Texas-sized catch

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsApril 17, 2007

AUSTIN, Texas – On Feb. 7 Mack Brown signed a top-five recruiting class. But since recruiting really never ends for a college football coach, three days later he hosted Texas' annual "junior day."

Every school runs a junior day, where it invites some of the best football-playing 11th graders to campus and shows them the weight room, trophy case and a Miss Corn Festival or three. With any luck, the kid agrees to attend the school's summer football camp, where further evaluation and interaction will set up things for the fall and winter recruiting push where, if everything falls into place, he'll sign a letter of intent.

It's like the kickoff to the recruiting year.

Only this time, a funny thing kept happening to Brown. After recruits and their parents looked around, saw all the Heisman Trophies, all the national championships, all the smiling faces in the football office, the kids telling the Texas coach the same thing.

"I'm coming."

Not for summer camp. Not for a game next fall. Not back for an official visit. But for good. Done deal, verbal commitment, just send me the paperwork, Coach, and next February I'll sign up to be a 'Horn.

In a single day Texas locked up nine top high school juniors with verbal commitments. Within the next six weeks, nine more top-rated recruits followed suit. Suddenly, by March, a full 11 months from signing day, Mack Brown was leaning back in his oversized office here and shrugging at his embarrassment of good fortune – 18 of an estimated 22 scholarship spots already taken, an early recruiting haul for the ages.

"I didn't expect it," he said in his soft, Southern voice. "How could you?"

Somehow, Texas almost was finished with recruiting before it was finished with spring practice.

This is the new reality for Texas football, the once self-destructing program that despite resources, tradition and being located smack dab in the middle of a mother lode of prep talent, somehow went 35 years between national titles.

Finally, at last, in the wake of the Vince Young-led BCS championship after the 2005 season, the program is surging, pedal to the metal, toward what should be its everyday potential.

Gone are the days of UT having to slug it out for even local recruits, of worrying about selling out Memorial Stadium ("We used to have to schedule just to fill it," Brown said), of watching different factions pull in different directions.

Gone are the questions about Brown's coaching acumen, an "all hat, no cowboy" reputation that he admits made him miserable.

Gone, perhaps forever, are the days of bewilderment around how this place could go so long where "we weren't even close to winning [a national title]," Brown said.

"Coach [Darrell] Royal's comment [on why UT couldn't win] was that we were split," Brown said. "Certain people liked this coach; certain people liked that coach. There was some question with some [past lettermen who] really wanted the past to be present.

"If everybody is not working together here, this is a very difficult place. If everyone comes together, this is a very powerful place."

But winning, at least here deep in the heart of Texas, changed everything. This now is a powerful program.

The Texas football offices these days are like Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. No, they didn't defend the title, and no, they aren't the only program absolutely rolling right now. But considering how contentious things were here just two or three years ago – when 11 wins weren't enough – this is a stunning dichotomy.

Brown recalls standing in his California hotel room before the 2006 Rose Bowl and thinking how a victory over USC would change everything. But even he is shocked at how right he was.

Fans finally were satisfied. The media became more positive. The program's relationship with high school coaches improved dramatically. Brown shed his can't-win-the-big-one reputation.

And most importantly, those great football recruits across the state began dreaming of wearing the burnt orange.

"We've always recruited well, but kids are calling us now," Brown said. "High school coaches were split on us. Kids were going to Michigan and UCLA. There were more kids going out of state when I first got here than I could imagine. Now kids just don't go out of state."

Brown thought this might be a year for a big recruiting haul considering these current juniors were even more impressionable sorts when UT won the title, but he wasn't expecting it to be this easy. Recruiting never is supposed to be easy.

But that day in February was a sign that everything had, indeed, changed. There was no longer a wait-and-see mentality with the recruits. They saw and couldn't wait to be 'Horns.

So now his eyes spin at a brand new problem, actually slowing the recruiting process down, holding off some great talent so he can leave some spots open to some even greater talent.

"It is moving a little faster than I'd like," Brown said, well aware he might get punched in the nose by rival coaches for a statement like that. "It's exciting. But it's troubling some because it is early. You can make some mistakes because you have less information.

"We now have to do a better job of evaluating because now you are trying to determine the growth potential and maturity level of [these] young kids. They come so early, so it is very difficult."

He stops and laughs at that, laughs at how ridiculous it sounds, of course.

He remembers when he was the guy from North Carolina, wrong accent, wrong pedigree, who showed up here trying to tell Texans about football. He knows he sat in this same office nine years ago suddenly realizing this was a daunting challenge because here in Austin, politics weren't relegated to over at the state capitol. He recalls all those losses to Oklahoma that had people calling for his job.

He leans forward in an easy chair in his office. Behind him is a big window overlooking stadium expansion in one end zone. To the right an Earl Campbell framed jersey hangs on the wall. In front sits a Heisman Trophy on a coffee table.

He has a high-powered, preseason top-10 team finishing up spring practice and those 18 recruits already in the bag.

He can't really fake it. Early evaluations are now his biggest concern?

"It's a good problem to have," he smiles.