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Brown, Texas haven't lost a step
Let’s address this right off: The buzz about Mack Brown is that he has gotten old. He is out of touch. The times are moving so fast, that even though Brown had Texas in the national championship game in January of 2010, the richest, biggest college football program in America isn’t relevant anymore.
So that’s why it’s so strange when Brown tells you he feels like a first-year coach all over again. He talks fast, talks about fun, and about the challenge of redefining his comfort zone. He has changed just about everything.
He checks his cell for Tweets.
There is a serious disconnect here between Brown and his critics. I’m siding with Brown, and think the Longhorns will be good again. . .now and in the future.
If his critics don’t think so, and have something they’d like to talk with him about, they can just ask, as long as they sign their names. He has a stack of blank note cards on the desk in his massive office, another stack of envelopes and a pen. He writes back.
I spent about an hour with Brown the other day and asked him about it all, directly, the way he likes it. And when you talk with him, and then spend some time around his program, you sense that this isn’t a team that’s downtrodden or in black and white, but one that has pushed its reset button.
It isn’t easy for people, at any age, to change up things that have worked for them. Brown serves as a lesson in open-mindedness. Will it work? Players have noticed a difference in him, with one saying things aren’t as “boring’’ as they had been.
“I never thought my batteries were dead,’’ Brown said. “I did understand that coming off the national championship game, when you don’t have the year, the next year, that you’re expecting, you’ve got to look really hard at yourself.
“Self-evaluation, to me, is one of the hardest things any of us has to do. You have to make changes then. We’re in a changing time with college football.’’
Brown’s future is one of the biggest stories this college football season. You’re at a program that has all the money, its own TV network, and all the advantages in the world. And 9-4 seasons, like last year’s, aren’t good enough.
The compelling thing about Brown is that at 61, he’s teaching himself new tricks. He is joining the trend of fast-paced offenses, and even sent an assistant to Tucson this spring to learn from the creator of the modern offense, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
He has gotten on Twitter to use as a recruiting tool. He has hired away Alabama’s player personnel director. And he has broken his personal resolve not to recruit high school sophomores.
“I had to,’’ he said. “We were sitting here and high school coaches were saying `You’re not offering (scholarships),’ and kids were calling us and saying, `Why aren’t you talking to us? We’ve got 15 offers.’ Well, No. 1, it’s illegal to call you or text you or Facebook you or Tweet you, so we can’t. But some people were breaking the rules and getting to these guys early.
“It got to the point where some of your fans think you’re lazy that you’re not out there, not working hard. In truth, we said, `If this is the trend and this is the way it is, whether we agree with it or not, we’re going to have to do it because it’s what’s out there and it’s what’s real.’ ’’
Brown said they set up sophomore days at Texas, where high school kids can visit within rules. Last week, a top player who is about to start – yes, start – his sophomore season in high school committed to the Longhorns.
But in some ways, isn’t that the same as saying he had fallen a quarter step behind the times? Some reports said that Brown was relying too heavily on recruiting services, and not doing some of the dirty work himself.
“Oh yeah, we were working,’’ he said. “I do think in some cases we might have looked at some videos, because everybody was going faster, and we looked at highlight films and maybe we took some guys before we really knew them well enough to have taken them. We might have taken kids a little too quickly.’’
I think what happened is this: Brown went into a funk, briefly, after losing that title game. And just when he hit a low moment, social media propelled the game one giant step ahead.
Now, blip over, Brown has decided he isn’t ready to fade away.
“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves, just like any other company,’’ offensive coordinator, and former Texas QB Major Applewhite told me. “When you have success for a while, there’s a certain way you do things, people catch up. And you’ve got to reinvent yourself, be innovative and start to figure your niche again.
“I think the rubber met the road in terms of some things he (Brown) felt needed to be changed in his mind. Coaches, and ways of doing things. Also, in terms of recruiting, in terms of offseason, training room, academics. Just trying to give a – I don’t want to say facelift, but just tuning things up again.’’
Keep a few things in mind. Texas hadn’t finished in the top 10 for 15 years before Brown arrived in 1998. Since then, it has won one national title and lost another title game. It also spent the bulk of a decade in the top 10.
But Brown talked about how the 2010 title game loss to Alabama hurt him personally. He had grown close to quarterback Colt McCoy, who had always been unable, in public opinion, to live up to his predecessor, Vince Young. McCoy did finish in the top three in Heisman voting twice.
He finally got Texas to the title game, and then, on the fifth offensive play from scrimmage, hurt his shoulder.
“If he didn’t win, that would have been one thing,’’ Brown said, clearly still feeling bad for McCoy. “But to be taken out after five plays. . .He wanted to come back in so badly.
“He tried to talk us into it at halftime. Doctors weren’t going to let him, anyway. But he came to me and said, `Coach, let me try it.’ I said, `You can’t lift your arm.’ We stood there in the dressing room. I said, `Throw a ball.’ And he couldn’t.’’
It bothered Brown more than he has let on.
“In looking back, it (the title game) probably affected me more than I realized it did,’’ he said. “I pushed all the wrong buttons the next year. I let it linger, and therefore I don’t think I did a good job for the 2010 team. I obviously didn’t do a good job leading, or we would have won more than five games. We had better players than that.
“I remember we beat Rice in the opening ballgame 34-17 and I chewed the team out in the dressing room because they didn’t play well. We should have been building on that positive instead of being negative. I think I was still mad over the loss the year before, mad that we didn’t run the ball well, and I think that affected me.’’
“I don’t know about that,’’ he said. “But you’d like for (McCoy) to have had a chance to win; you’d like your team to have a chance to win. He was really down, his family was down and I was down.
“And I lost my mother right after that. Sally (his wife) lost her mother right after that. Sally lost her brother in the spring. So we just had a year where a lot of things piled on. None of which are an excuse. You’ve still got to do your job.’’
In 2011, the Longhorn Network arrived. Brown said it was a deal between the university and ESPN, and didn’t really include input from the football program. He wasn’t complaining about that, just pointing out facts.
How intrusive was the network at first? A source told me that it demanded to have keys to the football offices. Brown said that wasn’t accurate. But at the Big 12 media days recently, he said that the Longhorn Network and he were on the same page now.
No one had asked him that.
“In 2011, all of a sudden for the first week, they’re saying, `OK, We’ve got live practices,’ ’’ he said the other day in his office. “We’re saying `Really? What does that mean?’
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“If you take a network who would like to be in every meeting and behind the scenes in everything you say and do, and then you take a football program who has to be protective of some of the things you say and do because you don’t want opponents to hear them, there is a certain negotiation.’’
Brown mentioned – several times – that he was not complaining about the Longhorn Network, but only talking about the changes needed to keep up with the times.
The great thing about Brown is that he’s a grown man who is not hiding from what has gone wrong the past three years at Texas, not making excuses, but also not dwelling. It has been one bad year and two mediocre, or decent, ones.
And when he takes ownership like that, he doesn’t sound as if he’s looking for acceptance from criticism, Twitter snark, fans or even bosses. He is talking from the perspective of a highly successful coach who has decided he’d like to continue being one.
The question is whether he can really update himself so quickly. I think so.
He says the Longhorns will run the same offense as before, but only do it without huddles. He wants to get a snap off every 15 seconds so the offense can run up to 85 plays a game, instead of 69, like last year.
Quarterback David Ash has not been particularly special but did play better in the bowl game last year. Still, the defense was awful. But Brown has 19 starters back overall.
Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who played for Texas before Brown arrived, said it was ridiculous for Brown to already be feeling heat. It’s coming from the impression that the Longhorns have everything, including their own network. Bedford wondered if the Longhorn Network would even exist if it hadn’t been for Brown rebuilding the team.
But Texas has fallen behind Texas A&M in its own state for now. And it should be right there with Alabama, competing for national championships.
“You know,’’ Brown said, "we were there for 10 years. We’ll get that back and do it again."
He plans to get that back, though, by looking ahead.
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