I’ve spent hours talking to those inside the program when Mack Brown was the coach, and I can boil it down to this: Everything about accountability in the program changed after the loss to Alabama in the BCS title game of the 2009 season.
From the time Mack Brown arrived at Texas in 1998, even as a CEO who delegated a lot to his coaching staff when it came to football, he was always side-by-side with his assistants and players.
When something went horribly wrong in the form of a blowout loss to OU, etc., Mack would say, “I need to do better job” or “We, as coaches, need to do a better job.”
Even though Mack had a reputation for coddling players, earning Texas a soft label, the Longhorns were usually talented and showed resilience. Texas almost always bounced back after a loss. Mack's teams won close games.
Ultimately, Texas went 69-9 from 2004-09, winning a national title, playing for another one, with victories in two other BCS bowl games. That reign made Texas the centerpiece of realignment in 2010 and caused ESPN to put up $300 million for 20 years for the rights to the Longhorn Network.
But the mindset of the entire Texas program changed after Texas’ crushing loss to Bama in the BCS title game. In 2010, Mack turned on his staff and ultimately his players. The result was confusion at the top, lack of accountability at the bottom and a steady creep of selfishness and entitlement inside the program.
I’ve said this before, but Mack Brown was convinced Texas would have won that game if Colt McCoy hadn’t gotten hurt.
I was standing there when Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com said to Mack after his post-game press conference that night, “Well, Mack, we’ll never know.”
And Mack looked at Dodd with a glare and said, “It wouldn’t have been close.”
After that, Mack went scorched earth on his assistants, especially his offensive assistants for not having a running game to fall back on against Alabama.
Offensive coordinator Greg Davis and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter were set to join Tim Brewster at Minnesota, because things got so heated between Mack and the staff.
Then Mack talked them into staying, but still told them to change the offense to feature a pro-style running attack (without the personnel to execute it).
The overall tone of the conversation between Mack and his assistants basically changed at that point.
They were no longer working side-by-side. Mack was now above them, dictating to them and showing a general lack of respect.
So in 2010, when things got off to a rocky start, and Texas was pulverized by UCLA, I’m told Mack turned to his assistants after that game and said:
“I give you all these resources, and this is how you do me?”
And from that moment on, the 2010 season dissolved into a cauldron of mistrust between the coach, the assistants and the players. And the program never really recovered.
Mack came to hate the coach in waiting position he gave to Will Muschamp, because Mack sensed his other assistants were gravitating toward Muschamp. Brown threatened them and said if he caught assistants trying to curry favor with the “coach-in-waiting” instead of focusing on jobs at hand, they’d be fired.
Mack tried to fix the program by bringing in new coordinators (Manny Diaz and Bryan Harsin), but after two years without a quarterback (following the transfer of Garrett Gilbert), Harsin was off to Arkansas State.
Brown had reservations about Diaz after the 2012 season and even after last spring, thus the hire of Greg Robinson as football analyst. But Mack mistakenly kept Diaz going into the 2013 season instead of pulling the plug and letting Diaz go. It became clear against BYU the players didn’t trust the direction under Diaz.
The rest is history.
I’m told by former players and those formerly inside Brown’s program that the message of accountability became so distorted that it, of course, trickled down to the players.
According to one person who worked inside the program under Brown:
“Mack went from years of saying, ‘We need to do a better job,’ when talking to his assistants and even to his players, to saying, ‘You all need to do a better job.’
“Once he separated himself out like that, the sense of team and ‘We’re all in this together’ was out the window. And the only person who could fix that accountability was Mack.
“We probably should have done a better job of pulling him aside and telling him that. But no one wanted to get fired. So everyone just kept trying to make the best of those working conditions.”
The lack of a strong message from the top down resulted in players checking out and failing to be accountable - mostly to each other.
The all-important chain of handing down the work ethic and accountability from one class to the next started to get lost in 2010. Mack told his staff and players after a loss to Iowa State that season he didn’t trust them to get prepared for games.
Suddenly, no one knew who to trust - if the head coach didn’t trust his staff.
Any successful set of parents will tell you there needs to be a unified front in disciplining children. That all began to slip in 2010.
Contrast all of that to the bullet-to-the-chest directness of Charlie Strong.
Strong has personally set the tone for accountability from the ground up with his rules and core values and class checks. You break them, there are immediate consequences, and those consequences don’t waver. Starter or non-starter.
Most of the current players on the team appreciate what Strong is doing, in large part, because Strong puts himself right in the middle of everything having to do with the players.
When they are in pushed-to-the-limits workouts with Pat Moorer, Strong is in the weight room with them, usually putting some weight up himself on the bench press.
Side by side.
He took the keycard locks off the coaches’ offices and invited players to come hang out any time they wanted.
Strong made sure to stop into the 6 am study halls last spring to visit the Breakfast Club. He goes for a run at 4:30 am, so that when his players arrive for 6 am workouts or study halls, he already has a full sweat.
The message to the players is: You’re not doing anything I’m not doing.
He constantly tells his players, “Don’t let this old man outwork you!”
And now Strong and his assistant coaches are living with the players in the Jester East dorms for the first two weeks of fall camp.
At Louisville, the first two weeks of camp, the coaches and players would stay together in a local hotel. Then, when school started, the players moved into their dorms and the coaches moved home.
No hotel stay for the players and coaches here at Texas. Cramped dorm rooms. No Longhorns on the helmets. No throwing up the Horns.
In short, no letting up - all with the mission of “no entitlement.”
It was entitlement that was allowed to seep into the program after the message of accountability got lost among the coaches and from player to player five years ago.
Those days are gone. And so are 7 players.
After giving out repeated warnings, Strong isn’t sweating the loss of some players or depth fans probably think are irreplaceable.
As Strong said, he found 10 to 25 plays on all of his offensive and defensive players in which he asked them, “Is this you? Or is it someone else wearing your number?”
“I wanted guys to see that what we were looking at was unacceptable.”
No one showed on film they were invaluable or irreplaceable. In some instances, the coaches believe entire positions will improve without the negativity and uncertainty that seemed to follow some of those who were dismissed.
Some are speculating Strong has already lost control of his team. That could not be further from the truth. If anything, he has gained control of it.
What Strong calls Phase 4 is under way. It’s his favorite of all the phases, according to those close to him.
Because it’s when he and the staff go from breaking down to ultimately building up and then putting all the hard work on display on Saturdays.
That’s when the results of all the so-called “culture changing” aimed at putting the T(oughness) back in Texas, will be evident to everyone.