When I first decided to tackle this project, I was haunted by some of the early findings. Without my seeing it, the world had moved. Over about a ten year period, the elder statesmen of college football had one by one been pulled out into dark waters and allowed to drift away. Men whose names used to ring throughout the sacred Saturdays of the season.
Coker? Gone. Paterno? Decimated. Bowden? Elbowed out. Solich? Pushed out. Fulmer? Forced out. Tressel? Shamed. Slocum? Replaced. Holtz? Caricaturized. Carr? Released.
All of these men were either the face of their programs, championship winners, or both. Most were bright football minds and garnered full attention of the media in the early BCS years.
And all watched college football accelerate past them, often against their will. Like old boxers, each one kept throwing punches that seemed to land with less and less force. They chased their former success with intent, but fell further and further behind. To keep up, some engineered their programs in ways that brought dishonor.
It is, certainly, no country for old coaches anymore. The game is innovating in ways that are changing the rules of engagement in ways that matter. Spread offenses require much more time in the film room to even understand, much less prepare for. Defensive concepts in the alchemic SEC have dominated the elite levels of the game in a surprising run of dominance. Recruits are continually pushing for more and more incentives, and leaving earlier. 24 hour news cycles keep the shower curtain on coaching and recruiting pulled back, and media outlets are relentless in pursuing every whiff of exposé.
While energetic or innovative coaches seem to thrive in this new environment (Carroll, Muschamp, Harsin, Meyer, Gundy, Kelly, Sumlin, Kiffen, etc), for the coaches who have not been able to adjust to this new competitive fabric, the scene is much more somber. Few coaches seem to retire with grace and fanfare. It is a 24 hour, 365 day boiler room that demands more and more of the coaching staff while simultaneously requiring them to spend less and less time with players and recruits.
Texas and the Dismal Tide
"It's the tide. It's the dismal tide. It's not the one thing."
Enter Mack Brown. Once again, four games removed from the Oklahoma game, we are seeing evidence of the inexplicable resilience of Mack Brown. It's something that deserves more treatment than I can give in this piece, but Mack has continually pulled himself off of the mat in his days at Texas. Major injuries, big game letdowns, player arrests, coaching carousels -- he has seen it all, and also been the central figure around which these setbacks continuously orbit. How many times have we seen some disfigured and sunken-eyed version of Mack get his grin back?
But these are different times.
Every other time Mack has pulled himself out of the ashes at Texas, the challenge was to better leverage the advantages that Texas had against it's rivals. How to get the better recruits to commit earlier. How to squeeze 11 wins instead of 10. How to get all the talent on the field at the same time. How to keep a future trophy holder from touring the inside of the Travis Country jail. How to offer a coach another bump in incentives to join the staff or stay around a while longer.
Those were old problems. Those were problems that you could attack with time, or money, or flashes of creativity -- and so long as Mack never got too far behind the count, he could come out ahead. The new problems, however, are not the things at which you can throw time or money hoping they will be healed. The new problems originate within the changing configurations of college football as a whole. They are created by the surging resources all over the league and increased parity in recruiting capabilities and player evaluations level out. Not to mention the advances in strength & conditioning and diet / nutrition that most BCS programs now enjoy.
Texas recruiting grounds are now opened up to the SEC. Already eroding at the top the last few years to outside programs and street agents, the SEC has wanted for decades to put a stake deep into Texas and the A&M defection gave them the way forward.
Agents and NFL dreams are shifting the entire battlefield of recruiting. Texas 7-on-7 is incentivizing a different type of athlete, and many of these players demand to play early or transfer. Talented kids will leave after three years, with or without a redshirt. They come in with money on their mind, and the distraction can inject venom into a team capable of spoiling years of recruiting and coaching efforts.
To compound the first two problems, team media coverage is now on the permanent cycle. When Mack Brown expressed frustration at the demands of the LHN, even if most of those regrettable soundbites were taken out of context, I think he was being sincere. The part that troubled me wasn't his rare moment of candor, it was the fact that I know these demands will only increase. And this goes for the league as a whole, not just Texas. If a coach doesn't feel hooked up to jumper cables in the new media fabric, they will have the life completely drained from them over time. Either you surf the waves and get a rush from it, or you get battered and drown and there is no middle ground that can be occupied for anything but the briefest of moments.
And then in week ten of the college football season, the gods decided to rumble the earth beneath Memorial Stadium on the day Texas paid tribute to the loss of another of their old coaches, Darryl Royal. If the dark waters were not foreboding enough, they began to churn and swell when Texas A&M -- against every prayer uttered by longhorn fans across the nation -- defeated #1 Alabama on the road. It was a spectacular show of force from the new coach and his young team. It was everything A&M had bragged about when they left the Big 12 with their middle fingers punched high into the air. A year ago, in the whiniest voice they could manage, they called their long shot. They were laughed at from coast to coast. And then against Alabama, Gomer finally hit the homer.
A&M could lose the rest of their games this season, and it wouldn't matter. The fact is that Baylor with their Heisman trophy, and A&M with their powerful start in the SEC, are both attractive alternatives to Texas. All the money in the world locked in the vaults at Bellmont cannot buy college football players, and instead must depend on being THE program in Texas for elite athletes. Whittle this away, and the playing field levels surprisingly quickly now that most major programs are on television every week. And perhaps more level still when the playoff system is inaugurated in a few years.
"This is the best deal you're going to get. I won't tell you that you can save yourself, because you can't."
How does Texas address this dismal tide? Unfortunately, all of the easy options have expired. There are no motivational tools to employ. One recruiting class cannot fix it. To climb back into anything like the catbird seat it enjoyed for the last decade, Texas must rewrite its fate.
Because the dark waters originate out in college football as a whole, Texas must respond with Program-level changes, top down. It will take enormous commitments from coaches, players, and staff to compete in this new landscape. Partial commitments of time or energy will be met not with just defeat, but with humiliation as well (can you imagine the headlines if Texas lost to Iowa State on the same day A&M beat Alabama? The contrast could be lethal in hands of a gifted recruiter against Texas). Our old advantages are quickly eroding, and we must find new ones and pick the places to defend because we no longer have the strength to defend a little bit of everywhere at once. We must choose how we will gain ethical, sustainable advantages, and then we must leverage those advantages and forget about everything else.
It will take more energy to keep our recruiting territory over the next five years, not less. It will take more creativity in coaching and program building to win 11 games, not less. It will take more energy to position Texas as attractive and desirable in the 24/7 media cycles, not less. It will take more energy to keep a loss from beating you twice, not less.
After seeing the absolute relief on Mack's face after the Texas Tech win, I don't think many see the energy swell coming from our current head office. Mack Brown likely cannot save himself at this point, beyond another season or two ... or maybe even this one. We're in the midst of his End Game, and the goal is to put the program in position to make a formidable statement as they re-engineer the program for 2013 and beyond, and not simply try to rebuild back to 2005 glory days. Already we're hearing whispers of Texas assistant coaches looking around at other options in the interest of job security while Mack Brown's fate hangs in the balance.
So far, Mack has been tilting into the wind and trying to fight both against real and perceived obstacles with ever-waning energy. It is simply in his nature, and the inexplicable resilience that defined his golden age at Texas likely calls to him still, from somewhere beyond the dark storm he is currently facing. Some part of him desperately craves a legacy, even when the coach he idolized and just yesterday eulogized, ultimately did not.
But strategy is not the desiring of success. It is not hoping for things to be more charitable or advantageous. Strategy is the awareness of our own mortality, and the real things we choose to do to overcome the obstacles contained therein. Ignoring the dismal tide, or attacking it with insufficient resources, can endanger the entire architecture of the program. It pulled down better men than Mack, men with more trophies and accolades and wins, and it did it with little kindness or remorse.
This is what Texas faces. For this is no country for old coaches and Mack Brown isn't getting any younger.
"It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out there and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say "Okay, I'll be a part of this world".