It's a joke, y'all. Longhorn baseball's first series loss of the conference season, in all likelihood, merely delayed a Big 12 title until the Aggies come calling. But it surfaces a perennial question: how much margin of error should there be for head coaches in this 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' world of big time college athletics? How much teflon does a national championship offer? Especially for coaches of revenue-producing sports? Specifically, football coaches?
Part of the in-house, gallows humor among reporters covering Longhorn athletics is to (privately) call for the immediate ouster of any Texas coach whose team has the audacity to lose a game. (As in 'one' game. A game. Any game). If the baseball team loses, for example, it's "Fire Augie!" If the basketball team loses, it's "Fire Rick!" If the football team loses (regardless of the reason), it's "Fire Greg Davis!" Again, it's a joke.
More than anything else, it's an intentional over-reaction directed not so much at any particular coach but rather at the particular culture. We're talking about a win-or-else culture that is not only mirrored, but also cultivated, by frenetic media continually trying to gain a competetive edge within an increasingly Internet-driven, around-the-clock news cycle.
If we limit our discussion to Division-I college football, one could easily argue that this is a golden era in terms of public interest, media coverage, upgrades in facilities, caliber of student-athlete and revenue. The flipside is that the across-the-board level of scrutiny and expectations from fans and media is unprecedented. It has the effect of shortening the leash of every football coach who is earning seven figures.
After all, former Miami coach Larry Coker's dismissal was just four seasons removed from playing in consecutive BCS National Championship games. After all, Alabama's Mike Shula was given the pink slip one season after returning the Tide to a New Years Day bowl win. After all, Nebraska's Frank Solich was shown the door following an 8-3 regular season in 2003. After all, Texas A&M's R.C. Slocum was let go in 2002, despite the fact that he was winningest coach in Aggie history who never suffered a sub-.500 season. Closer to home, former Longhorn coaches John Mackovic and David McWilliams were both 're-assigned' one year following a conference championship. Obviously, there was a myriad of factors in each situation. But the result is almost invariably a buttoned-down athletic director referencing a desire to change the "general direction" of the program.
No one understands this better than Texas coach Mack Brown. When a reporter prematurely asked in August about the OU Game later that October, Brown replied "I won't be around for that game if we lose the home-opener." When Brown made a public relations appearance a few years ago promoting the Texas Bowl in Fort Worth, an official from the Big 12 Conference office wisecracked that Brown is "probably fired" if Texas was to actually play in that game. And when someone told Brown the morning after the National Championship win against USC that he now had a 'free pass' at Texas, Brown responded that spring football "begins in six weeks". In other words, Brown has mentioned on a number of occasions that the halo above a coach's head can quickly become the noose around his neck.
Brown's halo lost very little luster following the recent 10-3 campaign. His passion and work ethic does not allow him to rest on laurels. Then again, I've always maintained the football coach at The University of Texas should win a minimum of two conference titles per decade. (Hypotehtically, if you were the Texas' Men's Athletic Director, and you somehow knew that the candidate interviewing for a head football coaching vacancy would win just one conference title in a decade, would you hire that man?). Brown, of course, is entering his 10th season in Austin with just one conference title on his resume BUT with the program's only national title in the previous 35 years. The question, here, is: how long will the so-called 'football culture' be content to rest of that laurel until it at least demands another league crown?
First, consider the body of work. No BCS Conference team has won more games than Texas during the nine-year stretch since Brown arrived (93-22). Only Bobby Bowden (Florida State), Joe Paterno (Penn State) and Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) have more wins among current Division I-A head coaches than Brown. Texas has also won three Division titles on Brown's watch (which may be harder to come by than some Southwest Conference championships). Recruiting is better at the Forty Acres than at any time since scholarship limits were implemented more than a quarter-century ago. Current construction at the football stadium will expand capacity to 90,000+ in time for the 2008 season. The program has generated between $30 - $40 million in sheer profit the past couple of seasons. Brown has a fine reputation for running a clean program; relatively speaking, his student-athletes make headlines for all the right reasons. Brown's program also received the top score among Big 12 Conference football teams in the current NCAA Academic Progress Report (released late last week). It all matters very much, but it's still a business where success is primarily determined by the 'W' column.
The 2007 football season begins four months from Thursday (and counting). This year, the hottest seat in D-I football is in College Station; Brown's seat isn't even lukewarm and may never be again. A favorable schedule and back-to-back Top Five recruiting classes should keep Texas in the national title hunt during the immediate future. But, fair or not, I would suggest that a national championship affords a head coach at school like Texas a safety net of no more than four or five seasons. If fans behave as if they have a short term memory, consider the fact that your average high school bluechip's myopic sense of history rarely extends beyond that time frame.
The past has been glorious, but it remains a future-oriented operation.