Mack Brown walked forlornly off the Alamodome field, his hand held aloft with the “Hook ’em, Horns” sign, his wife, Sally, at his side.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy the next year, ran circles around the Longhorns that December night in San Antonio, and Oregon crushed Texas 30-7 to put an emphatic and somber period on what had been a wildly successful run for 16 seasons with a national championship, a shot at another, nine bowl wins (including two Rose Bowls) and the most productive decade in UT history.
No Longhorns teams won more games than Brown’s 10 teams in the 2000s. Texas beat USC in a title game for the ages. Brown’s Longhorns had won another Rose Bowl against Michigan the year before that. In the 2000s, Texas was the second-most dominant program in college football behind Oklahoma. Brown’s ultratalented teams won 110 games and lost just 19 in a streak that pretty much duplicated Darrell Royal’s string of 30 consecutive wins and a pair of national titles in 1969 and 1970.
And Brown’s dominance could have been even greater, but for some bad luck. Had Colt McCoy not suffered an injury on the fifth play of the 2010 BCS national championship game against the Crimson Tide, Texas — and not Alabama — might still be the country’s premier team today. It’s not that far-fetched.
Even Nick Saban might have seen the handwriting on the wall, faking a punt on fourth down on his first series deep in his territory. But McCoy left the game for the final time in a Longhorns uniform, Garrett Gilbert had a valiant effort that fell short, and Alabama was off and running into the history books.
If McCoy plays that entire game, Texas might well have had its second national title in five years and been headed for further glory. That’s a big if. Brown admitted much later that he pouted for almost a full year, and that Pasadena disappointment lingered into a 5-7 follow-up, Mack’s only losing season in 16 years. And Texas has never been the same.
Now the Longhorns are in full rebuild mode.
By any measuring stick, it’s been awful. Even worse, it’s been irrelevant, a revolving door for coaches and athletic directors dooming the football program to mediocrity. So who’s to blame? Here are some possibilities:
Mack Brown’s complacency. Steve Patterson’s arrogance. Charlie Strong’s lack of leadership and decisiveness. Coordinators out the wazoo. Heck, maybe it’s Michael Crabtree’s fault. (Or Blake Gideon, if you really want to be cruel.) Maybe it’s the ghost of Craig Curry revisited. Perhaps the Longhorn Network erased all of Texas’ good karma and deserves the blame. After all, it did almost kill the Big 12. Vince Young should have stayed in school. Colt shouldn’t have gotten hurt.
There are a host of reasons to choose from, but the bottom line remains.
Over the last 50 games, Texas has an eyesore of a 23-27 record. Think about that for a second. Not even .500. As one head coach told me a few years back, “I thought this was the University of freakin’ Texas.”
It used to be. This was a brand that was among the 10 winningest teams every decade from the ’40s through the ’70s. Only a second place among the college elite in the 2000s has interrupted a whole bunch of average.
A football program that ranks second in history with 898 all-time victories — just 45 shy of Michigan — has deteriorated into an afterthought of a brand.
So why has Texas fallen off the college football map?
Lackluster recruiting. Blame it on a disinterested staff toward the end of Brown’s tenure and Strong’s pro-Florida focus. Tom Herman had a top-five crop after a 25th-ranked class in 2017; Texas’ 2019 class ranks 11th heading into the season.
Weak offensive lines. Before the Cowboys took Connor Williams in the second round this year, no offensive lineman had been drafted since the Steelers took Tony Hills in the fourth round of 2008. There’s perhaps no bigger indictment of the program. Rice transfer Calvin Anderson should help stabilize a more experienced line.
Misevaluated quarterbacks. Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Baylor all had Heisman Trophy winners at the position who came from Central Texas high schools. Ohio State won 38 games with J.T. Barrett, a product of Wichita Falls who desperately wanted to play for Texas. The Longhorns have produced one All-America quarterback since Young and haven’t come close to replicating McCoy since 2009.
In the 22-year history of the Big 12, Texas has had a first-team all-league quarterback just three times — Major Applewhite, Young and McCoy. Quarterback remains uncertain.
No running back superstars. While Alabama spits out one stud tailback after another and LSU does the same and Ohio State plucks a gem from nearby La Grange, Texas can’t find a bell cow to save its life. Five-star recruits like Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray never panned out. D’Onta Foreman’s breakout year in 2016 made him the school’s only All-America running back since Cedric Benson in 2004. Excluding Foreman, Texas has had just one 1,000-yard running back since 2004. Now the Longhorns may rely on a transfer from Cal and a true freshman.
Instability with coordinators. Strong went through them like socks, using four offensive coordinators in three years and firing his defensive coordinator in Year 3 and eventually taking over the job himself. Tim Beck — Herman’s play-caller last year — has been under siege to the point that Herman called his own plays in the Texas Bowl. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is the new savior.
Shortage of NFL-caliber talent. Not a single Longhorn was drafted in 2014 and only one each in 2016 and 2017. Lil’Jordan Humphrey might play for a long time in the NFL.
Suspect kickers. Brown’s kickers never missed a critical kick. Strong’s and Herman’s rarely have made one. Last season Texas made just 11 of 18 field goals. Cameron Dicker may change all that.
Woeful defense. Do you really need stats to know that? Hello, Gary Johnson and Kris Boyd.
Still, as bad as it’s been in the 512, Texas’ troubles have been shared by others.
The Longhorns are hardly alone in the misery category. Nebraska can’t find its way out of the wilderness with a mediocre 37-27 record the last five seasons. UCLA is wandering as well without a Pac-12 title in 20 years. Florida has struggled torediscover its hold on the SEC with two losing seasons in the last five years and 13 losses in between. LSU has misfired without a 10-win season since 2013. Did anyone want the Tennessee job before Jeremy Pruitt finally said yes? Arkansas has been largely invisible, and its 4-8 year cost erotica-lover Bret Bielema his job.
Newcomers are cropping up everywhere. Boise State’s a blue blood now. Wisconsin and Michigan State are elbowing Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State into the best seats in the house. Oklahoma State made its national name under Mike Gundy. TCU’s good every year. Stanford’s for real. And if Alabama is 1, newly resurrected Clemson is 1A.
In the last four seasons — three of them with losing records and one just peeking over .500 at 7-6 — Texas has a miserable 17-19 Big 12 mark while Oklahoma wished Bob Stoops a happy retirement and didn’t skip a beat under Lincoln Riley. The Longhorns haven’t finished higher than a tie for fourth in a 10-team league. They’ve lost to Kansas, for Pete’s sake. Does it get any worse than that?
And now it’s left to a firebrand disciple of the now-disgraced Urban Meyer coaching tree to pick up the pieces and remake Texas into a national power. It could happen, but probably not this season. The Longhorns are probably a year or more away as Herman attempts to breathe some life into a stale program that has too few dynamic playmakers yet to contend on a national level.
He has history on his side. Of the 17 UT head coaches who served more than one season, only four had a losing record in Year 2. Just two since 1938 had losing seasons.
Some might say Mack left a mess, but that’s not fair. At his worst, his 2010 squad was ranked 19th nationally in midseason before losing four of its last five, including a home defeat to Iowa State. And in his final year, he had Texas on the brink of a Big 12 championship and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl but fell short on a raw, blustery day in Waco against Baylor. Texas would kill to be in Big 12 contention in November.
The Longhorns have found their way into the Associated Press Top 25 poll for exactly four of the last 50 weeks, reaching a momentary high of 11th after that scintillating double-overtime win over Notre Dame at Royal-Memorial Stadium in the 2016 season opener. Four weeks later, Texas had tumbled to 2-3 with three straight losses in Strong’s last season, and the handwriting was on the wall.
In this decade, Texas has gone 53-48 for a .525 winning percentage, the skimpiest success rate in school history. That follows a decade of dominance when the Longhorns rode a hot streak to a 110-19 record, the winningest ever in Austin.
On Saturday, the Longhorns will usher in their 126th college season at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., looking for a win and the start of something big. Hey, it’s not as if the next 50 games could be worse.