The 1996 campaign welcomed the dawn of the Big 12 Conference, and two-time defending national champion Nebraska was the prohibitive favorite to claim the league crown. The year also began typically for a Mackovic-coached Texas team, as the Horns began with a 3-3 mark with losses to three nationally-ranked teams (Notre Dame, Virginia, Colorado) plus an overtime loss to Oklahoma. But Texas would steady the ship with four straight wins to earn a spot in the Big 12 Championship game against the Cornhuskers.
Texas' improbable 37-27 triumph over the Huskers is legendary, as is Brown's so-called pre-game prediction that the Horns would win by three touchdowns. Truth be told, Brown grew weary during Monday's press conference of reporters asking him, in essence, what was it like practicing against a team that was projected to beat them by 21. It only fueled Brown's competitive urge.
"Maybe we'll beat them by 21," Brown said.
Brown's teammates privately thanked him for the remarks. Later that afternoon, Mackovic met Brown on the way to the practice.
"Well, James," Mackovic said, "I just hope you can back it up."
By then Mackovic had correctly determined that a play typically used in goal-line situations or on two-point conversions would work against the Huskers in the open field. It was called 'Steelers Roll Left'. The team rehearsed the play relentlessly throughout the week. Brown was to fake the dive play, keep the ball and sprint down the left side of the line-of-scrimmage. And with Texas nursing a 30-27 lead and facing 4th-and-inches at its own 28 with 2:48 remaining, logic dictates that you punt. Instead, the call from the sideline was 'Roll Left'.
After Brown announced the play in the huddle, he called out to TE Derek Lewis who had left the huddle early.
"Be ready," Brown told him.
"For what?" asked Lewis.
Well, for Burnt Orange history. In all probability, Brown could have moved the chains with his feet. Instead, he lofted a pillow-soft toss to Lewis. The pass-and-catch covered 61 yards and was later named college football's play of the year. It set up RB Priest Holmes' 11-yard TD run to put the championship on ice.
It was as good as it would get for John Mackovic's Longhorns. Still looking for their first major bowl win in 15 years, the Horns were dusted by Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. Texas parlayed the conference championship into a preseason Top 10 ranking to open the 1997 campaign. But the wheels came off following a methodical home-opening win against Rutgers. Brown sprained his ankle prior to the UCLA game and Mackovic announced his senior QB would not start.
"The funny thing about that is Coach Mackovic let me play against A&M (in 1995)," Brown said, "and my ankle was worse against A&M than it was against UCLA."
It may not have mattered. UCLA had the game in hand well before halftime. Texas never recovered and stumbled to a 4-7 season. Mackovic was shown the door within days of the season-ending loss at Texas A&M.
"That (UCLA game) really hurt us in 1997 because we had a lot of freshmen," Brown said. "All those freshmen were at home the previous (championship) year. Now, they were the players and there was no more UT mystique. It really messed them up to get their behinds beat like that (66-3). That hurt our year. The coaches were just scrambling trying to get a grip on the season. We had a bunch of young players. Mackovic simplified his offense midway through the season, but he should have done that at the beginning. We should have kept it simple."
Although Brown remains one of the winningest QBs in program history, some have suggested that he actually regressed in his effectiveness by the time he completed his eligibility. Among those who making this assertion -- is James Brown.
"If Shea had stayed, I think I would have been a better quarterback," Brown said. "I didn't have any competition after he left. I actually think I got worse as my career went on rather than getting better. Everybody left by my senior year. The class that I came in with was gone. The class that I came in with was the class that got UT back up again."
Indeed, the class that included Tony Brackens, Bryant Westbrook, Dan Neil, Pat Fitzgerald, Tre Thomas, Taje Allen, Mike Adams and Chris Carter had -- for one brief, shining moment -- restored Texas to what many consider its birthright atop the conference standings. Twelve members of the 1996 squad would garner All-Big 12 accolades, and six of them would be NFL Draft selections. One year later, only DT Chris Akins heard his name called on Draft Day (the seventh-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles).
It meant James Brown, the 1996 Honorable Mention All-Big selection, was looking for work. His former coaches were literally passing Mack Brown's staff in the hallways during the awkward transition.
"We didn't have a Pro-Timing Day. I was the only senior, really. I didn't have anybody. I didn't have an agent. I didn't have any coaches to help me because they were all trying to find jobs."
Brown eventually signed with Scotland in the European football league and was coached, ironically, by Gene Dahlquist, his former offensive coordinator at Texas. Brown never started a game under Dahlquist, who quickly traded him to Frankfurt.
"The first day I got to Frankfurt, I was the starting quarterback," Brown recalled.
His Frankfurt team won the World Bowl, the European equivalent of the Super Bowl.
"And I still didn't get an invitation to the NFL," said Brown.
In this instance, the godfather of swagger may have been the right person in the wrong place at the right time.