Friday, September 2, 2011

Final Takes: Mack Brown, back at square one

The last word on the season's most pressing subjects.

As a wise man once said, the end of an empire is messy, at best. Almost always, that's because the empire never sees the end coming until it's too late: Everything is proceeding smoothly, just as it always has, right up until the moment it's not.

For Texas, the point of no return was a 28-21 home loss at the hands of Iowa State last October, the Longhorns' third loss in four games and the first of five consecutive Big 12 losses to close the first losing season in Mack Brown's 13-year reign as head coach. If there was anywhere in America that abrupt fall could never happen, it was Texas. Since Brown's arrival in 1998, his program had won more games that any other major program. It had nine consecutive 10-win seasons, the longest streak in the nation. It had three BCS bowl wins and a BCS championship. It had more money than anyone else's, more exposure, more reliable pipelines in the most fertile recruiting grounds. It had the infrastructure.

In short, it was the model of long-term, Gibralter-like stability. Until, suddenly and without warning, it wasn't.

It's not hard to spot the cracks in the facade in retrospect. The Longhorns were saddled with a young lineup, down a dozen starters and a record-setting quarterback from the teams that went 25-2 in 2008-09. The new guys had an unearned sense of entitlement. They didn't work hard enough in the offseason. Some of them just weren't as good as the recruiting hype suggested. Assistant coaches were reportedly at each other's throats as the season turned south.

But the only evidence you need for how stunned the Longhorns were by the on-field collapse is how rapidly the off-field collapse followed. Within days of the season-ending loss to Texas A&M, Brown had fired longtime assistant Greg Davis, an old hand who'd followed his boss from North Carolina in 1998 and held the offensive coordinator job through all those winning seasons. A few days after that, Brown's hand-picked successor, WIll Muschamp, jumped ship for Florida. By the end of January, Brown had replaced both coordinators, his offensive line coach, wide receivers coach, defensive backs coach, defensive tackles coach and strength-and-conditioning coach with replacements who were more than 11 years younger than the outgoing staff, on average.

What's left of Brown's empire after the purge is the logo on the helmet and a lot of former blue-chip recruits with a lot more to prove than they have to date ? and, of course, the man himself, Mack Brown. But even Brown finds himself thrust back into a position he hasn't faced in years, as the hands-on architect of a program that feels like it's remodeling everything from the ground floor up.

And not for the first time: He's taken on rebuilding jobs before, at North Carolina and Texas, programs he quickly lifted out of the doldrums and into the national spotlight. But once the Longhorns found themselves in a position to win ten games on cruise control, Brown slid easily into the role of the "CEO head coach," an established boss who hands the day-to-day minutiae off to assistants he trusts and oversees the operation at a certain remove from the bowels that make it work. By his own admission, Brown began to lose some of that trust last season, and recognized that a thorough house-cleaning was in order to shake up the flagging status quo, beginning with his own role.

But Brown can't purge a roster on which Garrett Gilbert remains the best option at quarterback, and the best options at both running back and wide receiver are true freshmen. He can't just take a mulligan and turn back the clock to August 2010: At age 60, Brown is overseeing full-fledged rebuilding job on the order of what he took on when he arrived in Austin 13 years ago ? one that comes complete with an almost entirely revamped staff, a promising but largely unproven lineup and a new television network putting even more demands on his time, but not with diminished expectations about the final record. If his heart is still in it, it shouldn't take very long to find out.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.


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