How Texas can screw up its search for a new football coach
If you want to grasp part of the impact Mack Brown had on the University of Texas football program it's this – as the Longhorns look for his successor, most of the names currently being bantered about carry résumés that are a far cry from the one they hired 16 years ago.
Mack Brown was 80-69-1 overall when then-Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds brought him in from North Carolina in 1997. Brown had finished in the top 10 exactly twice in 13 seasons as a head coach. His Tar Heels were known for their improvement, yes, but also their inability to beat elite Florida State. They were good. They weren't truly great.
Some of the numbers, of course, don't tell the story – Brown inherited bottomed-out programs at Tulane and UNC and built them up. There was little doubt he was a strong coach, as his time at UT, including a BCS national title in 2005, would prove.
Yet this wasn't the present-day Nick Saban with four BCS titles, seen as the birthright hire for so many Texas alums, fans, regents, politicians, professors, oil barons and unaware ne'er-do-wells who think they are running this job search.
No, Mack Brown was an inspired choice, but hardly a no-brainer. He was a Tennessee native who arrived from the ACC with almost no connections in the Lone Star State. In 16 seasons he rallied the power of the program, established a tight connection to in-state recruits, raised prodigious amounts of money and used his folksy charm to make it all look easy.
So easy that you wonder if the hiring of the Mack Brown of 2014 would even be tolerated this time around.
Picking the next Longhorns coach shouldn't be nearly as complicated as it's going to be made out to be. Well, at least if Texas operates with appropriate swiftness from a small decision-making circle (preferably of one) that can avoid political infighting. In a statement announcing his resignation on Saturday, Brown noted, in clear and obvious ways, that the tumult that existed before he got to Austin is back.
Division and debates, partisanship and perceived power, are about the only thing that can mess this up.
Texas is a great job. It's the kind of job that almost can't be screwed up. The Longhorns now have every imaginable resource: money, facilities, media attention, fan interest, institutional commitment, a beautiful campus, renowned academics, the charisma of Austin and, most importantly, all those Texas high schools that churn out talent.
You can slip about 25 different guys in there, and if they are supported, work hard and don't self-destruct under the pressure, the victories will come. Maybe that results in more national titles, maybe it doesn't. Winning it all is always a bit of crapshoot – Texas has won just a single title since 1970. If Colt McCoy doesn't get injured on the fifth offensive play of the 2009 title game against Alabama, however, the Longhorns might have two.
That's about what you can aspire a program to achieve however. Be in the mix and see what happens. Mack Brown got the Longhorns there. Eventually, as these things tend to do, it fell apart.
No one will recall Mack Brown as some X-and-O innovator. He won't go down as an iron-willed disciplinarian. He was never hailed for his rah-rah Rockne-type speeches to the team.
He was certainly a heck of a recruiter, but much of that was his ability to connect with whomever he was speaking and project a calm amid the chaos of college football. Players, parents, high school coaches all understood that Texas was organized, safe, secure and strong. After that, the place sold itself. So they went there.
That was enough to win and win big. You don't need a lot of bells and whistles, gimmick offenses or slick salesman. You need competency.
Texas is swinging a corked bat, which changes the definition of a home-run hire.
"I hope with some new energy, we can get this thing rolling again," Brown said in his statement, and perhaps that's the most important thing to consider: energy. If anything, that's what has been missing.
Brown didn't just change Texas football, he changed football in Texas. There's always been a deep well of top recruits all over the place. Yet, there have been long stretches when just about every school in the state was mired in mediocrity.
The landscape has changed even in the last few years – part of what did in Mack.
Texas A&M always seemed to get in its own way. Now it's sitting in the SEC, white-hot thanks to Johnny Manziel and Kevin Sumlin, with a facility boom of its own underway.
Baylor, so long a doormat, is now one of the coolest programs in the country, with a new state-of-the-art stadium and coaching savior out of the high school ranks in Art Briles. TCU is now in the Big 12, offering Metroplex kids the chance to stay home and play high major football for a great defensive mind in Gary Patterson. And up in Lubbock, Kliff Kingsbury is the fresh, young genius with an ability to connect to high school kids like few others.
None of those things – other than the promise of Briles – existed just three years ago.
The landscape is a lot more competitive. It's a lot tougher. Texas should still win the majority of in-state recruiting battles against those schools, but it may never again be the whitewash Brown used to deliver each national signing day.
Still, it won't take Nick Saban or Jim Harbaugh to get the job done. What it will take is a focused search that doesn't drag on and allow quality, lesser-name candidates to get locked up by their own schools while Texas argues with itself and considers everyone's opinion about some seemingly perfect guy.
Don't let 10 James Franklins get taken off the table as you chase the long shot lottery ticket of a Jim Harbaugh. Let the pursuit of Saban be proof of that folly. Yes, Texas is great. Other places are great, too.
Whether the Longhorns land their first choice or not, whether they get the hottest, most accomplished coach going, doesn't matter.
Alabama offered Rich Rodriguez its job before having to "settle" on Saban. USC went through four offers before having to turn to Pete Carroll. Ohio State wanted a whole host of guys before it took a shot on a I-AA coach named Jim Tressel.
Mack Brown had zero national titles, few truly exceptional victories and no history of success recruiting well in Texas. He turned out darn-near perfect, winning titles and leaving behind an undeniable juggernaut in waiting.
The good news is the bigger the job, the bigger the margin for error. In Texas and at Texas, we know everything is still bigger.
That includes ego, though, about the only thing that can now train-wreck this program.