When a man’s legacy is at stake, he tends to become desperate. There’s the allure of protecting what you’ve built, something Joe Paterno forcefully tried in State College or the changes happening in Austin, Texas. Still in power, Mack Brown is reconfiguring the foundation of the college football powerhouse he woke. JUCO’s arrived on the 40 Acres last winter. In the past, players at the junior college level might well have been Chinese badminton prospects. Then the whispers of relenting on out-of-state recruiting offers rose audibly. Offensive line coach Stacy Searels chased George Clooney’s Up In The Air character by hounding players in Arizona, Georgia, Florida and everywhere else in search of the best, not just the best in Texas.
For years, Brown loved quoting his offer/signed ratio in the Signing Day presser. It was contrived, giving credence to those wondering whether the Longhorns altered their view of a prospect by how quickly he’d accept. With Major Applewhite, the elite closer on staff, taking a larger recruiting role, Texas searched far and wide, evaluating later and choosing not to pursue a team full of Central Texas standouts. There’s plenty of talent in the region but the previous Longhorn regime did little to squash the notion that they were taking assured commitments rather than working through the fall to February. The results bore out in the years following the 2005 national championship as unit by unit, the Longhorns started crumbling from the inside. Offensive linemen couldn’t get a sniff in the NFL. Receivers seemed to get slower on campus. Running backs cycled through committees with something quite the opposite of synergy. Colt McCoy, Jordan Shipley and Will Muschamp did their best to overcome the deficiencies but it couldn’t prevent the disastrous 2010 season. A full-scale reconstruction was necessary, but was Brown up to the task? After all, he’d won a title and appeared in another championship at Texas. Why would the 60 year-old give in now?
Retiring on the heels of a 13-12 run meant his successor using the same approach he had to in following John Mackovic. Would it embarrass him and his pride to know he didn’t leave a titan of a program better than he’d found it?
The answer, obviously, is yes. Brown stayed and the revitalization continues.
A further shift away from Brown’s old system occurred today as the Longhorns went public with sixteen, as of this writing, 2014 offers. Sophomores were used to the “you’ve been approved for an offer” line from Texas and once Junior Days rolled around or the senior class signed, they were welcome to pick up the phone and commit.
It caused confusion, consternation and was frankly, ridiculous. If Nick Saban and Bob Stoops are confident enough in their staff and their own ability to evaluate early, how does it play in a seventeen year-old’s mind to hear Brown tell them, “we’re waiting on you.”
So much of recruiting is instantaneous now. High school kids voice their displeasure on various social media sites. Coaches use those same forums to sneak around contact rules. If you aren’t massaging a future star’s ego for two years, your staff might as well recruit grade risks because there’s just as much chance of the elite targets winding up on your campus.
The changes in recruiting mirror alterations on the field. I-formations give way to the spread until a new rule means it’s easier to return to a power-rushing attack. If the NCAA hopes to limit early recruiting — the aforementioned Saban is already hot and heavy on Katy, Texas 2015 tailback Rodney Anderson — then more stringent player/coach communication regulations are in order. Will it limit verbal offers? Nope.
But it might stop the train from careening down a track where middle school attendees call Steve Sarkisian to express their intention to play for him.
The game on the field is changing with the first, four-team playoff looming. Recruiting timelines are as well. If legacies are to be saved or written, coaches like Mack Brown must decide whether to remain rigid or become uncomfortably fluid.
Brown may never reach the pinnacle of the sport again but he’s open to fresh ideas to get there, a welcome renaissance in Austin.