What went wrong: A case study of Texas’ 2010 football season
By Kirk Bohls and Randy Riggs
In the fall of 2010, University of Texas football fans witnessed a horrific 5-7 season and one of the most extraordinary collapses of the second-winningest college program in history, triggering an intensive review by head coach Mack Brown and a nearly total makeover of his staff.
One season before, the Longhorns were four points away late in the fourth quarter from beating Alabama and winning the national championship for the second time in five years. Last September, they suited up for the fall season ranked fifth in the nation. Expectations among the players, coaches and fans were for a great year.
But what followed was an astonishing misadventure that ended with a nearly total makeover of a coaching staff that had virtually remained intact for almost five seasons, since Texas celebrated its fourth national championship on the confetti-covered floor of the Rose Bowl in January 2006.
In the days after Texas’ loss to Texas A&M last Thanksgiving night, which ended a bowl-less season, Brown went into relative seclusion, watching tapes from every 2010 game and turning to family, friends and outside consultants to figure out what went so wrong.
Brown, who has said he’s only looking forward and not back, declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, and has addressed his worst UT season only in passing during two recent press conferences. That’s vintage, accentuate-the-positive Mack Brown, moving on from a remarkably dark, personal and complicated story of an across-the-board breakdown in the football program, one that stunned fans and gave pause to some future recruits.
In dozens of interviews with people in or with direct knowledge of the football program, the answers are there. Almost all of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Importantly, the coaches and staff all had a role in the collapse. As a group, they missed or ignored most warning signs along the road. Those warning signs pointed to problems, among them:
• A severe depression hangover from the loss to Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 7, 2010. It was an exhausting disappointment to Brown, who had worked so hard to get his team to the championship and who told confidantes he was certain his Longhorns would beat the Crimson Tide.
• Brown had become withdrawn from day-to-day coaching, taking on a role akin to a CEO. He was disconnected from his team and his coaches.
• As the year progressed, fractures within the coaching ranks widened to the point where defensive coordinator Will Muschamp got into a heated argument with offensive coordinator Greg Davis after the loss to Iowa State.
• UT’s recruiters had overestimated the talent of incoming players, particularly on offense. Coaches had resorted more to watching tapes rather than scouring the 1,400 high schools in Texas for the type of players that brought the Longhorns nine straight 10-win seasons.
• A switch to a running offense that the team was not built for.
• A lack of dedication in summer conditioning and training, culminating with an eye-opening struggle against Texas State in a 7-on-7 game in July.
• A shift in attitude by coaches, and players, from confidence to entitlement — a sense that the team was guaranteed victory and prestige.
• A lack of on-field competence.
One former player summed it up this way: “UT was just unprepared for the 2010 season. Coaches and players alike.”
The bottom line: The UT team was flawed enough that its season was in doubt even as the players took the field at Reliant Stadium on Sept. 2 to play the Rice Owls. Many observers point to that game, which UT won by a closer margin than expected, as the sign that all was not well.
But the warning signs were evident months before that.
Overconfidence a killer
It might have been the events on the Rose Bowl stage a year ago — when just five plays into the national championship game, quarterback Colt McCoy went to the sideline with a shoulder injury — that set in motion the school’s most traumatic season in 13 years. The subsequent offseason also was traumatic for Brown, whose makeover of his coaching and office staff included losing three veteran coaches and two men regarded as vital cogs in his inner circle.
How and why it happened continues to intrigue, fascinate and in some cases scare the fan base that averaged more than 100,000 for Texas’ seven home games, five of them losses.
It seems clear now that Brown’s operation had become infected with a debilitating sense of entitlement that led to a lack of accountability with the starting lineup and wide dissension inside the locker room and coaching staff.
Brown acknowledged at his state-of-the-Longhorns press conference on Jan. 31 that the sting of the Alabama loss impacted him more than he could have imagined.
“I felt like I had a hangover after the national championship game, and I don’t know if I’ve ever taken a loss as hard,” Brown said. “I don’t think I did a good job of coming back out of it and getting a spark and getting the energy back to where I needed it to be, and I didn’t realize it. I just pouted for a while, and when you’re pouting at 13-1 that’s pretty stupid.”
Some say the older members of a staff that averaged 25 years in the business — five of the 10 coaches had spent 31 or more years in coaching — grew stale in their approach, lazy, or at the least complacent.
More than one close observer pins the Longhorns’ decline to poor evaluation in recruiting and the pattern that Texas has fallen into of extending scholarship offers before players’ senior seasons, thus severely limiting the amount of data to evaluate.
“The biggest contributor, in my opinion, is they lost their talent advantage,” said one source with deep connections to Longhorns coaches. “There was no wide receiver worth a (expletive). They didn’t have an offensive line that was prepared because of poor development or evaluation.
“Name me a (Longhorns) running back that will play in the NFL. Look at every single running back Texas has. How many did Texas pass over who are going to be NFL running backs? Ten to 15? Would you rather have Kendall Hunter or Tré Newton? Would you rather have Cyrus Gray or Fozzy Whittaker? Christine Michael the next year? You just go down the list.”
Others point to overconfidence at the top, suggesting Brown had evolved into too much of a CEO or figurehead, had disconnected from his team and had assumed his program was in good shape and incapable of the type of droughts that have inflicted one-time perennial winners like Michigan, Notre Dame and Washington.
Brown even has admitted he felt Texas was relatively bulletproof.
One person with close ties to the coaching staff said: “Mack was the king of entitlement.”
That point bore home in particular during the week of the Iowa State game. Leading up to the home game against a Cyclones team that had never beaten Texas, Brown told his players behind closed doors that they all knew they were going to win the game. That was a given.
“Oklahoma just beat these guys 52-0,” Brown told them, according to a source who heard the lines. “We have to match that. We have to make a statement.”
Instead, Texas managed only a field goal in the opening half and was held in check in a 28-21 loss that reverberated around the nation. Muschamp blew up at Davis for questioning his defense afterward. A week after a supposedly statement-making road win over Nebraska, the Longhorns had dropped two straight at Royal-Memorial for the first time since John Mackovic’s final, desultory season in 1997.
Others point to the spring drills in which Texas changed course, dumping a highly successful spread offense philosophy predicated on the zone read, which required an athletic, mobile quarterback who forces defenses to respect his running ability. In place of that, Texas went with a more run-oriented scheme in which the quarterback operated under center as much as out of the shotgun.
Along with that was the absence of proven, established starters at quarterback or running back, where Texas continued to search for a standout like Ricky Williams or Cedric Benson. Insiders raved that quarterback Garrett Gilbert didn’t throw an interception all summer, but he would throw five in one game last fall and ranked 95th nationally in pass efficiency.
But one person with ties to the program who attended practices didn’t see anything in spring practices that led him to believe the new emphasis on running the ball would work, even though Texas ran the ball the first 11 plays of the Orange-White game.
“In watching what was going on in spring practice, who could watch it and actually think they were going to be good at it?” he said. “I could not see us running the ball after spring, and we’d spent months working on that. How could you commit to a running game when you didn’t have a fullback, didn’t have a tight end with all the injuries?”
Crack in the foundation
The fissure exposed in the spring began to develop into a dangerous crack during the summer. Some players did not follow the offseason training regimen with the same dedication of previous teams.
This was painfully evident during the 7-on- 7, non-contact competition between Texas and about 30 Texas State players. The Longhorns struggled and lost the informal game played at Denius Fields before a few dozen fans — no coaches were allowed — in July.
“I heard we played well,” one inside the Texas State football program recalls.
“They were taunting us,” said one well-connected Longhorns fan. “There was almost a fight with Texas State.”
The strain was beginning to show. At one point, Texas safety Blake Gideon openly chastised senior cornerback Chykie Brown, and the two exchanged heated words.
Texas’ pride was so stung that its players talked the Bobcats into a second scrimmage later, which the Longhorns won handily.
But the weakness was still there. Texas State had victimized Texas during the scrimmages and exposed the lack of speed by the Longhorns’ safeties, an issue that would become an Achilles’ heel in the fall.
Where once Vince Young would scrawl on a dryboard in the locker room, “Meet me at 6:30 a.m. if you want to beat Ohio State,” and McCoy would personally knock on the doors of young receivers like Brandon Collins before summer workouts, none of that leadership was present last summer.
The young Gilbert had neither the innate leadership skills nor the wherewithal to command the same sense of purpose. The result was that the team showed up for preseason camp out-of-shape and directionless.
“They weren’t in shape when they got here,” Brown recalled recently of the 2010 class. “And they didn’t get in shape in the summer. They relaxed and enjoyed their spring and came in out-of-shape and weren’t ready to play.”
Close observers say the young players were reflecting the tone of most of the team and the coaches.
“The blame goes straight to Mack Brown,” a former Longhorns quarterback said. “Players and coaches sensed that Mack was preparing to ride off into the sunset, possibly to TV, and that the ride was over.
“They just didn’t work as hard as they did in past years. This goes to strength and conditioning, on-the-field effort and probably the players’ and coaches’ study of opposing teams.”
A house divided
No scene better illustrates Brown’s angst during the 2010 season than his scathing, eyebrow-raising throwdown of his team — staff included — following the Oct. 23 loss to Iowa State.
“This team is ’07 all over again,” Brown told the media that Saturday of the defense-challenged, 10-3 season three years earlier. “You don’t ever know who’s going to show up, and it scares you to death.
“I’m fighting my guts out to get ‘em turned. You’ve just got to stay after them every day. You can’t trust your team. You can’t trust your coaches when they’re not getting things ready to go.”
It struck many as a highly inflammatory comment and, according to some, divided the staff. Brown eventually forced out or accepted the resignation of his longtime friend and offensive coordinator Greg Davis, and the retirements of his veteran defensive tackles coach Mike Tolleson and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter.
Brown also has had to deal with a matter involving Cleve Bryant, his longtime right-hand man who had been UT’s associate athletic director for football operations since 1998. In early October, Bryant, who oversaw the day-to-day operations, took — and remains on — a paid leave during an internal, still-incomplete investigation regarding accusations by a former female staffer.
Brown ” was a little lost,” said one football program insider. “The Cleve loss was a lot more important than it looks from the outside because Mack had to worry about things he didn’t normally have to worry about.”
Brown also was blindsided by the hiring of his defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as Florida’s new head coach. Jeremy Foley, Florida’s athletic director, says he called Brown on Dec. 10 and then interviewed and hired Muschamp as Urban Meyer’s replacement the next day.
Muschamp was unavailable for comment for this story, but those who know him say he had become disillusioned with the direction of Brown’s program and the lack of accountability in playing time, and grew weary of waiting for Brown’s retirement as Texas’ head coach-in-waiting.
“He was furious the entire season,” one source said. “He got detached.”
Another source, however, said Muschamp never spoke negatively about his colleagues, but that he fumed that the coaching staff had done a poor job of evaluating recruiting prospects at offensive line, receiver and running back.
Muschamp’s disenchantment spoke to some of the internal dissension on Mack’s staff and the schism that grew between the older and younger coaches. That said, Brown regularly lauded running backs coach Major Applewhite in staff meetings, to the point of embarrassment.
Part of the reason for the season’s troubles can be traced to the surprisingly average play of Gilbert, whose 10 passing touchdowns — with a rushing attack ranked 66th in the nation — couldn’t offset his 17 interceptions.
Five of those picks came in the frightful loss at Kansas State, but Brown never pulled Gilbert. Consequently, his backup, freshman Case McCoy, became disillusioned and confused about why he wasn’t allowed in for more than 11 plays (and only one passing play, in the opener against Rice) during a largely wasted season that cost him a year of eligibility.
People inside the program rave about Gilbert’s poise and toughness, but question his leadership skills and ability to lift up teammates, some of whom would yell at Gilbert during games. They say expectations for Gilbert were unrealistic after his second-half performance in the BCS championship game, partly because of the outstanding effort that night by senior wide receiver Jordan Shipley, who caught 10 passes for 122 of Texas’ 195 receiving yards.
It seems bizarre to think that Longhorns fans were more optimistic about Gilbert after his off-the-bench outing against the Crimson Tide than they were following 12 starts. Perhaps a younger, fresher staff with two coordinators under the age of 37 will provide the tonic that Brown needs to put Texas back on course.
Toward that end, Brown enveloped himself in the process of hiring smart, up-and-coming coaches like offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin of Boise State and defensive whiz kid Diaz, from Mississippi State.
“I’m so proud of Mack,” said UT President William Powers Jr., who attended every game, home and away. “This is a frustrating year for him. He rolled up his sleeves and re-energized the program. I think we’ve come out of this the way people ought to come out after a tough season.”
Added men’s athletics director DeLoss Dodds: “A little humility is not bad, and change is not bad. You get something out of that.”
In his postseason evaluation, Brown studied every game tape. He hired several outside consultants, like Vinny Cerrato — a former Brown player, as well as the one-time recruiting coordinator for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and the general manager of the Washington Redskins — to inspect and evaluate his program. He also asked each player to fill out — and sign — a specific questionnaire about the program and his position coach. Brown said he tore them up after reading the surveys.
Although the results of the reviews were not shared, strength coach Jeff Madden was relieved of his football oversight (though he remains in charge of overall strength and conditioning for the athletic department) and secondary coach Duane Akina took a job at the University of Arizona.
Cerrato was paid his usual consulting fee of $1,500 after coming in for two days to observe the Monday and Tuesday practices before the A&M game. He said he was paid only to evaluate the players, not Brown’s coaching staff.
“I told Mack he had a bunch of good, young, talented players and that his incoming freshman class was outstanding,” Cerrato said. “When I was at Notre Dame, I’d have loved to have ‘em all. The future is definitely bright.”
Cerrato really liked Texas’ underclassmen.
“They just needed a good offseason program and need to get bigger and faster,” he said. “I was really impressed with their young offensive and defensive linemen, and I really liked their young wide receivers. The quarterback’s just got to learn to protect the ball. He’s got talent.”
Texas has declined to name the other outside people who took a magnifying glass to Brown’s operation, but some believe former Brown assistant Dick Tomey was one of them. He showed up for the Baylor game and was spotted “taking notes on a clipboard” on the sidelines. Tomey was never officially hired, one source said, but evaluated two Longhorns games last fall.
“Mack Brown listens to Dick Tomey,” the former coach said of Brown’s former defensive assistant, whom Brown has often credited for molding team chemistry that was put in motion before the 2005 national championship.
Now, almost three months after Texas A&M beat Texas for the third time in five years, Brown has to hope he made the right moves. He has severed ties with some of his closest aides, and the highly regarded Muschamp is gone.
With spring training less than two weeks away and his players getting acquainted with six new assistants, Texas stands on a critical threshold. Was last season a momentary blip — a shocking aberration for one of the nation’s most consistent programs — or was it the start of a trend?
Texas kicks off at home against Rice on Sept. 3. Longhorn Nation will be watching.