BEVO BEAT Football

Texas History: Counting down the 5 moments that shaped the Mack Brown Era: Ricky returns

Posted June 27th, 2018

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This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Mack Brown Era starting at Texas. During that time Brown won 158 games, a national championship and a total of 10 bowl games. 

But what are the five moments of his 16 years at Texas that shaped his tenure? Over the next few days we’ll reveal the five moments that help tell the Mack Brown story on the 40 Acres:

Here’s the list so far:

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No. 5 Oklahoma hires Bob Stoops

No. 4 Mack picks Colt

No. 3 Ricky Williams returns

Texas RB Ricky Williams eludes the grasp of A&M’s linebacker Roylin Bradley as he rambles through the secondary to set up his touchdown run in the third quarter. The Texas offense stumble down the stretch and lost 27-16 on Nov. 28, 1997. (Ralph Barrera/ American-Statesman)

The headline on a Statesman story written by beat writer Suzanne Halliburton on Jan. 8, 1998 read: “Williams likely will head to NFL.”

It wasn’t a clear indication that Ricky Williams, the superstar junior running back who could have been a first round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft was leaving, but seemed liked the door was shutting. Other star running backs in his situation usually left campus.

The situation? The Longhorns had been terrible during his junior season and a coaching change was made when John Mackovic was ousted as coach. About a week later, Texas hired North Carolina coach Mack Brown. Williams had already etched his name in college football history after winning the Doak Walker Award despite a bad season. He was 12th all-time in NCAA rushing.

Eight years earlier, in Gainesville, Fla., Emmitt Smith was a star at Florida and the SEC Player of the Year, but the Gators hired a new coach named Steve Spurrier. Smith left for the NFL. Almost 20 years later, Texas had a bad year, lost to Kansas and Doak Walker winner D’Onta Foreman decided to leave Texas instead of playing under a new coach, Tom Herman.

Past and present instances indicate that the star running back leaves instead of playing for a new coaching staff. Sometimes it works out for the best. Smith said his decision to leave Florida was best for him and Spurrier, as the star running back’s departure meant the flamboyant passing attack of Spurrier didn’t have to be grounded to appease a star back.

Sometimes it leaves you wondering. Had Herman had a 2,000 yard rusher returning, Texas’ 2017 season is completely different. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger certainly doesn’t lead the Longhorns in rushing, freshmen running backs can redshirt and the offense is completely different. He didn’t return and Texas’ offense was, at times, unwatchable.

PHOTOS: Ricky Williams through the years

This is what makes the period of early December 1997 to mid-January 1998 so important for Brown and why it’s one of the biggest moments of his 16 years on the 40 Acres.

Let’s remember how much things had changed in one year from 1996 to 1997. The 1996 season was, arguably, the best year of the Mackovic era. Yes, in 1995 Texas went 10-2-1 while 1996 was an 8-5 season, but it was an 8-5 season that included the biggest win of Mackovic’s coaching career and the first ever Big 12 South championship and later the first ever Big 12 championship.

Mackovic needed things to completely fall apart in 1997 to lose his job. He had quarterback James Brown returning, Ricky Williams back, a strong crop of recruits emerging, heck he even had one of the best kickers in school history, Phil Dawson, on the roster. Future NFL Pro Bowlers on defense included youngsters Shaun Rogers, Quentin Jammer and Casey Hampton.

Texas football coach John Mackovic(center) standing with his players at Kyle field after his loss to Texas A&M in College Station on Nov. 28, 1997. (Taylor Johnson/ American-Statesman)

It fell apart.

It fell apart in the worst way.

Perhaps John Mackovic’s “Charlie Strong-Kansas” moment came when he lost by 63 points at home to unranked UCLA, 66-3, while the Longhorns were No. 10 in the nation. It’s one of the worst losses in Texas athletics history. Texas lost three more games by at least two touchdowns. The Longhorns lost to Texas A&M by 11. At one point, they dropped four games in a row, including two at home.

It was clear after the 27-16 loss to No. 15 Texas A&M that Mackovic was gone. The fan base was out the door too. The attendance of the final home game against Kansas was recorded at 68,000. That’s more than 6,000 off the season average, which was 74,040 and that’s likely just looking at tickets, not actual attendance.

Texas pulled the plug in 1997 on the Mackovic era at a time when the face of the program on the field was changing. James Brown had established himself as a star quarterback in almost four seasons as the starter and made the game-sealing play against Nebraska in the 1996 Big 12 title. He was gone. Williams was spectacular, but it was such a given he was leaving after a disastrous season, that Texas couldn’t depend on him to be there for a marketing campaign to sell tickets in 1998.

There’s a case to made that Texas’ peak and valley track from November 1996 to November 1997 is one of the steepest in college football of the last 25 years.

Mack Brown was left to pick up the pieces. He not only needed to win on the field, but he needed to win over the fans who probably expected a bigger name to be hired as coach.

Texas’ head coach Mack Brown, left, meets Colorado head coach Gary Barnett after the Horns stuffed the Buffaloes in the second half to secure another road win 31-7 on Oct. 20, 2004 (Ralph Barrera/ American-Statesman)

Northwestern coach Gary Barnett was the favored pick of Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls.

He wrote: “Here’s an even shorter list: Gary Barnett and everybody else. Texas will interview multiple candidates, Dodds insists, but at this point it appears that Barnett might be Candidate 1 and all the others are 1A.”

There were other names we’ve written in retrospect. If you go by Bohls’ short list in the same column, Brown’s name comes fourth on a list of eight coaches he wrote about. Dodds and the search committee said they started with 30 names.

In the eyes of many fans, Brown was not the first choice, but he was, seemingly, DeLoss Dodds and the 11-member search committee’s first choice.

What was Brown stepping into? Well, how about this passage from Bohls’ column on the day Texas hired Brown:

When asked Monday if he had been approached about coming back as head coach, Royal said with a smile, “No, dammit.”

He was kidding but added good-naturedly, “It would have been nice to be asked.”

The Royal is Darrell Royal. Were people actually floating that idea? One can image there were some high-level members of the fan base wondering that while also wondering why Texas didn’t interview Barnett.

Dodds explained:  “I told the committee every person has a flat side (weakness). The way you get around that, you hire people to compensate for it. We had to find somebody who didn’t have a flat side. And that’s Mack Brown.”

In his first introductory press conference, Brown was already starting to win. Bohls wrote:

Halfway through his introductory press conference at the Erwin Center on Friday afternoon, this much was obvious: If Mack Brown coaches half as well as he talks, Texas football fans can count on a national championship by the turn of the century.

That same press conference he was winning over the players. Linebacker Brandon Nava told the Statesman: “Man, I am ready to start playing. Mack Brown, for him to get in and get the players excited, speaks a lot for his character and what kind of person he is.”

Brown started working on getting the fans excited. Saying in the press conference: “One of the first things we’ll do is try to get everyone pulling in the same direction. We need to sell tickets, and you need to be early and be loud. We ought to make Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium the toughest place to play in the world.”

It was the player who wasn’t there that spoke volumes:

Ricky Williams, UT’s top player and the nation’s leading rusher, was not in attendance Friday afternoon. He already had plans to be out of town Friday before he learned of the press conference. But Williams met briefly with Brown on Friday morning, and the two will talk again over the next several days to discuss whether Williams will give up his final season at UT to enter the NFL draft.

“You know, (Williams) is good,” Brown deadpanned at his Friday press conference. “It’s a big priority for me to sit down with him and talk to him. I may not be very smart, but Ricky looks pretty good on film to me. I know if he’s here next season, I’ll be a better coach.

“If he comes back, he’ll be one of the best players in the country and one of the top candidates for the Heisman (Trophy). I want to make sure he understands all his options. When I talk to Ricky, I don’t want to tell him what to do, but let him know what I feel about both his options.”

For more than a month, Williams left the ban base and the coaching staff wondering. On Dec. 17, 1997, Brown told the Statesman: “He will let us all know when it’s time.”

Williams added: “I still don’t know what I’m going to do. “I’m looking at taking the decision until early January. All I know is I don’t want to come back and play for a 4-7 team. … I don’t think winning the Heisman will be one of my top priorities.”

Texas running back Ricky Williams runs into the endzone in the second half for a touchdown against Texas A&M in the final meeting between Southwest Conference rivals. (American-Statesman archives)

Then came early January, when Williams told Halliburton: “I am leaning toward going professional. It’s always been a dream of mine to play pro football, and I don’t want to risk injury.”

The day before, Bohls had written a column about Brown being a hit with high school recruits, pointing out that a number of recruits were taking pause and listening to the new coach. It was obvious Brown was showcasing his top skill: recruiting.

Here’s an interesting note from that column:

*Running back Ricky Williams changes his mind with the hour about turning pro or staying for his senior season. Insiders suggest he is looking for reasons to stay and could be swayed to return if he thinks UT has a legitimate chance to win next fall.

It does, Ricky. With the offensive line almost intact, UT could sweep all six home games against New Mexico State, Rice, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Baylor and, yes, Texas A&M and beat Oklahoma and Texas Tech on the road to go 8-3 and play in a bowl game. Plus, you could win the Heisman and decline an invitation to New York City after this year’s snub.

Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf advised Williams to take the money and run to the NFL. Best bet is Williams is leaning 60-40 in favor of the NFL.

Advice from Ryan Leaf. Huh. (Kirk got almost everything he wrote in the second paragraph correct expect for beating Texas Tech and Williams declining an invite for the Heisman ceremony)

A few days later, and on the same day — Jan. 8– the Statesman printed that Williams was likely heading to the NFL, the 40 Acres learned it was all a ruse.

Williams had decided to stay at Texas weeks earlier. 

“Everyone loves a surprise,” Williams said as he ducked out the back way of UT’s Bellmont Hall after his press conference Thursday afternoon. “I wanted people to think I was leaving, so people would be surprised that I was staying.”

Later the story included:

A beaming Mack Brown immediately stood up and hugged Williams, although the new head coach had heard the news with the rest of his staff in a private meeting 15 minutes before.

“We have just had a successful recruiting class,” Brown said to relieved laughter. “This is our first signee. He’s the best football player in the country returning next year.”

This moment came before the first game. The first practice. The first national signing day. It’s the first watershed moment of Mack Brown’s career at Texas and, like when Oklahoma hired Bob Stoops, it had nothing to do with Mack Brown but it may have had everything to do with Mack Brown.

A book could be written about Williams’ 1998 season.

He broke and set the NCAA all-time career rushing record. He did so against a highly-ranked Texas A&M team and gave the rivalry one of its greatest moments:

He won the Heisman Trophy, joining Earl Campbell as the only Longhorns to do so. There was a parade. Graduate assistant coach Tom Herman was there.

More importantly, it brought the fan base back, set recruiting by Mack Brown down a path that yielded some of the best classes in program history and showed Texas could indeed be a powerhouse in the next millennium.

Texas finished the 1998 season 9-3. The Longhorns won a bowl game. Average attendance was 77,440, up nearly three thousand from 1997. Excitement was back and Williams was almost solely responsible. He made millions of dollars for Texas. Everything was moving in the right direction in Austin for the first time since the early 1980s.

If Williams picks the NFL instead of returning to school, there’s a good chance the 1998 season is a disaster.

He had 2,124 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns in 1998. He had 262 more receiving yards and another touchdown. No offense to Hodges Mitchell, but he’s not doing that as the starting running back. Major Applewhite never breaks Texas freshman passing records without a 2,000 yard running back making defenses cautious of Williams. Texas certainly doesn’t beat Texas A&M to end the season.

Without Ricky, does the Mack Brown tenure take off? Does star recruit Cory Redding pick Texas to make the 1999 class one of the best in program history? We’ll never know because before Mr. February ever signed a single recruit at Texas, he was Mr. December and landed Ricky Williams.

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