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Mack Brown and Texas Longhorns football are creatures of habit

Incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time.


I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it's always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it's hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition." --- Larry Page

When you were in high school, this is how your football practice went: you stretched for ten minutes, went through 20-30 minutes of drills, had run and pass shell, then finished with full team scrimmages, about one play every minute, with special teams worked in someplace.

Since you are in your 30s or 40s, it's safe to assume that your football career peaked well before anybody knew what a spread offense was (aside from the few experimenters who were genuinely ahead of their time). Football has taken a few steps forward since then, some bigger than others, and the game as we know it today barely resembles at all the game from 1985, when 10-7 finals were commonplace.

West Virginia, for instance, has spent the last decade putting up offensive numbers unthinkable to even the most powerful football factories, never mind being a small (but proud) school in an area known more for black lung, obesity and incest than it is for sports. I have West Virginia hill folk ancestry which am allows me to say things like this. Why West Virginia?

Why are Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, or Oregon the new models for offensive success, instead of Texas, USC, or Michigan? It's because they've all taken the next step in streamlining their preparation.

If you're here, then you have read all the same things I have over the last 3 years: Texas needs to hit more, Texas needs to be more physical, Texas needs to recruit tougher/better/bigger/smaller/faster players. Those things may be true (even the a few of the contradictions), but there is a bigger issue that goes both seen and unseen, because it's so familiar to most observers that it doesn't stand out as an issue. Texas practices like this: they stretch for ten minutes, they go through 20-30 minutes of drills, have run and pass shell, then finish with full team scrimmages, about one play every minute, with special teams worked in someplace.

All that's missing is the one ornery old fat guy who doesn't think you need water until after practice.

Texas is a conservative state, with largely conservative institutions. For this piece, please keep in mind that "conservative" is not a political term. I am not advocating liberalism, insulting your belief system, or making any economic/governmental judgments whatsoever. To be a conservative, in the context of this piece, simply means to want to conserve the lifestyle or belief system you are used to. Texas football is no exception, to the extent of a larger-than-you-would-expect subculture of fans that has absolutely fetishized the fullback position based on games played 4-5 decades ago.

The problem with conservatism is the same problem Texas football seems to have run in to; systems that worked in the past may not work now, due to massive changes in the world around us. Progressive attitudes are required, at some point, as the world keeps progressing. America has ebbed and flowed back and forth between conservative and liberal leadership simply because that's how institutions survive. One can't exist without the other. Progressives take a step; conservatives see to it that the footing is sure.

Each time a progressive wave rushes across the country, it acts as a culling device, picking off weak or outdated, allowing forward only the institutions that successfully negotiate the new landscape. We've seen this a number of times across every possible platform. Civil rights turned powerful southern politicians into embarrassing dinosaurs. Internet commerce turned proud brick and mortar corporations into cautionary tales for the next generation of business leaders. The spread put Mack Brown in his grave. This is partially a story of how he once guessed right and how he once guessed wrong, but it is mostly a story about how his football program is largely at the mercy of a man who is simply guessing.

It goes like this: Football in the mid 80s was largely a bad mix of Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi. Fullbacks and blocking tight ends ruled the day, receivers lined up in a three-point stance (the most unbelievable aspect of "The Catch" today might be that Dwight Clark starts that play with his hand on the ground!), and the punt was a viable offensive strategy. But at the same time, coaches were beginning to move away from the option towards the forward pass, it's just that almost nobody knew how to do it yet.

Defensive coordinators ruled the land at this time, the way a T-Rex would fare hunting sheep. This persisted, more or less, until a talented coach up in basketball country took a midget QB out of Austin, Texas, and a small, Italian slot receiver in place of a fullback, and proceeded to light the football world on fire (this is an enormous over-simplification, but largely accurate and I stand by it), bringing Purdue to its first and only modern Rose Bowl.

Suddenly, offenses were playing with five skill threats instead of two, and defenses had a whole new set of headaches to deal with. Coaches began to figure out that making a safety or linebacker cover a receiver had the same effect as blocking him, except an uncovered slot receiver could turn into a touchdown instead of a first down. Smaller, quicker players were more common, and the college football world suddenly found itself in a very progressive wave. Traditional powers gave way to newer, risk-taking upstarts. Mike Leach and Hal Mumme invented a new way to play at a tiny school in Iowa. Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriquez, separately but concurrently, added the QB option to the mix and never looked back. Mack Brown was still playing the old way, and gave up 60+ points to a noodle-armed spread QB and a 5'4 running back.

The thing is, the schemes were relatively unimportant. As much attention as they get and as fun as it is to discuss, the actual concepts and plays weren't why the new wave of coaches were finding success. Mike Leach ran Norm Chow's offense, who was running Lavell Edwards' offense, who was running Bill Walsh's offense, who was running Don Coryell's offense, and so on and so forth. Each coach added something, but more importantly, each coach also subtracted something. The BYU staff from the 70s onward ran a simplified version of Walsh's west coast offense. Mumme and Leach ran a simplified version of that, and today coaches like Dana Holgorsen and Sonny Dykes run a simplified version of that.

The role of the modern coach is less innovator, more curator. Fast-paced teams who seemingly execute flawlessly without a hitch so do because they practice a limited amount of scheme an enormous number of times. Leach always compares his offense to a wishbone scheme - the QB is making a few decisions he's practiced over and over, except instead of a handoff or pitch, he's throwing forward. In its most basic form, the same thing is happening, but happening after an evolutionary step forward.

So why now are concepts popularized in the 1920s suddenly dominating football again? Why are ideas Bill Walsh had in 1966 still so popular and effective? What actually changed?

I submit that the biggest change of all was the sheer amount of reps young coaches were finding ways to cram into their limited practice time. Tiger Ellison once said that if you couldn't practice your entire offense every day you were doing too much, and offensive football now seems to reflect that. Air Raid teams go through their entire base pass game in 20 minute chunks. Every drill is directly related to something they will do in a game. Fundamentals are stressed, conditioning happens as a result of the pace, and "mediocre" recruits are suddenly experts game in a way once unthinkable to any amateur football player. Part of the 49ers dominance in the 80s was a factor of familiarity -- they had loads of good football players who played together in the same system for a decade. College football distilled that into its core concepts and now can produce roughly the same outcome - no Montanas or Rices required.

Oregon doesn't run the same offense as these teams, but they do practice similarly. Chip Kelly tracked the amount of plays they got off in their team periods, always pushing for more (for reference, they'd regularly crack 100 in 30 minute periods). Sonny Dykes wants a snap every 20 seconds or so. Cal had a coach last year who had more protections than Dykes does plays, which is fine when your QB is Aaron Rogers but not fine when he isn't. Dykes' system will take one afternoon to install at Cal, as opposed to a month or two with the old regime. The game isn't about X's and O's anymore, if it ever was in the first place. Now it's about a mastery, an automatic reaction finely honed over years of practice. This is why these small, out-of-the-way nothing schools are suddenly at the forefront of college football.

It is also why Texas isn't.

Coach Brown did get one thing right. In 2004, after (rather absurdly) casting Vince Young as the lead in Greg Davis' sort-of-but-not-totally west coast scheme, he simplified things and let Young run a small number of plays that built upon each other, making the entire scheme relatively Davis-proof. Because this isn't who either of those coaches are, the change was very late in happening. Also because this isn't who either of those coaches are, they proceeded to miscast their next QB, asking a scrawny, scrambling freshman to be the same type of player Young was. Their solution to this problem was ultimately to remove the read aspect of the zone read, leading to about 400 plays where the defensive end chased down the running back, while Colt McCoy harmlessly looked on.

I'd like to point out that Greg Davis will retire a millionaire.

This is an important concept for the rest of this article. Coach Brown has no ethos, he has no base. Texas' schemes on both sides of the ball generally reflect what Brown wants to be, not what he is. The program as a whole, then, does generally reflect what he is: Directionless, contradictory, entitled, and confused.

Just as Vince Young was once a dropback passer, just as Colt McCoy was once a zone-read QB, the Texas offense is now in its worst shape ever. The QB is a handoff-and-play action whiz, but the offensive line is soft and weak. The receivers are typical Greg Davis guys: good route runner, quick, solid hands, but not the deep threats they need to be to fit in now. Tight ends are a weird mix of big blockers who can't catch and converted wide receivers who can't block, none of whom possess a complete game. The depth chart shows a fullback, which is the only time you'll see something resembling one.

So how did this happen? How did Texas end up a smashmouth team with players not quite suited to anything? Part of it is a lack of conviction. The new era of football has proven to us that mastery over a certain kind of football is irrelevant, it's far more important to be a master of anything. Alabama wins their way and Oregon wins theirs. Pick something you can be passionate about, and bring with you to work every day. What is that thing for Texas?

Texas was a west coast team once. They were a spread option team after that, then a kind of a spread-nothing team, then a nothing team. Now they are suddenly supposed to be Alabama. Linemen were recruited to be small, quick zone blockers, now they need to be able to push bigger players around. Flex tight ends are now trying to control defensive ends. Quicker than fast possession receivers are miscast as deep threats. This happens to teams who don't stand for something. Obviously, Texas has a talent problem, right?

What's not obvious is that Texas had the talent all along to stay relevant. Who was complaining the day they took Malcolm Williams? Who didn't celebrate over Garrett Gilbert? Choices like Taylor Doyle and Dom Espinosa were questioned even at the time, but Texas still has a bunch of big guys everyone wanted.

My thesis statement is not that Texas lacks talent. My thesis statement is that Texas lacks skill. Oklahoma does not have 50 points worth more talent. West Virginia has exactly one player who is "better" than any other teams have. Texas A&M just put a freshman on the Heisman podium, and for three years Ruston, LA was a point of focus for coaching staffs looking for an edge.

Texas, simply put, doesn't create experts. Johnny Manziel has more reps in his offense already than all the Texas QBs do in theirs, combined. This is not researched fact, but it could be true. The (exaggerated) point here is that other teams are putting in way more work than Texas is. Travon Austin is better at the three things he's asked to do than the defenses he faces are at the myriad things they are tasked with. This is what college football is now, and this is exactly what Texas isn't. The game is still about physical ability, but there is now a higher baseline for competence. "Worse" recruits can turn into "better" plays, and Brown is allowing it to happen to him.

Texas recently announced a move to this up-tempo type of offense, but will once again face the same problems. Does Brown really understand what it takes to be successful with it? Will the practices jump into this century? Will Major's influence on the offense be to ask David Ash to be Major Jr.? See the first half of the Alamo Bowl if you want to know how well that will work. Or is this just another case of Mack Brown wanting to be something he doesn't fully understand? In a sport where progress is measured in years, it's unclear to me what Texas will look like next season. Davis Ash won't suddenly become a quick-passing dynamo, the OL won't suddenly strength-&-condition themselves into something beyond the barely passable unit they have been.

Brown is old now, and likely set in his ways. His assistants run scheme, but he controls the basics. If we're asking him to reinvent himself, why not reinvent the position fully and hire someone different who already knows how to do it? This, to me, is the goofiest subplot of the entire saga. Mack Brown makes over 5 million dollars a year. If he quit, who else would pay him even a fraction of that tomorrow? How many better options are out there that Texas could have for less than a fifth of that total, or even a tenth? From a purely economic standpoint, it makes no sense to keep Brown, as his fundraising machine is an autopilot now anyway. Recruiting has fallen off and the brand isn't as powerful anymore, so it's unclear what it is Brown brings to the table these days. He's at the mercy of a good hire turned bad (Diaz) and a bad hire that might turn out well (Major). He has no experience running a football program that belongs in a post-Drew Brees world. Simply asking him to do his job in a slightly better way isn't going to do much for the program.

"How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That's why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It's natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren't going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time." --- Larry Page

Texas could win ten games next year, maybe 11. The talent from the last couple recruiting classes should start to bloom, particularly on the lines. This post hasn't talked about Diaz and the defense much (more to come), partially because I genuinely don't understand why he's still on campus or what to expect next year from them, but the potential is there for a good team. This, I assume, is why Brown stuck around. Retiring now would be selling low on the team he's recruited.

But my viewpoint is simple - the best thing to do right now is turn the page entirely. Texas has peaked under Mack Brown, playing the Mack Brown way. The rest of the universe is slowly moving forward, while dinosaurs like Brown, Jeff Tedford, Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin are stuck in various stages of decay.

The new template isn't perfect - one side effect of the high-tempo offense is the worn out and useless defense that accompanies it. Bill Young lost his job because Mike Gundy's offense is very effective. Nobody that I've seen has figured out a way to deal with this yet. Yet it remains, in my opinion, better. Every school can take something from it, even the ones that actively resist the lifestyle. Nick Saban runs the offense he runs to protect his defense, which works if you build around it, but there is no reason a team like that can't practice the same way Oregon does. More reps in practice is rarely a bad thing, even if you don't play that way in a game.

So we're left with a hard cap, in my estimation, on what this team can bring. Mack Brown wants toughness, in an eerie parallel to his coworker Rick Barnes. Toughness and effort! Those things come from confidence, and confidence comes from expertise, and expertise comes from practice, and practice is run by coaches. One coach I know in the Bay Area has a saying over his desk: "If it's on film, you're coaching it." It's easy to blame kids for not trying hard enough; it's a lot harder to put the blame on you.

Texas athletics has the programs it deserves: largely unskilled, confused and hopeless. It is the by-product of old men who don't have the desire, skill, or energy to completely reinvent themselves with the times. No matter how much talent is brought in, that hard cap exists. Maybe you get lucky and guess right and the next Vince Young or TJ Ford can fool your bosses into another extension, or you may guess wrong and end up with a pointless, irrelevant program. This is not something Texas should strive for. Nick Saban stays on top of the world by constantly evaluating every detail in his program. Chip Kelly didn't just change the football team's M.O.; he played an instrumental role in reorganizing the entire athletic department. This is how you get to the top and stay there.

Asking a group of teenagers to give "more effort" is how you go .500 and stay there, instead.