In 1998, the University of Texas hired Mack Brown, the former head coach at Tulane and North Carolina, dubbing him as the future of one of the nation’s most elite programs. And in a matter of years, Brown was able to return the Texas Longhorns back to glory, reminding the country of the 1963, 1969, and 1970 teams that won national titles.
Brown went 59-18 in his first six seasons at the helm, going a respectable 3-3 in bowl games, but that was simply a prelude to what was to come over the next six years. Vince Young’s arrival elevated Texas from a top-20 team to a top-5 team, and that was no more apparent than in 2004 and 2005. In the former, the Longhorns went 11-1, highlighted by a Rose Bowl victory over the University of Michigan. The next season was yet another step towards greatness.
After starting the pre-season No. 2 in the AP Top-25, behind the USC Trojans, Brown’s squad ran the table, running through rival Oklahoma, Big 12 title opponent Colorado, and everyone else who stood in their way. And with only one game remaining, the national championship, it was Texas against USC. David Thomas, Jamaal Charles, Limas Sweed, Michael Huff, and of course, Young, and others, led the Longhorns to a 41-38 victory, clinched by Young’s 4th-and-5 touchdown scamper in the waning seconds.
Young decided to take his talents to the NFL following the national title, but Brown had turned Texas into one of the country’s best recruiting spots, and he had incredible talent already on the roster. Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley stepped into major roles and helped earn a 45-8 clip in their four seasons together. Texas went 3-1 in bowl games during that span, which ended in a national championship loss to Mark Ingram and the University of Alabama. But in a dozen years on the sideline, Brown took the Longhorns from a 4-7 team to 128-27.
“I’ve always wanted to play for Texas as long as I could remember,” said Caleb Bluiett, former defensive end and tight end. “I seriously gave Texas my all every game day.” In the state of Texas, high school is bigger than ever, and while Brown was in Austin, he made nearly every kid want to wear the coveted burnt orange. Bluiett is now a tight end for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Meanwhile, in the Frank Erwin Center, Rick Barnes was in the midst of turning the basketball team into a powerhouse. He recruited the likes of T.J. Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and Myles Turner.
All of whom helped Texas go 342-137 over a 14-year mark, in which the Longhorns reached the NCAA Tournament every season. Ford, who won the National Player of the Year award, led the ‘Horns to the 2003 Final Four. Durant, also the National Player of the Year, helped Texas reach the Round of 32.
And then what happened to the athletics program? It seemingly went downhill from that moment forward. Brown was unable to get the Longhorns back to national prominence, failing to win 10 games in four straight seasons, before his retirement. Barnes went 16-18 in 2012-13, and didn’t reach the Field of 64, which paved the way for his firing two years later.
With a pair of new coaches coming into the organization, Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart, the athletics program was expected to make a few tweeks and get back to the top of the country. What actually happened is nowhere near that. Strong didn’t complete any winning seasons from 2014-2016, going 16-21, and losing his only bowl game. So he was fired, too. Smart isn’t too much ahead, going 31-35 in two seasons so far.
According to ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M were the biggest benefactors of Texas’ undoing. And a possible reason for the basketball team’s struggles was because the football team was stumbling. “It (the football program) has a huge financial impact on all programs and the university as a whole,” Luginbill explained.
So what’s the issue with Texas’ athletics? Is it financial mistakes? Is it developmental struggles? It is poor coaching? In truth, it’s nothing in specific. Barnes, Brown, Strong and their assistant coaches are capable and intelligent. They, alone, weren’t the main issue.
Alex De La Torre, a fullback and tight end from 2012-2015, said “My biggest influence came from my position coaches. Through the four that I had, I had learned and experienced many instances where I learned new things,” giving the most credit to coach Tommie Robinson.
De La Torre credited the network of former athletes, when asked what makes Texas’ program special. “It’s absolutely top notch.” And even though the Longhorns weren’t a top-tier team during his career, he told me “I wouldn’t take away anything from my experience. It’s given me a unique insight on coaching and it helps me out a lot now.”
In my opinion, the Texas athletics program reached such a high level of consistency, that it was impossible to sustain forever. There are always going to be new talented athletes, strategical alterations, and up-and-coming programs. Texas simply fell behind because their downfall was inevitable. Nothing lasts forever in sports.
Alabama will fail to reach the College Football Playoff at some point. The San Antonio Spurs will eventually rebuild. Tom Brady will have to retire within the next decade. Lebron James’ NBA Finals streak will come to a halt. Dynasties always end, even if it feels like they won’t, and Texas’ run had to reach a conclusion.
But what’s next for the Longhorns, could be just as good. Tom Herman, the new head football coach, went 22-4 in two seasons at Houston, including top-10 wins over Florida State, Oklahoma, and Louisville.
“He did not inherit a bare cupboard I can tell you that. They will be very good this fall and likely exceed expectations,” Luginbill told me. “I would imagine given Tom Herman’s track record they will likely be a top 10-15 program on the field within two years.”
Shaka Smart, also, seems like he may have turned the corner for the basketball team. Smart signed the No. 3 recruit, Mohamed Bamba, and the No. 29 recruit, Matt Coleman. According to the 2017 ESPN 100, the Longhorns have the fifth best recruiting class in the nation. Not only are the incoming freshman very talented, but so is the returning roster. Andrew Jones, Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., and James Banks are all coming back.
The stretch from 1998-2012 for Texas athletics was better than any other major university, and even though the dominant dynasty came to an end, there may be a rebirth right around the corner, headed by Herman and Smart. Even through the struggles, the culture at the University of Texas never changed, which is a big reason I expect them to get things back on the right track sooner rather than later.
“I knew since I was a young kid that my destination, lord willing, would be able to go out and wear the burnt orange as a player for UT,” De La Torre said. “Being a Longhorn has given me lifelong brothers and mentors. I sincerely love Austin.”
In preparation for this piece, I interviewed ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, and two former Texas football players, full back and tight end Alex De La Torre, and tight end Caleb Bluiett, who is now on the Jacksonville Jaguars. All quotes were obtained personally.
Photo Credit: HookEm.com.