fuller explanation. Not only do I believe the above statement is true, I also believe we are at the end of this Texas string, which has, at times, been glorious and has almost always been marked by excellent football.

But excellence disappears in a hurry in this sport. The best college football coaches are ambitious, driven, single-minded and narcissistic, almost without exception and regardless of what veneer they choose to cover these traits (Woody Hayes chose to go without any veneer at all). As a general rule, most of them do not know when to quit...and they almost never go out on top.

Speaking of Woody Hayes, he lost seven games in his last two seasons. His swan song was a 17-15 Gator Bowl loss to Clemson.

Bear Bryant went 8-4 his last season and was dead a few months later. Bud Wilkinson was mediocre for his last five seasons. Lou Holtz burned out twice, leaving Arkansas after a 6-5 season and Notre Dame after an 8-3. Of course, Notre Dame hasn't been a player since. After a run of tremendous success, John McKay went 8-4 before leaving USC for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 35 years later, Pete Carroll repeated almost the same exact exit. Our friend Barry Switzer's spectacular crash and explosion deserves its own article; although his last team wasn't bad on the field. Let's not even delve into Bowden and Paterno.

These are all giants. The only ones in this category who went out completely on their own terms seem to be Tom Osborne, Bo Schembechler (who lasted a remarkable 20 years, but never won the national title) and a few Notre Damers: Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian all went out on top or close to it, albeit two of them in a far different era.

The most interesting case for our purposes is Darrell Royal. Royal went 5-5-1 in 1976 and he was done. He simply didn't want to coach any more; the reasons have been documented by better writers than me. Royal did not go out on top; the one tie was a brutal 6-6 affair with Oklahoma that caused an emotionally exhausted Royal to throw-up post-game. However, Royal also knew the pieces were in place for a national title run the next season. Texas nearly did run the table under Fred Akers, losing to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.

We forget just how good Texas was under Akers--and that string of excellence fell apart just as fast. Texas was one play away from winning the national title in 1983. Highly ranked to begin 1984, the team instead fell apart down the stretch, wracked by mental lapses and an incoherent offensive philosophy. Sound familiar? Just be glad the Freedom Bowl no longer exists. Akers was gone by 1986.

At the time, some lamented that a school could so casually fire a coach with an 80% winning percentage after one bad year. I guess we could ask Tommy Tuberville's opinion on this. When Auburn fired him after going 5-7 in 2008, I thought--and wrote--at the time that Auburn made a mistake. I'm guessing Auburn and their current #2 BCS ranking respectfully disagrees.

If you'll allow me a more modern comparison: noting our historical parallels with Ohio State, Texas fans used to play a parlor game that asked the question: Is Mack Brown John Cooper or is he Jim Tressel? After 2005, we were relieved to nod our heads and say "Tressel." The answer is actually "both." Mack's sustained level of 10-win excellence and the use of overwhelming talent advantage as strategy is textbook Cooper. Both men also completely rebuilt stagnant programs. Mack did it faster with a huge assist from Ricky Williams, but Cooper never gets the credit he deserves from Buckeye fans for his own reclamation project. Cooper's teams were great for about a six-year period: 1993-1998. The '96 and '98 squads were awesomely talented and arguably gave away national titles. But in 1999, the Buckeyes went 6-6. Cooper's exit was a mere formality the next year and it certainly was not on his terms. Cruel game--excellence disappears in a hurry.

I would happily wager that Jim Tressel's own 6-6 happens in the next three to four years. But even one national championship buys a lot of goodwill.

Mack Brown enjoys that goodwill now, and deservedly so. Relieving Mack Brown is a preposterous suggestion. National titles and 100,000 seat stadiums are not a result of happenstance. But no coach can sustain this level of excellence forever. At some point 8-4 becomes a rebuilding 7-5 becomes a 9-3 mirage becomes a 5-7 implosion and you look up and wonder where it all went.

I believe the Mack Brown era is finished, at least to the level that we have come to expect. There may be some who disagree (which I welcome) and some who argue this memorial service is premature. But please note, almost the entire history of college football is on my side of the argument. I don't think Mack can "fix" his current state of affairs.

I will be shocked if Urban Meyer does not retire at the end of the season. And I will not be at all surprised if Mack joins him, Darrell Royal style. I have no personal knowledge of Mack other than that which the rest of us fans observe (I've never even interviewed him). But he's fighting against history. And for the elite coaches in the game, history is a bitch.

Raise a glass. Because of Mack Brown, we have seen an incredible string of seasons. You never know when they will come again.

This is the end.

Of course, it is also the beginning. Of what, we can not be sure.

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