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Mack's Third Act

One of the great pleasures of writing is that it allows you to walk to the edge of a cliff. It’s a beautiful, self-satisfying view. Until you get pushed off. It remains to be seen whether I will go ass over teakettle into the abyss, but ten months ago, I wrote this piece. Here’s the money quote:

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.

So, did Mack Brown fix Texas football? We will know soon enough. At the very least, Greg Davis has exited, stage right, and Act 3 commences shortly. Finish those drinks. Let’s review.

Act 1 is the Mack arrival and re-build of a once proud program. He actually rebuilt the underlying tradition first; he then started in on the actual football. This can’t be understated. You cannot separate the University’s financial success from its football success. Everything about Act 1 was about leveraging resources. People complained that Mack lacked strategy. He didn’t. His strategy was overwhelming talent advantage:

I have more resources than you. I will use them. Because of this, the best players will come to my program. Then, my players will be better than yours. If they play even competent football, then my team wins.

It was almost this simple. And it worked, with the exception of one notable opponent. But even that hurdle was eventually cleared (by way of Mack’s greatest recruiting victory) and Act 1 ended in Pasadena with a crystal football in Mack’s hand.

Texas didn’t sustain that level of excellence. Act 2 opens with a program in transition, suffering through two lackluster 10-3 seasons (which have a lot more in common with Darrell Royal’s back-to-back-to-back 6-4 seasons than most people get). We were then treated to "Mad Mack," the angry, impatient fixer who bet large on Will Muschamp and brought Major Applewhite and Oscar Giles back into the fold. On the strength of a revitalized defense and a Jedi knight quarterback, Act 2 should have also ended in Pasadena with the Waterford. It didn’t. Mack desired Henry V, but he got King Lear.

He went through the typical stages of grief: self-pity, ambivalence, disgust, losing at home to Iowa State, loathsome rage at his players and coaching staff. At the time, I wrote this:

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… (Mack) is fighting against history. And for the elite coaches in the game, history is a bitch.

Well, I was half-right. My premise was that, for the elite coaches, once they start going bad, they don’t recover. They simply quit; or worse, they don’t, even though they should. The history is compelling: Wilkinson, Hayes, Bryant, Royal, McKay, Cooper, Holtz (twice), Fulmer, Bowden, Carroll.

But Mack has turned this premise on its head. He did it with the unwanted assistance of two major events. The first was that the team and staff mailed in the rest of the 2010 season. I wrote then that most historic slides are predictable:

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.

Mack gave himself a great gift by skipping all this nonsense and going straight to the 5-7 implosion. It gave him no choice but to execute a complete overhaul. How much he was actually pressured to do so may be lost to history, but nevertheless, the lot was drawn.

Then Florida, who suffered through almost the same 2010 that Texas did, but cleverly hid it behind eight wins and a modest bowl appearance, did Mack a second favor that he did not ask for. The Gators hired Will Muschamp. Here, Linus, make your way in the world. I’ll just be taking this blanket now. Carry on.

In that moment, Mack’s clock turned back to 1998. It remains to be seen if a soon-to-be 60-year-old Mack Brown can channel the 47-year-old-version. But, ostensibly, he still knows how to build things. Thoughtfully. Meticulously. And, by all appearances, with a passion he didn’t have in the spring of 2010 (It is somewhat similar to—dare I say it?—Darrell Royal’s approach in 1968).

Mack didn’t channel his own youth as much as he has outsourced it. For the first time in his career, his re-build seems to have favored strategy over tactics. Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz don’t really believe in overwhelming talent advantage, largely because they have never had it.

Elite programs do not completely alter strategic direction overnight, not successfully anyway. I have yet to uncover an example of an incumbent, hall-of-fame quality coach who has made this radical of a transformation—assuming Mack leaves well enough alone, which may be an heroic assumption. Even Joe Paterno’s 2005 miracle and subsequent success didn’t come from a tear-down/re-build.

History is not evidence. But it is often an informative predictor of what is to come, else we would live in a world without statistics, and what fun would that be? No coach has ever been set up for a third act like this. But the more I study college football history, the more I conclude that no one has ever really built a program like Mack Brown (Bobby Bowden comes closest, but he alone screwed it up).

Texas will field a 2011 squad better than their eventual 8-4 record may indicate. The 2012 team may well be elite. I write this ten months after writing that Mack was done. College football history is still on my side of that argument. But for once, I am greatly looking forward to being proved wrong.

PS, I also noted this:

I would happily wager that Jim Tressel’s own 6-6 happens in the next three to four years.

Damned if nobody took me up on the bet. His 6-6 is going to happen this year. Too bad Tressel won’t be on the sidelines to witness it.