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Monday, December 16, 2013

The Mack Brown Legacy - Far Beyond Austin & All 'Bout the Money

As a UT grad, my life is obviously consumed right now by two words: Mack. Brown. So now, a guest post from a good friend (and my source for what's really going on in college football)...

I remember as a kid, you could get tickets to a Texas football game for $5 at the local HEB. The Longhorns couldn’t fill the stadium on a Saturday to watch a mediocre John Mackovic coached team; it had been a similar story for the twenty years following the retirement of Darrell Royal. Today you practically have to be a dellionaire to afford season tickets.

With the announcement that Mack Brown will be “retiring” as head coach of the Texas Longhorns after 16 seasons, he’ll leave the Forty Acres - and college football as a whole - a vastly different landscape than he found it. Texas is now a major industry, the largest athletic department in the country. They have their own TV network, the stadium has been expanded, improved, and every dime has been squeezed out to create one of the few profitable athletic departments in the country. There will be much written about the legacy of Mack, what he’s done for the program, and how he was unable to leave under his own terms. But it's bigger than that.

Brown’s legacy looms large. He will be viewed in a similar fashion to the man he was often compared to, Darrell Royal. Royal put the Longhorns on the national stage, a stage to which Mack Brown returned them all those years later. Mack did it in his own style, wearing his heart on his sleeve, treating his players like his kids, and acting with a genuine kindness towards everyone he encountered. He turned Texas football into a family - a family that still lives its life on a national stage.

While the circumstances surrounding his exit will leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, it had been in the works since Texas fell to Alabama in the 2010 national championship game. From there, the program slipped and Brown’s inability to rebound quickly from the subsequent 5-7 season was ultimately his undoing. It didn't help that Texas' struggles happened to coincide with the rising success of Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech... 

Although these are the most visible reasons, his departure has more to do with the current landscape of college football - one that Mack Brown himself helped create.

There are many programs around the country that would take 25 wins over three seasons; however, the number of schools where that is acceptable is starting to dwindle. College football is no longer about wins and championships... it is about the dollar signs that come with those victories. Mack Brown created a successful program, but the Texas Athletics financial powerhouse is far more impressive. It is a model that many around the country are trying to emulate. The constant shifting of conferences, the increasing stadium capacities, the 'arms race' of facilities. It's all to generate the most revenue possible. But none of this unprecedented growth is sustainable without the wins. Some will say that Texas going 8-5, 9-4, and 8-4 over the past three seasons is below the bar that Mack Brown set. But the decision to hand over the keys to the program right now has much more to do with dollar signs. Season tickets are down, the stadium wasn’t selling out, and donations aren’t coming in at previous levels. And for an annual salary of over $5 million a year, Brown simply was no longer a profitable investment for the Athletics department. 

Brown wasn’t the most legendary coach to succumb to this kind of pressure and he certainly won’t be the last. Florida State ran one of the most legendary coaches in the history of college football out of Tallahassee. Terrible you say? Unfair? Well, they are now sitting in the National Championship game, on a trajectory of sustained excellence and restored enthusiasm in a program that had fallen behind Virginia Tech and Florida. The resurgence of the Seminoles leaves questions about how much longer Frank Beamer (VT) and Will Muschampp (Florida) will still be at their respective schools. Prior to the Sandusky scandal that ended Joe Paterno’s career, he had been locked in an annual debate of whether it was time for the legendary coach to hang up as Penn State found themselves outside the power brokers of college football.

It’s a trend that will only get worse as coaching salaries continue to soar and expectations for schools across every major conference spiral out of control. If Alabama is not playing for an SEC or National Championship game over the next two seasons, do people start calling for a coach that has won three National Championships in four years to move on? At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even schools like Wake Forest that don’t have the resources to compete and have managed to be a respectable program over the past decade anyways decided that wasn’t good enough. Because when you think of the Demon Deacons you think of a team that should be at the pinnacle of the ACC each season... right?

Mack Brown helped create a program that is viewed with envy around the country. And ultimately it’s the 'arms race' that created today's Texas that eventually - and ironically - cemented his downfall. It’s not unfair. It’s simply the environment in which we live. A new coach has the opportunity to return Texas to the national stage athletically. But the new coach will also have to sell season tickets, increase donations, and give Texas a bump in an ever competitive Texas recruiting scene. Could Mack Brown have gotten the Longhorns back there? 

There was too much money at risk to find out.