New University of Texas football coach Mack Brown is at his leisure around a coffee table in his office, wearing jeans and being expansive about what it's like to be in charge of one of the most storied teams in the land.
A big plus, he says, is that many of the boosters and supporters are "really smart, really powerful and very interested." A big minus, he says, is that many of the boosters and supporters are "really smart, really powerful and very interested."
Brown laughs a Texas-size laugh: "This is a great job and great jobs are hard."
Plus, they are perilous, especially at this school which ranks behind only Michigan and Notre Dame in total wins and has appeared on television more times than anybody. When you lose at Texas, watch your back. Texans understand frontier justice and have no qualms about its application.
Last year, Texas - figured at last to be a national championship contender again - strutted onto its home field for its second game, whereupon it was promptly thrashed by lightly regarded UCLA, 66-3. It was the worst home defeat ever. The Eyes of Texas filled with tears of remorse and regret - and anger.
By season's end, the Longhorns had collapsed to 4-7 and may not have been that good. It has been 41 autumns since Texas had a worse record.
Yet, even worse, if possible, last year wasn't all that different from too many other years over several decades. Texas football keeps bumping along at nadirs and wondering if the zeniths will ever return.
Spring is the season of rebirth for college football, a 15-day window of practice allowed under NCAA rules. It's a crucial time when coaches get a chance to see how much improvement the players have made since the end of last season - or, perish the thought, how much they have digressed. Spring football sets the foundation for the fall season and serves to revivify hope.
Here in Texas, football fans are consumed with the fact that it has been 28 miserable years since their beloved albeit underachieving Longhorns last won a national championship. They haven't been genuinely happy since Darrell Royal coached the team to 11 Southwest Conference championships between 1957 and '76 and brought them three national championships in 1963, 1969, and 1970. They are desperate in their support of Mack Brown, spirited away five months ago from North Carolina. Says one athletic official, "If Mack can't do it, it can't be done." The point is, defensive coordinator Carl Reese says, "When you grow up in football, Texas is football."
Mack Brown's last stop
Brown understands: "We have a responsibility to this state because it is a football culture. Whether that's right or wrong doesn't matter. It is. I know I can do this job. If they let me stay long enough, we'll win. This is my last stop. I have never been fired and I'm not going to get fired here. I am going to enjoy all the fans and those fans who get mad at me, well, I won't enjoy them as much. I want Texas football to be what I remember."
Says Dusty Renfro, a linebacker, of Brown, "He has an air of confidence about him second to none." Darrell Royal, one of the three or four all-time best-ever football coaches, gave this piece of advice to Brown: "Smile."
Brown has that down. Asked if Texas will be any good this fall, he says, "Probably not. We were 4-7 last year and all the guys are back." He's right, 17 returning starters, 40 lettermen. Still, given the schedule, 7-4 is doable, if UCLA and Kansas State don't demoralize the 'Horns on back-to-back September Saturdays.
Brown - hired because he's the hottest coach in the game - dreams the dreams of dreamers ("I'd like to win every football game with nice kids and within the rules'') but he also understands reality as he did when UT President Larry Faulkner told him, "You need to win." Says Brown, "I wonder if he thought I hadn't thought of that."
Already, Brown, who seems to have it all - personality, talent, drive, temperament - is wowing the populace. He has time for everybody. He makes every speech. And he has become evangelistic about what he wants from the fans: "Come early, be loud, stay late, wear orange."
21,000 answer summons
An estimated 21,000 answered the summons for the spring scrimmage last Saturday. Afterward, Brown sat for several hours, signing every autograph - with a smile and a kind word. He posed for every picture. There is bedlam wherever he goes. Being around him in public is like being around Willie Nelson. Yet, in the face of this adulation, Brown knows his place. "We are," he says, "in the education business during the week and in show business on weekends." Yeah, well, OK, but deficiencies in the biology department don't seem to get the focus of deficiencies on the football field.
Not lost on anybody is the fact that Brown built long-dormant North Carolina into a football power over the past 10 years, winning 23 of his last 26 games. Conversely, Texas lost five of its last six.
So how did Texas, a place where football is in the genes and finances are no problem, go so wrong for so long?
Texas became too arrogant. It took what it wanted in terms of players. It didn't recruit. It issued invitations. It failed to look outside itself - arrogance does that to institutions - and notice that others were zipping past while it preened.
Living on what it perceived as its unshakable reputation, the school did little to upgrade its facilities. The last major stadium improvement was a deck in 1972. List the top 50 schools in the nation in football facilities and Texas wouldn't be included. That's why, in a white heat, more than $70 million is being spent right now for stadium renovations and construction.
Selection of coaches didn't work out - although each seemed appropriate at the time. Former Texas assistant and then Wyoming head coach Fred Akers was chosen to replace Royal in 1977. He was doomed because Royal had favored his longtime defensive coach, Mike Campbell. Akers also had the disadvantage of following a legend. But all might have been different if Texas had beaten Georgia in the Cotton Bowl in 1984. A win almost certainly would have given the Horns the national title (at 12-0) and Akers would have emerged from the long, imposing shadow of Royal. Instead, he let his staff deteriorate and got shown the gate.
So, in 1987, longtime assistant David McWilliams was hired. He had been away for just one year as head coach at Texas Tech. He had a ready smile and an earthy vocabulary; he was Texas perfect, as warm as Akers was cool. But McWilliams never surrounded himself with a decent staff and he quickly found out that if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes. Texas went to the Cotton Bowl in 1991, but that fleeting success wasn't sustained.
So in 1992, in came former Kansas City Chiefs and Illinois head coach John Mackovic. He, like Akers, was reserved, cautious, and calculating. But he was widely viewed as a carpetbagger. Akers and McWilliams understood Texas tradition. Mackovic had no use for it.
No rear-view mirrors
In fact, he often would say, "Jet planes don't have rear-view mirrors." The Mackovic jet turned out to be a blimp. Yet, in 1996, when Mackovic led Texas to a stunning upset over Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game, everyone was certain this time that Texas was back. Some nine months later, UCLA hung the infamous 66-3 licking on Mackovic.
Little boys stopped growing up dreaming of being Longhorns. University of Texas football lost control of Texas. The state's sons walked in droves. "You have to be the cool school,"says Brown. "We haven't been that school for quite a while.''
Television meant players in the Lone Star State who had been raised on a steady diet of UT football routinely were seeing Florida State and Southern California. TV alienated the heretofore unswerving affection high school boys had for the Longhorns.
Regaining what once was is hard. Ted Koy, a running back on the 1969 national championship team, says that "we had confidence but not a cocky confidence that all of us would do our best and our best would be good enough." Koy says a chain has to be constructed: Players doing their best will start winning and then they will become idols and then little boys all over the state will want to wear orange and white - again. He sighs, "We've got a lot of work to do."
That's obvious. After the last Saturday's game, Brown said, "Thank goodness we don't have to play now." The 'Horns do have running back Ricky Williams, who last year was the nation's leading rusher and scorer. Quarterback Richard Walton may be acceptable. Depth is poor. The defensive front looks solid but linebackers and defensive backs are slow and uncertain. Confesses Brown, "We're not going to be a dominating football team by any means." Then he brightens: "But we have a chance."