Note: James Brown joins the Inside Texas team this fall with his weekly 'Ask James Brown' column. "Ask James" well... almost anything (e.g. schemes, terminologies, the previous week's game, upcoming game, or his general assessment of Longhorn football: past, present and future). If you'd like to ask James Brown a question, please send by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject Ask James.
Former Texas QB James Brown (1994-97) was in the right place at the right time, leading the Horns to three straight conference titles. It could also be said that Brown was in the right place at the wrong time, given coach John Mackovic's turbulent relationship with fans and even his own players.
Indeed, the Mackovic era was a rollercoaster ride: the 1996 upset of No. 3 Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 Conference title game represented the pinnacle only to be followed by the crash and burn of the 66-3 debacle against an 0-2 UCLA team. The fallout from that historic defeat, in essence, was the final nail in Mackovic's seven-year tenure that also boasted some of the most innovative offenses and playmaking personnel in program history.
Yet, few would argue that whatever success Mackovic enjoyed in Austin is inexorably linked to the play of Beaumont product James Brown. One decade after he completed his eligibility, Brown ranks in the Top 10 in most of the school's individual passing categories; his 25-13-1 mark ranks No. 5 all-time in program history for starting quarterbacks. His first collegiate start as a redshirt-freshman in October, 1994 -- the result was a 17-10 thriller against Oklahoma -- marked the only time in Texas football history that a Longhorn QB led his team to victory against the Sooners in his debut game.
Yet, many would be surprised to learn how happenstance Brown's coming-out party actually was. The week before the Red River rivalry, Longhorn starting QB Shea Morenz injured his knee against Colorado. At the time, Brown had yet to separate himself from backup John Dutton on the depth chart. But when Morenz went down...
"I was just the closest person to Coach Mackovic because I was the guy with the clipboard," Brown said. "John Dutton was somewhere else. He was on the headset talking to the coach upstairs. I guess no one ever thought Shea would get hurt. Coach Mackovic grabbed me and said, "Get in!" It was just for one play, but I think that made me the second-string quarterback at just that moment. I had always thought John and I were equal on the depth chart. Neither one of us had had any game experience. I just happened to be close to the coach at that one time, and he threw me in for one play."
Yet, that one play secured Brown's position not only in the starting lineup against Oklahoma but ultimately in Longhorn lore. Brown was not told he would start against the Sooners until moments before kickoff. The short notice may have mitigated whatever nerves Brown might have brought to the showdown, but the young QB quickly established himself as a supremely confident field general. His persona tended to have a trickle-down effect among many of his teammates. It's just that Brown's raw emotion ran counter to the highbrow modus operandi of his head coach. Or, at least, that is Brown's assessment of his star-crossed relationship with Mackovic.
"I was a cocky guy," Brown concedes. "I think all football players are cocky, but a team adheres to its coach's personality. All the guys on the team wanted to be cocky. A lot of guys liked my winning attitude. We just wanted to play and have fun. I think my solid play (against OU) got everybody involved. Everybody wanted to have some swagger. When you think about it, everybody who plays for The University of Texas was probably the best at his position in the state of Texas. Then they got to college, and it's like they got their drive taken away to fit in (Mackovic's) system. I think I got that personal drive, or swagger, back in the players."
But it did not get Brown back into the starting lineup a week later. Morenz returned the following week in a made-for-ESPN, Sunday night game at Rice. The Owls had not beaten the Horns in 29 years, and were heavy underdogs at home. Despite his benching, Brown said he harbors no hard feelings toward Morenz ("I really like Shea. He's doing very well.") and remains highly infatuated with Mackovic's pro-style offenses. The Rice game was waged in a monsoon, but paled in comparison to the storm that hit Mackovic's program following a stunning 19-17 loss to the Owls.
"Naturally, fans were upset," Brown recalled. "They asked, 'Why didn't you put James Brown in?' Mackovic didn't like people running his program."
Brown and Morenz began to split time, but the Horns would drop two of its next three games. At this juncture, Mackovic's mark at Texas stood at 16-14-1. The wolves were howling,
"Mackovic was different," Brown said. "One time, before a home game, he had us listen to this song: 'Whoops, There Goes Another Rubber Tree Plant'. He had the lights off. It was some sort of meditation. I had never heard that song before. Everybody was chuckling, and he got mad at us. 'Get serious!' he said. He would always do things like that. He would tell guys, 'You aren't good enough to get a penalty'. But coach Mackovic, he was a good guy. He taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about being a student-athlete, I mean, he was a professor. And I loved his offense."
By late 1994, it was obvious that Morenz was not completely healthy. Mackovic handed the offense to Brown for the final home game of the season, resulting in a 48-13 thumping of Houston.
"Mackovic would run different plays for me than he ran for Shea," Brown noted. "He would run easier plays for me. We had a play where I'd run a half-roll: I'd either roll right or roll left about half way. I either threw an out route, or I'd pump the 'out' and throw it long. I'd have a backside guy running a post-curl. It's a simple route. I think the 'out route' is the best route in football because it's a timing route. I'd throw the ball before my receiver even breaks, and the DB just doesn't know. I was pretty good on that route. If the DB breaks on that route, I'd throw the out-and-go. I threw three or four touchdowns on that route against Baylor."
The 63-35 Thanksgiving Day win at No. 23 Baylor earned Texas a share of the Southwest Conference title because probation-paddled Texas A&M (10-0-1) was ineligible for the crown. The win in Waco also paved the way for Texas' first bowl victory in seven seasons, a 35-31 comeback against Mack Brown's No. 14/19 North Carolina team in the Sun Bowl. Texas finished the year ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll, finishing the season with a national ranking for just the second time in seven years. Morenz would trade in his cleats for a baseball career, and Brown would return for the 1995 swan song of the Southwest Conference.
"We had a superior team for the Southwest Conference in 1994 and 1995," Brown said. "I thought the Southwest Conference was so weak that I was glad to go to the Big 12 and play against teams like Nebraska."
The SWC's diminished stature was part of the reason Texas needed the likes of nationally ranked Notre Dame and Virginia on its non-conference slate that year. No. 10/13 Texas saw a third-quarter lead evaporate into a 55-27 loss at South Bend on September 23. Three weeks later, the Horns managed a 24-24 tie against No. 12/13 Oklahoma. But with a 5-1-1 mark, the 2005 campaign was a season on the brink for Texas. The watershed moment was Phil Dawson's 50-yard FG into a stiff, southerly headwind to lift Texas to a last-play, 17-16, win against No. 14 Virginia. The Horns converted two critical fourth-downs on the final drive, including Brown's 12-yard toss to Mike Adams on 4th-and-10 with 30 seconds remaining. The thriller launched a five-game winning streak for the Horns, capped by Brown's heroic performance at No. 16 Texas A&M on December 2.
Appropriately, the final SWC title came down to duel between Texas and in-state rival Texas A&M. The Aggies had taken 10-of-11 from the Horns and held the nation's longest-active home winning streak at 31 games. Texas freshman FB Ricky Williams ran for 163 yards and two TDs while the defense became the first unit to keep the Aggies out of the end zone since 1987. Almost forgotten is the fact that Brown played the entire game with a severely sprained ankle.
"A lot of people probably wouldn't have played that game," Brown said. "I just wanted to play. I wanted to be there for my team."
Texas finished the regular season at No. 6 before falling to No. 11/13 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
(To be continued Friday, August 31.)
James Brown: The Godfather Of Swagger
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