September 13, 2008

Fractured football family no longer

Mack Brown was taking up for Vince Young this week. He said VY would be fine and he'd be back. Then, Brown said, "We stay in touch with all of our former players. That's important to us."

That wasn't always the case at Texas.

This is where Mack Brown has set himself apart. He gets the football coaching portion of the job. But he is off the charts when it comes to intangibles.

When Brown arrived at Texas in 1998, Darrell Royal was on the payroll as a special assistant to the university president. But he wasn't an active part of the UT football program. He hadn't been since he retired in 1976.

HOW THE FAMILY DIVIDED

That's when former Texas Gov. Allan Shivers and then UT regents chairman Frank Erwin, upset that Royal retired unexpectedly at age 52, took away Royal's power to name his successor. Royal was serving as athletic director when he retired as football coach and wanted to name his defensive coordinator Mike Campbell as Texas' head coach.

Shivers and Erwin - two of the most powerful individuals in the school's history - were so upset Royal retired on his own schedule and not theirs that they cut Royal out of the hiring process.

Shivers and Erwin led a search that culminated with the hiring of Fred Akers. The football family was so divided Shivers and Erwin encouraged Akers to park in Royal's parking spot, even though Royal was still AD.

The Texas football family would remain largely divided for the next 21 years.

No matter how much success Akers had (he won 73 percent of his games and came within four quarters of national titles in 1977 and 1983), he would never win over the Royal loyalists. Athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who arrived in 1981, was under constant pressure from the Royal loyalists to get rid of Akers.

FAILED RECONCILIATION

So when Akers suffered his first losing record in 10 seasons (5-6 in 1986), he was fired. The Royal loyalists got their man - David McWilliams, who played for Royal on Texas' 1963 national title team and later coached under him. McWilliams had coached Texas Tech to a 7-4 record in 1986, including a win over Texas, and a bowl game in his only season as a head coach.

Dodds probably wanted to hire then-Arizona State coach John Cooper instead of McWilliams, if truth be told. But the Royal loyalists wanted someone from inside the family after 10 seasons of an outsider like Akers.

McWilliams tried to reach out to former players, but he didn't win enough to stay around. He struggled through five seasons with only two winning records and was fired after the 1991 season. (Now, McWilliams is in the perfect role as head of the T Association, created to keep lettermen involved with the university.)

THE MACKOVIC ERA

McWilliams was a defensive-minded coach. In most cases, schools go hire the exact opposite of what they just had, so Texas settled on offensive-minded John Mackovic. Mackovic not only failed to connect with former UT players. He failed to connect with Texas high school coaches and, most importantly, UT fans.

Mackovic won three conference titles - 1994, 1995 (the last SWC title) and 1996 (the first Big 12 title) - but then he lost to UCLA in Austin in 1997 by the score of 66-3. After the game, Mackovic said Texas fans got to live with the conference titles, so they'd have to live with the humiliating UCLA loss. He sounded detached. Indifferent. From that moment forward, according to some top level UT boosters, Mackovic was a lame duck.

Then UT regent Tom Hicks told me in 1998, "We gave Mackovic a blank check to go out and hire the best defensive coordinator in the country, and he promoted Bobby Jack Wright. Then you add his response after the UCLA game and that was pretty much it. He sealed his own fate."

Ironically, Mackovic told friends he promoted Wright to defensive coordinator because he thought Texas brass wanted him to look inside the Longhorn family to make the hire. Wright, now on Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma, had been a holdover from McWilliams' staff.

THE FAMILY GETS REUNITED

Dodds smartly included Royal and Doug English on the selection committee to find Mackovic's successor. Royal and English would both say later, they knew Mack Brown was the perfect fit at Texas after their hour and a half interview.

"He's the best with P.R. I've ever seen," Royal said.

From the moment he arrived on campus, Brown embraced Royal. It's almost inconceivable to think Royal, who has the stadium named for him, was hardly made to feel welcome by the UT football coaches for most of the 21 seasons spanning from when he upset the UT powerbrokers in 1976 with his early retirement until Brown's hire in 1998. But that was the case.

With Brown as coach, Royal was a fixture around the program again, and so were former UT players.

"Mack has helped bring back the pride in Texas football," said former linebacker Tommy Nobis, who will have his No. 60 retired Sept. 27 before the rescheduled Arkansas game. "Tradition is what makes the college game so exciting, and Mack is doing a great job getting everyone excited about wearing the burnt orange and white and being a Longhorn again."

Former players under Royal rarely came around when Akers was coach. Former players rarely felt welcome when Mackovic was coach. Now, they are constantly around. And several former players, including Vince Young, have bought houses or condominiums in Austin because they are so comfortable being around the program.

MACK THE UNITER

It was Brown who spearheaded the museum in Moncrief-Neuhaus to showcase the exploits of teams and individuals of the past. He ordered replica trophies for award winners like Brad Shearer, Nobis and Scott Appleton (Outland) so they could be prominently displayed on today's campus.

Brown has always embraced the history and tradition of Texas. UT fans probably looked at Bill Callahan during his time at Nebraska or Dennis Franchione during his time at A&M and thought, "We've been there."

One thing Texas doesn't have to worry about under Mack Brown is a unified football family and a coach who embraces every piece of history the school has, especially the players who created it.

So when you see Mack Brown reach out to a player like Vince Young, it's important to remember that hasn't always been the case on the Forty Acres.


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