AUSTIN, Texas – Mack Brown cut himself off in mid-sentence, looking up into the rows of reporters facing him.
"Wake up, Bob!" he yelled.
The old coach had spotted a cameraman who he thought was dozing off.
"You're wide awake when we lose and you fall asleep when we win!"
The room broke up in laughter. It was a light moment after a much-needed victory. But it said a lot about Texas football these days. The whole program needs a wake-up call. And although the effort was more inspired in Saturday's 56-50 win over Baylor here than it was in last week's humiliation at the hands of Oklahoma, it's unclear if Brown can get this team to jump up from its recent slumber and become Texas again. A win over Baylor is nice and all, but it's still Baylor – a team that lost 12 straight to Brown before winning two in a row and nearly winning again Saturday. "We're David against Goliath," said Baylor president Ken Starr before the game. (Yes, that Ken Starr.) "As RG3 said, 'We're Baylor, we compete.' "
Texas will always be Goliath, and that has created a special kind of problem: There's little hardship. Players who come here have the best of everything, even their own TV network, and that can remove the chip from their collective shoulders and deposit it directly on the backs of smaller programs like Baylor's, whose president is in near gloat when he says, "The last two years were huge!"
They have not been huge at UT. The Longhorns were 7-13 in conference play over the last three years coming into Saturday and they've lost three straight to hated Oklahoma, the last two by more than 40 points. Brown has won a national title, but has won only two conference titles in 15 years.
Defensive back Kenny Vaccaro, one of the leaders on the Longhorns, called the lack of intensity a "cancer" after last week's Sooner thrashing. He accused some teammates of not playing hard. Saturday, after a win, he sighed audibly when informed his defense gave up 607 yards to the RG3-less Bears. Then he dished some wisdom that Brown and everyone wearing burnt orange might want to hear:
"We just got back to getting physical and not so much worrying about the stuff that you get distracted with at Texas like the Longhorn Network, all the fans, all the glory, Nike and all that stuff, and just got back to playing football. That's all that really matters, and I think a lot of schools that win across the country, that is all they focus on. They don't worry about all that other junk that's out there."
And that is exactly where the Mack Brown legacy teeters: On the one hand, he has rebuilt the program from the John Mackovic era and brought in gobs and gobs of money through deals like that struck with ESPN and the Longhorn Network. He has made this entire school a better place. But in a way he's made it too nice. It's cushy here, right down to the plush seats in the press room where that cameraman nearly dozed off. It's too easy to relax, knowing there will always be endlessly fertile recruiting ground, there will always be national attention, and now there will always be a TV network showing the team in a soft glow. Most head coaches have to battle to stay afloat; Brown has to battle against floating. It's an extremely difficult balance, as Brown is beloved for his gentlemanly way. Nobody wants him to be Nick Saban, but he just might have to go in that direction to raise the program back to where it was when Vince Young won a national title here in '05. To sum up: There's not quite enough burn in burnt orange.
There is evidence Brown has sounded the alarm. The practice after the Oklahoma debacle was mightily physical. Vaccaro went right after running back Joe Bergeron moments into the first drills of the week, hit him as hard as he could, and walked away with a bloody nose. He loved it. And it seems Bergeron responded too: He scored five touchdowns Saturday. "We weren't being physical," said offensive guard Trey Hopkins. "We took too many punches." Brown told his team Saturday to expect more hitting next week.
But Vaccaro will be the first to say one win is not enough. After all, Duke is bowl eligible before Texas. The Longhorns shouldn't have to hang 56 on Baylor to win a conference game at home. A few NFL scouts in the press box were wondering why the defense was so poor on both sides Saturday. "We can't figure it out," one said. Neither could alum Keenan Robinson, who now plays for the Redskins and tweeted during the first half: "Man who are these linebackers for Texas." Ouch.
More troubling still, both Brown and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said little negative about the defense after the game. They both referred to a surrendered field goal as a "stop." Diaz praised his players for doing well on third-down conversions, when it seemed Baylor didn't even need third down on most drives. The past four games, Texas has allowed 197 points. The past 19 games, Alabama has given up 151. It's understandable that the defense is young and inexperienced and needs positive reinforcement, but this is Texas: There's no excuse for rebuilding. Brown even quoted mentor Darrell Royal, who once told him, "The only games that are important at Texas are the ones you lose."
Don't forget the important games other coaches are winning. Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, once a coach-in-waiting here, is not only winning at Florida, but winning with suffocating physicality. The Gators are punching teams in the mouth, over and over again, and on the brink of being No. 1 in the nation with mostly younger players. Talk about rebuilding. Then there's Bill Snyder, whose Kansas State Wildcats from tiny Manhattan manhandled a West Virginia team that came to Austin and scored 48 points on the 'Horns.
The first thing Brown did when he greeted the media Saturday was thank the fans. He said he was "very proud" of the 101,000 who showed up and cheered for a team that sorely needed it. That's the genius of Brown: He's good at making everyone feel better. Over his mostly triumphant career, he has made this entire university feel better. Now part of his job is to make everyone a little bit more uncomfortable before things get exceedingly uncomfortable for him.
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