Bill Little commentary: Arranging the deck chairs
Jan. 22, 2011
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The preacher lady turned to the philosophy of the “Peanuts” comic strip Sunday morning, and I couldn’t help but think of how it related to the month Mack Brown has spent in his quest to rebuild his Texas Longhorn coaching staff.
It seems Charlie Brown’s adversary, Lucy, has asked the following question: “Charlie Brown, life is like a deck chair on a cruise ship. Passengers open up these canvas deck chairs so they can sit in the sun. Some people place their chairs facing the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Other people face their chairs forward—they want to see where they are going. On the cruise ship of life, which way is your deck chair facing?” she asks.
Replies Charlie Brown, “I am working on getting one to unfold.”
Starting before the season ever ended, Mack Brown was working on the chair issue. To say that he was not satisfied with the way things turned out for the Longhorns of 2010 would be a gross understatement. He wasn’t happy with his team, he wasn’t happy with his staff, but most of all, he wasn’t happy with himself. No coach in college football—or any level of football for that matter—adheres more to the philosophy that “the buck stops here” than does Brown. After 27 years as a head coach and 36 in the coaching profession, he understands the deal.
And so, with a huge dose of humility and a strong prescription of self-evaluation, he began the process of looking off the back of the ship—to try and figure out what happened.
In the days immediately following the Thanksgiving Night game with Texas A&M, he went back and looked at videos of every game. He re-watched practice tapes. He had called in highly respected friends to do the same thing and report to him what they saw. He asked for and received input from his team, and from his staff. He looked at all areas of the program. And he didn’t base it on one year—the evaluation included undetected trends that had slowly led to the erosion of the excellence.
It wasn’t as if anybody was blindsided by the actions that followed. All season, Brown warned repeatedly that things had to change. And at the end, they did. Texas was heading in a new direction. Now, it was time to turn the deck chairs toward the front of the boat. In his years as a head coach, Mack has always kept a list of coaches at every position whom he would seek out when the inevitable vacancies occurred within his staff. That would be the starting point. Then, he talked to his best friends in the business about candidates. Legendary college coaches and highly successful NFL coaches spoke with him.
As coaches resigned and chose to retire, Brown sailed through with a new look to the future of Texas football. He knew that he had a solid base in the four returning staff members—but even that was subject late in the process to what Brown refers to as “sudden change. Popular running backs coach Major Applewhite would have an expanded role in the offense. Recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Bruce Chambers (the only original member of Brown’s staff at Texas) would be an anchor as well. Duane Akina’s work with defensive backs and some phases of the special teams would be valuable, as would former Longhorn star and defensive ends coach Oscar Giles.
In searching for new coaches, there were some ground rules which he would absolutely observe. First, he, and only he, would know the people he was choosing as candidates. Second, he would not disrupt the staff of a team in a bowl game by wooing one of their coaches until after the game was finished. Internet and radio talk show rumors of what he was doing would abound—but none of them were true.
Immediately, he found that there are a lot of great coaches out there who would be capable and would love to work at Texas. He also learned that today’s college football is an industry where coaches are represented by agents (particularly when it comes to pro coaches), and many of the conversations with perspective candidates happened first with them.
Building a staff is like creating a mosaic. In the specialized world of college coaching, to recruit and to succeed you have to make sure you are teachers first and cover the critical positions. So you typically find the best possible coach to replace the position coach you lost. If your defensive coordinator coached linebackers, you go out and find the best possible coordinator who also coached linebackers.
For most of a month, he spent long days talking, texting, and reading resumes of coaches who might fit. A coaching staff is a critical combination of expertise, the ability to recruit, and the chemistry to blend with each other. By his own assessment, Mack never worked harder in his coaching career. And as December dwindled and the bowl games began, he had zeroed in on his top candidates.
The dominoes began to fall just as 2010 was ending. First announced was receivers coach Darrell Wyatt, who brought a wealth of experience in recruiting and a sterling background which included ten players who went on to play in the NFL.
Bo Davis came next, interviewed and announced after his Alabama team had played and won its bowl game. Chosen to mentor defensive tackles, he also brought strong recruiting ties within Texas, as well as high school coaching experience in the state.
Then came a tandem of exciting hires that continued a pattern of thirty-something men who infused both youth and enthusiasm into the new staff.
Manny Diaz had become a hot commodity on the defensive side of the ball as he had constructed innovative schemes both in his year as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, as well as his time before that at Middle Tennessee. He had joined the coaching profession in the late 1990s, when he gave up a budding career with ESPN to work as a graduate assistant under the tutelage of the highly respected Mickey Andrews at his alma mater Florida State.
In his evaluation process, Brown had discovered that the structure of the strength and conditioning program needed to be tweaked. Jeff “Mad Dog” Madden had supervised the football program as well as maintaining duties as assistant athletics director overseeing the strength and conditioning program for all men’s and women’s sports except basketball. Nationally recognized by his peers and well-liked by the Texas players, Madden’s expanded duties had become too demanding to maintain a total focus on football. In the years since Madden had joined Brown at North Carolina and followed him to Texas, other schools had named a football strength and conditioning coach, just as Texas already had, for instance, in basketball with the talented Todd Wright.
That led to the next step—the hiring of Bennie Wylie. Wylie, a native of Mexia, Texas, who was at Tennessee for a year after helping the Texas Tech football program achieve national recognition, was the perfect fit. He perfectly fit the image—young, enthusiastic, respected by his peers and revered by his players.
Over the past several years, the biggest story in college football has been the rise to power and prominence of the football program at Boise State. In his years in the coaching profession, Brown has formed life-long relationships with other coaches. He counts retired coaches such as Darrell Royal, Paul Dietzel, Lloyd Carr, Urban Meyer, LaVell Edwards and Bobby Bowden among his close friends. But if you asked him to name one young coach whose work he greatly admires, one of the first names he will mention is Chris Petersen at Boise State.
And that brought Brown to the next major hire of the reconstruction project. Bryan Harsin had been Petersen’s offensive coordinator for five years with the Broncos. He is 34 years old, and was ready to stretch the envelope for him and his family. In a career that seems laden with destiny, he had been intrigued by Texas and Brown for some time. So when the call came to come and look at Texas, he and his wife, Kes, took the trip. There, they quickly formed a bond with Mack and Sally Brown, as well as with Major Applewhite and his wife, Julie. Together, with Harsin calling the plays and Applewhite serving with him as co-offensive coordinator, they determined they could write the next chapter in the long history of offensive football at Texas.
The sudden change factor entered when veteran secondary coach Duane Akina began considering an offer to return to the University of Arizona, where he spent 13 seasons as part of Dick Tomey’s famed “Desert Swarm” defense. When Akina finally made his decision to leave on Friday night, Brown immediately opened conversations with Longhorn legend Jerry Gray, who had college coaching experience and had spent 23 years as an all-star player and coach in the NFL. Gray had just finished coaching former Longhorn Earl Thomas while serving as the defensive backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks. The NFL had been good to him, but he was ready to come home. So on Monday the announcements of Akina’s leaving and Gray’s return to his alma mater came back-to-back, in time for Brown to tell the team as they gathered on Monday night for the first time since the break.
The final piece of the staff puzzle was put in place Thursday, when Stacy Searels was announced as the offensive line coach. Searels, who was offensive line coach and running game coordinator at Georgia, has an extensive background that included being an all-American player at Auburn, as well as experience in the NFL. His coaching stops include time at LSU when the Tigers won the national championship.
As Brown and members of his new staff hit the road visiting recruits this week, the players began early morning workouts with Wylie on Tuesday morning—the first day of spring classes. Clearly, there is much work to be done as new terminology and schemes will be installed this spring on both sides of the ball. Rarely has an in-place program undergone such an extreme makeover, with six new coaches out of the nine assistants, plus a change in the strength and conditioning area.
Last week, Brown sent his players a long note telling them his thoughts as their first meeting approached. In it, he acknowledged the fact that he is re-energized and invigorated with tremendous excitement as the spring semester begins. It is, he said, as he felt on his first day at Texas that December of 1997, prior to the 1998 season.
He has paid proper respect to the coaches who have left—all men who were a part just a year ago of what had been back-to-back runs at the national championship. He celebrates the history of Texas football on a daily basis. But he also realizes that history is a collage of both the past, the present and future.
At the team meeting, players met the new and the old staff members. As each introduced himself, he would say his name and his position, and then add in a show of solidarity: “This is my first day at Texas.” The theme—as Bennie Wylie articulated it—was “rebuilding, brick by brick.”
“I am a brick,” Wylie said, “and you are a brick.”
And that is why, with a group of young coaches who are ready to accept the challenge of the spirit and tradition of Texas football, Mack Brown has turned his deck chair so that it sails forward, into a new beginning.