Football

Daily Longhorn football history: The 1997 season

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Posted August 14th, 2017

The Texas football program dates back to 1893. Each day, we look at a little piece of Longhorn history. We’re starting by looking at each Longhorn football season. 

After winning the first Big 12 Championship Game — a stunning upset of defending national champion Nebraska — Texas entered the 1997 season with positive momentum.

Returning was star senior quarterback in James Brown. Back was star running back Ricky Williams. Gone was Bryant Westbrook and Tony Brackens on defense, but there was Dusty Renfro, and newcomers and emerging sophomores like Casey Hampton, Donald McCowen, Shaun Rogers and Quentin Jammer.

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The recruiting class of 1997 featured these players: Jammer, McCowen, Rogers, Major Applewhite, Kwame Cavil and Hodges Mitchell to name a few. The year before, Hampton, Cedric Woodard, Aaron Babino, Ricky Brown, Anthony Hicks and Aaron Humphrey were some of the names.

Texas started the season ranked No. 12 in the nation and blasted Rutgers 48-12 in the season opener.

But it was mostly all downhill from there.

Like way downhill for coach John Mackovic and his team.

The worst home loss in Texas history came in 1997 when unranked UCLA showed up to play No. 11 Texas in Austin on Sept. 13, 1997.

9/13/97 Staff Photo:Sung Park….Jeffrey Clayton, RB #32 of UT sits on the bench near the end of the game as they trail 66 to 3 against UCLA at Royal Memorial Stadium.

UCLA took a 10-point lead in to the second quarter as standout quarterback Cade McNown led the Bruins. In the second quarter, McNown threw four touchdown passes. Including two in 20 seconds thanks to one of eight Longhorn turnovers.

At the end of the first half, UCLA led 38-0.

A Phil Dawson field goal with 5:42 to play in the third quarter made the score 45-3.

UCLA pulled the reins back in the fourth quarter, only scoring 21 points — the final touchdown coming on a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown by Damian Allen. When the dust settled, No. 11 Texas had lost in Austin 66-3.

Columnist Kirk Bohls’ Sunday headline was “Draw the curtain on UT’s darkest moment.” He wrote: “A 66-3 whipping by UCLA easily qualified as one of the most obscene performances by a Texas team in its 105-year history and maybe the worst loss ever by a Top 25 team against an unranked opponent.

Texas went from No. 11 to unranked, and were never ranked again that season. After beating Rice 38-31, Texas went 2-6 the rest of the season, which was also thier Big 12 record.

Curious enough, one of two wins came against a program in similar circumstances, Oklahoma, who went 4-8 in 1997 under coach John Blake. Texas beat the Sooners 27-24. The second win came against Kansas at home, 45-31.

Texas finished the season 4-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big 12. After losing to Texas A&M 27-16 on Nov. 28, the Longhorns pulled the plug on Mackovic on Nov. 30.

“I don’t think I want to get into the factors. It could best be categorized as a needed change. We needed a new direction for the football program,” athletic director Deloss Dodds said at the press conference announcing the change.

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

Technically, Mackovic wasn’t fired. He was reassigned.

When the Statesman contacted the coach, he said this: “I don’t have anything to say. If I want to say something to somebody, I’ll call them. If I want to say something to you, I’ll call you.”

But later he released a statement, saying: “No one hates losing more than I do. So I certainly understand the frustration this season has caused for every person who loves The University of Texas.”

The names for a new coach, like in 1992 and 1986, varied. Here wass the reported names: “Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett tops a list of candidates that also includes Butch Davis of Miami, Tommy Tuberville of Mississippi, Bob Simmons of Oklahoma State, Tommy Bowden of Auburn and Mack Brown of North Carolina. Barnett issued a brief statement late Saturday to say he has not been contacted by Texas.”

University of Texas’ new football coach, Mach Brown, gives the Hook ‘Em sign at the end of a press conference announcing his hire, in the Burnt Orange Room of the Frank Erwin Center. Brown comes from a successful program at the University of North Carolina. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

In retrospect, it’s crazy to imagine a world where Texas didn’t hire who they hired and even crazier to imagine former Colorado and then Northwestern coach Gary Barnett taking the Texas job, but he was the “name” to be “the guy” in the days following Mackovic’s firing.

“You-know-who is the coach who kicked the you-know-what out of the Big Ten the two seasons before this one, which is exactly why Northwestern’s Gary Barnett probably should be the next coach at you-know-where,” is what Bohls wrote the same day Mackovic was reassigned. 

That column was published on Nov. 30., a Sunday. Texas had a new coach by that Thursday.

On Dec. 1, the search committee met and Barnett was the leading candidate while North Carolina coach Mack Brown was starting to gain favor. But so was former Longhorn quarterback and assistant Alan Lowry, who was a coach in the NFL. Former Longhorn players were pushing for Lowry.

On Dec. 2, the Statesman reported: “Screening committee meets again in Austin until noon, while North Carolina Coach Mack Brown gains support among members of the committee. Former UT lettermen are working behind the scenes in support of Lowry, who has contacted several former Longhorns about being on his staff if he is hired. Reports say a choice likely will be made between Brown and Barnett. One key search committee member estimates that the odds are 60-40 favoring Barnett. Dodds flies to Chicago late in the day. Miami’s Butch Davis reportedly is the third candidate.”

On Dec. 3, The Statesman reported: “UT and Barnett come close to reaching an agreement at mid-day, while other members of the search committee meet with Brown in Atlanta. Another search committee member flies to Miami to talk to Davis. UT decides to go with Brown after Barnett expresses his interest in bringing his entire staff to Austin. Barnett, knowing he is out of the running, withdraws himself from consideration, as does Davis. Brown agrees to become Texas’ 28th head football coach.”

Brown was introduced at Texas on Dec. 4. 

“He mesmerized (the screening committee). He had the ability to know people’s names; he looked them in the eye when he talked. His philosophy was very sound when he talked about football, academics, alumni, that we knew he’d worked on for a long time,” Dodds told the Statesman.

He clearly won the early press conferences. 

The most mesmerizing tidbit from Brown’s hiring story?: “Sources say Brown might try to lure his good friend, Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, away from coach Steve Spurrier. Stoops reportedly makes between $125,000 and $150,000 and could be lured with a high offer, although it is thought he is waiting for Hayden Fry to retire at Iowa, his alma mater.”

Stoops didn’t come to Texas.

Brown said he never thought he would leave North Carolina, but on Dec. 6, he held his first press conference at Texas. At the press conference, Brown laid the foundation for what would go on to be one of his famous sayings when he told reporters: “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.”

Brown would later rework this message to fans when he told them “Come early, be loud, stay late, wear  (burnt) orange with pride.”

Meanwhile, Barnett would stay at Northwestern for another year before taking over at Colorado in 1999. While he had success in Boulder, his program would eventually crash and burn and be marred by off-the-field issues. He was fired in 2005 and hasn’t coached again.

James Brown graduated from Texas holding many of the program’s passing records, like most 300-yard passing games. Many of those records were broken by Vince Young, Major Applewhite and Colt McCoy. He went undrafted but did play several seasons of arena league football. Brown then became a coach and is currently the head coach of Houston KIPP Sunnyside High School.

Mackovic, meanwhile, left coaching for a few years before taking over as coach of Arizona in 2001. He never had winning season and was fired mid-year in 2003 after some accusations of verbal abuse led to his dismissal.

Brown was inheriting one of college football’s best players, Ricky Williams, but needed a new quarterback (he had one on the roster) and needed to make sure the high-level recruits Mackovic brought in reached their potential.

While his coaching tenure was one that many fans will likely just gloss over, one thing Mackovic did do, like Charlie Strong, is bring talented players to Austin.

Ricky Williams accepted the AT&T Long Distance award today where he shook hands today with new head football coach Mac Brown. (Lynne Dobson/American-Statesman)

But it would be nothing like Mack Brown, who would go on to become of the greatest recruiters in college football history while at Texas.

First, however, he had his first season. And his first season is one of the more memorable ones in Longhorn history — and one of the most historical.

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