Friday, January 06, 2006

In Honor of Mack Brown, a Blast from the Past

Because, as my wife says, I like being right as much or more than I like my teams winning, here's one from the archives, a column that I wrote in the summer of 2002 for Pigskinpost.com when the "Mack Brown can't win the big one" and "Mack Brown isn't a very good coach" hype was at its height. I was an SEC columnist, but the criticism of Brown seemed ludicrous to me (including from the site's Big XII writer) and I've never been one to resist a giant pinata. My 2006 comments are in caps.

The Mack Dad’ll Make You Jump Jump:
Why Mack Brown Is Unfairly Maligned


If I didn't know any better, I'd say there is a fully-fledged anti-Texas backlash going on these days. Admittedly, I'm basing this opinion on an informal survey of message boards here and there, but something is definitely brewing. Heck, even Tom Dienhart, the biggest Texas supporter in the national media, has been making a joke or two about the Horns. [AH, THE DAYS WHEN I ACTUALLY READ TOM DIENHART. G-D BLESS THE BLOGOSPHERE FOR MAKING HACKS LIKE HIM SUPERFLUOUS.] Perish the thought!

Anyway, the crescendo of the Texas Backlash for me was my colleague John Ross Clark's article this Monday entitled Mack Brown and the Myth of Texas Football. His "closer look" at the head man in Austin essentially concluded that Mack has numerous failings and that the appearance of Mack as one of the best coaches in the country is erroneous. Is he going to bring multiple conference and national titles to the Lone Star State? "Sorry, Mack. Not this year, and maybe not ever." [I CAN'T BELIEVE I MISSED THE CHANCE TO WHACK THAT "MAYBE NOT EVER" LINE. TECHNICALLY, IT CAN BE SAID FOR ANY COACH.]

John is a good writer, I enjoy his columns, and I respect his opinion, but I'm tired of Mack Brown getting ripped for not winning every game and for failing to live up to an impossible standard against which every coach in college football would come up short. Simply put, most of the anti-Mack arguments come from Bevo’s tail end. (In fairness, I should disclose that John didn’t make some of the anti-Mack argument that I refute below.)

Mack squanders talent

I hate this argument and always have. As a note of self-disclosure, I hated this argument when I was a student at the University of Michigan in the mid-90s and critics used it to pooh-pooh the success of Steve Fisher, as if one national title and three Final Fours are only an accomplishment when achieved with a cadre of 5’11 walk-on exchange students from Myanmar.

Here’s a newsflash: the objective for a college coach is to win while not embarrassing the school, bringing in students who plainly can't hack it academically, or presiding over NCAA violations. (Fisher's shortcoming, as it turned out, came in the last category.) Almost invariably, talent wins. Of course, it is possible to have talent and fail to win, but good recruiting is a necessary pre-condition to winning in college football just like a large payroll is a necessary pre-condition to winning the World Series. [OK, THAT'S A SOMEWHAT DATED STATEMENT ON MY PART AND SOMEWHAT IRONIC SINCE THE ANGELS AND THEIR MID-LEVEL PAYROLL WERE THREE MONTHS FROM WINNING THE WORLD SERIES. LET'S MOVE ON.]

John disagrees with me on this: "[w]inning recruiting wars has seldom, if ever, resulted in a national championship on the field." Ask a Florida State or Miami fan the importance of good recruiting to their seven national titles in the past decade. Ask a Florida or Tennessee fan why they have dominated the SEC in the past decade. Ask an LSU fan why the Tigers are poised to join the Gators and Vols atop the league. Ask a Michigan fan why their team has been a consistent winner. (In the alternative, ask a Wolverine or a Buckeye how history would have been different if one Charles Woodson of Fremont, Ohio would have signed with his home state team.) They will all include the word "recruiting" in their answers. The best teams almost always bring in the best classes and send the most players to the NFL.

I'll forgive John for not realizing this reality of college football since he is a fan of the one school that escapes the rule: Nebraska. The Huskers, while certainly not slouches in recruiting, have won with a combination of the best strength and conditioning program in the country and a massive 200+ person roster that allows them to run an intensely physical offense than a smaller roster would prevent. For the rest of the college football world, winning the recruiting battles leads to winning games. To paraphrase the King, 50 million recruitniks can’t be wrong. [IRONICALLY ENOUGH, THE NEBRASKA BRAIN TRUST CAME TO THE SAME CONCLUSION AND HIRED BILL CALLAHAN BECAUSE THEY DECIDED THAT THEY COULDN'T WIN BIG WITHOUT TOP LEVEL TALENT.]

The fact that Mack Brown is a great recruiter is an asset. It is a compliment. It is not a reason to attack him. Texas is far more likely to win conference and national titles on the heels of Mack's last three recruiting classes than they were when John Mackovic was allowing the jewels of the state to escape. Sure, great recruiting creates great expectations, but isn't it better to expect 11-1 than to expect 8-4? Does anyone care how many future NFL stars are required for a coach to win as long as he wins? Don't all ten-win seasons look the same in the dark? [I THINK THAT BILL CURRY AND JOHN COOPER MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT THAT. GOSH, IT'S FUN FISKING MYSELF.]

Mack can’t win the big one

Here's another "rap" that is actually a compliment. This label only follows the coaches who win all the games that they are expected to win. If Mack is coaching in a big game, then it means he did something right to get his team there. Yes, Mack's great 1997 North Carolina team lost at home to Florida State, but no one would have cared if the Heels wouldn't have been unbeaten going into the game. Yes, Mack has lost the Big XII Title Game twice, but no one would have cared if Mack was eating Cheetos on his couch that weekend after the Horns failed to with their division. Is it better to go 8-3 and never coach in a big game or to go 10-2 and lose the big game?

Let’s take a look at the list of coaches who have had the label of "can’t win the big one." Tom Osborne had the label after years of failing to beat Oklahoma followed by years of failing to win bowl games. Bobby Bowden had the label after years of playing bridesmaid to Miami. Phil Fulmer had the label after years of failing to win his own division because of losses to Florida. Joe Paterno had the label after losing a number of big games in the 70s and 80s. Switching sports for a moment, Dean Smith had the label after years of almost winning the national title before breaking through in 1982. [AND IN 2006, WE CAN ADD ROY WILLIAMS TO THE LIST.]

The best description of the fallacy of the "can’t win the big one" reasoning is explained by Bobby Bowden: "the big one is always the one you don't win." Shouldn't Texas A&M be the big one for Texas? Mack is 3-1 against the Aggies. How about Nebraska, the pre-eminent team in the Big XII? Mack is 2-1 against the Huskers. Was Mack losing the big one when Texas lost the Big XII title game in 1999 and 2001? And UT beating Nebraska and Colorado in the '99 and '01 regular seasons wasn't winning a big game? Again, Mack won the big ones during the season only to have those wins forgotten by his critics when he lost the rematches. Ergo, the big ones are selectively defined as the games Texas lost.

Mack only has a .586 career winning percentage

Yeah, this is a really meaningful statistic for a coach who coached at Tulane and then at North Carolina. Tulane, well, let’s just say that isn’t the easiest place to win. As for UNC, they had won five, five, seven, and five games in the four years prior to Brown's arrival. Within six years, Mack Brown had a ten-win season in Chapel Hill. If my math is right, Mack had as many ten-win seasons at UNC (three) as the program has had in the rest of its history. [I LOVE THAT STAT. I SHOULD HAVE STOPPED WRITING AT THIS POINT, BUT I HAD VERBAL DIARRHEA, SO WE MARCH ON.] We should all be so lucky to have such a piddling resume.

If we really want to judge Mack Brown, then his time at Texas is the relevant yardstick since UT is a school where big things can legitimately be expected of a head coach. In four years, Mack Brown has a record of 38-13, which comes out to a .745 winning percentage and 9.5 wins per season. In the two decades prior to Mack's arrival in Austin, Texas averaged 7.35 wins per season for a .647 winning percentage. Gee whiz, the guy is only worth two wins and almost 10 percentage points to his program. What a failure!

Mack bungled the Simms/Applewhite situation

Yeah, I can't disagree here. Coach Brown did not do a good job with Simms and Applewhite, probably because he either made recruiting promises to Simms to induce him to matriculate in Austin or he was simply so enamored by Simms' talent that he lost sight of Applewhite's undeniable production on the field. Oh, and while we're crucifying Mack Brown for favoring Simms, let’s write off the following coaches for also mishandling quarterback situations:

Lou Holtz – entrusted the future of his program to Ron Powlus

Lloyd Carr – platooned future Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady with a talented, but unprepared Drew Henson for much of the 1999 season [A MISTAKE THAT LOOKS BIGGER AND BIGGER WITH EACH PASSING YEAR.]

Bobby Bowden – only figured out that Charlie Ward operated best out of the shotgun after Florida State lost to Miami and was trailing at the half to Georgia Tech; also had a strange affection for Marcus Outzen

Steve Spurrier – started Doug Johnson for three years

Joe Paterno – had national title talent all over the field and pedestrian quarterbacks like Mike McQueary and Kevin Thompson under center, all the while blue chip recruit Rashard Casey never progressed

Frank Beamer – left Michael Vick on the bench for a year, despite an injury to starter Al Clark that left the Hokies starting a converted safety under center during a losing effort at home against Temple (Temple?)

Here's the bottom line: coaches make dozens and dozens of personnel decisions every year and when a program is doing well and recruiting lots of talent, mistakes (or second-guessing that creates the illusion of mistakes) will be inevitable. Mack is the same as the coaches listed above: he makes occasional personnel mistakes, but he wins and that's the bottom line. [I SURE WAS OBSESSED WITH POUNDING MY AUDIENCE WITH "THE BOTTOM LINE" IN 2002.]

Texas’s tradition is overrated

There is some truth to this, especially if tradition is defined as the post-Darrell Royal era. However, doesn't this make Mack's achievements at Texas even more impressive? To this point, his performance has been far better than that of any of the post-Royal coaches. Don't we judge coaches, in part, on their ability to surpass their predecessors and elevate their programs?

Mack doesn’t win conference titles

John advances the novel theory that because David McWilliams and Fred Akers won SWC titles, the lack of a Big XII title is an albatross for Mack Brown. I will admit that if Mack doesn't win one in the next few years, this will become an albatross, but how silly is the comparison between winning the SWC and the Big XII? Can anyone say with a straight face that beating TCU, Rice, Houston, SMU, and Arkansas is the same challenge as beating Colorado or Nebraska twice in one year as Mack had to do in 1999 and 2001? Or Kansas State and Oklahoma as conference games? Even the great Darrell Royal would have significantly fewer SWC titles if the Red River Shootout would have been a conference game during his tenure.

Mack Brown will probably win a conference title in the next four years. [AND RIGHT ON TIME IN 2006, HE MADE ME LOOK GOOD.] If he doesn't, then the criticism of him will be justified. Until then, people need to realize that there are a lot of very good teams in the Big XII and winning it is no piece of cake.

Similarly, the criticism of Mack Brown failing to win the ACC is also weak. If Florida State wouldn't have been in the league at the time, this would be a legitimate criticism. However, by the time Mack had brought the Tar Heel program around to where it needed to be, he was competing with vintage FSU teams. I didn't see many other teams anywhere in the country beating the Noles. And, to preempt the inevitable follow-up argument, Ralph Friedgen, while he did a great job last year, only showed that he could beat an FSU team that had clearly come back to the pack. No one in the ACC has shown the ability to finish ahead of a vintage FSU team. [STILL HAVEN'T, BUT THE CONCEPT OF A VINTAGE FSU TEAM IS A THING OF THE PAST.]

I hate Mack because he left Carolina

As if any college football coach can be blamed for this. Mack turning down Texas to stay at UNC would be like, oh, I don’t know, Matt Doherty turning down UNC to stay at Notre Dame. (Whoops, sore subject. Better move on.) [I NEVER MISS THE CHANCE TO JIBE UNC. THAT'S WHAT GROWING UP IN CHARLOTTESVILLE IN THE RALPH ERA WILL DO TO A GUY.]

Bob Stoops owns Mack Brown

Really? A 2-1 record means Stoops owns Mack? Well then I guess Les Miles owns Stoops since he is 1-0 against his cross-state rival. Even if one admits that Stoops has out-coached Mack Brown the past two years (and I'm pretty sure that he has), then that just means Mack has been out-coached by a guy whom many college football fans describe as the best coach in America.

Steve Spurrier owned Phil Fulmer for years, but I don’t see people writing articles about how Fulmer is an overrated coach. [PLEASE FORGET THAT I EVER SAID THAT.] I don't see writers bringing up Fulmer’s loss to Memphis in 1996 the way that John cited Mack’s losses to Texas Tech in 1998 and Arkansas on New Year’s Day 2000 as evidence against Coach Brown.

Bill Snyder owns Mack Brown

Really? Two wins over Brown in Brown's first two years in Austin are a big deal? The teams that Mack will put up against Snyder in the next two years are far deeper and better-rounded than his teams in '98 and '99 with Mackovic's players. If Texas loses to K-State in both of the next two years, then I will admit that Snyder has a hex over Mack Brown. Something tells me I won’t be needing to make that admission [SCORE ANOTHER ONE FOR ME!!!] and on the off chance that I do, I might just happen to mention that R.C. Slocum seems to have a hex on Snyder, so that must mean that Snyder is overrated and Slocum is much better. (PS – For the record, I like Snyder and Stoops and I would likely have both of them slightly ahead of Mack Brown in an overall ranking. I just think that the comparisons between them and Mack Brown are made in a slanted manner against Mack.)

Mack isn’t likely to win a "few national championships"

Thanks to John for creating this impossible goal. How many active coaches have won a "few," i.e. three or more, national titles? [AND THANKS TO MACK'S PERFORMANCE ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, THAT'S STILL TRUE.] I count none. Anyway, it took Tom Osborne about two decades to win his first title. It took Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno a little less than two decades. These three guys are all considered great coaches and were considered as such before they won national titles. Why? Because they were consistent winners. They put their teams in position to win conference and/or national titles just about every year. If Mack Brown continues to average 9.5 wins per season, he will join Bowden, Paterno, and Osborne on that pedestal (or at least he’ll be in the same ballpark.)

Texas is always overrated

Ah, the last nugget in the arsenal. Mack Brown must be overrated because Texas has been picked high the past few years and hasn't lived up to billing. Umm, pardon me for interjecting a little logic, but doesn’t that mean that people should be mad at pre-season prognosticators and not Mack Brown? Is it his fault that writers think highly of his teams before the season?

Texas has been rated so highly in the past few years, in large part, because of the hype surrounding their recruiting classes, but this is fallacious reasoning by sportswriters because it takes years for the full effect of a recruiting class to be felt. A great class in February 2002 will create an aura for a program that translates to high expectations when preview magazines come out that summer, but those recruits probably won’t become starters until 2004-2006. [I MIGHT JUST GO BUY MYSELF AN ICE CREAM CONE FOR THIS ARGUMENT.]

Mack Brown's first full class will be in their fourth years this fall. As I said earlier, if Mack fails to win a conference title in the next four years, then some criticism of him will be legitimate. Until then, the pundits need to take a chill pill and count the other coaches who average 9.5 wins per season in elite conferences. I’m not saying that Coach Brown is the best coach in the land, but he has done a very good job in his first four years in Austin, the future looks bright, and the Texas-bashers (a group that I have occasionally been a member of) need to stop inventing specious reasons to run Mack down.

3 comments:

Jacob said...

Doesnt it feel better that the 2 time defending national champions came with the same defensive performence against vince young in the rose bowl as Michigan did last year.

peacedog said...

You know, I mentioned this column to someone on a message board the other day when a "Mack Brown was overrated" debate was raging. I've posted about it now, so we'll see who ends up reading it.

Michael said...

Jacob:

Texas '04 - 35 ppg
Texas '05 - 50 ppg

USC was facing a significantly better offense. This doesn't justify our performance in Pasadena, although I'm still proud of the team for playing well against a very good opponent.

Peace, where did you post about this column?