AUSTIN — If you’re looking for a defining moment in the ending of the Mack Brown era, it may have been the approach of midnight Sunday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.
In this once grand but now fading icon, in its Peacock Alley restaurant that looks onto the lobby, Brown met for three hours with Steve Patterson in view of a few news reporters sitting at the nearby bar. Patterson only weeks ago became Brown’s new boss, director of athletics at the University of Texas. Now they were in New York, along with UT president Bill Powers, to attend events for the National Football Foundation.
This comes from a source close to Patterson: the successor to DeLoss Dodds was hired knowing it would be his unfortunate duty to replace Brown. It would be a very delicate matter. Brown, who had won a national championship and was runner-up for another one and was beloved by the most generous donors in Longhorn Nation, could not be pushed out against his will. There must be no dragging and screaming.
The university owed Brown his dignity. So when Patterson delivered the unpleasant news to Brown in the candelabra-lit Peacock Alley, observers thought these two men who barely knew each other were getting along like old friends. Patterson was entirely genial and warm as he let Brown know there was so much discontent over this season and the three previous ones that it was time for an exit strategy.
Brown would have a couple of days of grace to work with his attorney (and heavyweight donor) Joe Jamail and Bill Powers to hammer out a severance agreement, one that would leave Brown a respectable job in the athletics department, a cushy semi-retirement position. Brown would be perfect as a de facto ambassador of the university. He could continue to do what he does best, charm the donors.
Brown did not want word of his pending stepdown to leak before he could address his players. That was to come Wednesday or early Thursday. It would have to happen before Friday night’s season-ender football banquet. You wouldn’t want that normally unifying event to turn into a civil war between the pro-Browns (most of the players) and anti-Browns (most, though not nearly all, of the alumni).
It would be convenient to make the announcement prior to the Valero Alamo Bowl news conference on Thursday. Mack, who understands public relations as well as any coach in the land, would not want reporters speculating on his job status; he would want them publicizing the Dec. 30 game between the Longhorns and Oregon Ducks.
For Brown, it also would be nice to have a couple of days to see what offers dangle from other institutions before announcing what new job he was accepting from the university that has employed him for 16 years.
Jamail told the Austin American-Statesman that Brown recently received “a feeler from a major major university.” Some believe that to be Nebraska, whose coach, Bo Pelini, has underperformed and made a fool of himself with sideline antics and not quite off-the-record commentary critical of Nebraska fans.
So Patterson, Brown and Powell, a long-time supporter of Brown, devised their strategy before the coach left Monday for Florida, on a quick recruiting mission before returning to Austin.
But the plan fell apart on Tuesday afternoon, when Orangebloods.com, a local website, posted an article saying Brown had decided to step down.
So what to make of the Orangebloods story? The website has a record of scoops that are not fully baked. It broke the news in September that Dodds was about to resign as AD. But it wrongly reported that Brown would succeed him in that position. It was a logical move and seemed the perfect solution to the problem of how to ease out Brown.
The fact that it didn’t happen that way may say more about the ever changing political winds in the state capital than it does about Orangebloods.com’s accuracy. When Powers – perhaps at the behest of the university’s board of regents – went to Arizona State to hire Patterson, it was a sign that Brown’s power was ebbing. And perhaps Powers’ as well.
For Powers’ job status is on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the board of regents, which has a history of being very involved in the athletics department.
Darrell Royal, legendary coach who was also AD in the 1970s, was shocked to find the regents vetoing his choice of Mike Campbell as the next head coach. Over Royal’s strenuous objection they hired Fred Akers.
Since then, Longhorns coaches have had to toss and catch and sometimes dodge political footballs. Brown was one of the best at this. He made friends with the regents and could count on their support along with that of wealthy men who wield power at the pink-granite capitol as well as at the Forty Acres.
But the power structure has changed at the whims of Gov. Rick Perry, who has reinforced his own power by appointing people who pledge to support him – according to his critics, financially as well as verbally.
Perry is a graduate of Texas A&M – a former Aggie yell leader – so there’s suspicion around here that whatever he does with the board of regents is not necessarily designed to help the University of Texas, which is not just rivaled but reviled by many Aggies. Perry has clashed repeatedly with Powers.
At any rate, the shakiness of Powers is problematic in working out the denouement of the Brown saga. Suppose Powers gets axed on Thursday. Who closes on the new contract for Brown?
No wonder Brown was upset when he was contacted in Florida to verify the report of his ouster. He insisted, “If I had decided to step down I sure wouldn’t be killing myself down here. I have not decided to step down.”
But you notice he didn’t rule out the possibility that he would.
Patterson quickly followed by confirming Brown’s position that he had not resigned; nor had he been pushed out.
Patterson, who has built an impressive resume in sports management in Houston, Portland and Tempe, Ariz., has a reputation for candor. When he was general manager of the Houston Rockets he publicly accused his superstar center Hakeem Olajuwon of faking an injury even though he knew it likely would cost him his job.
In a strict sense, Brown and Patterson were being truthful in denying that a resignation has occurred. There are still many details to work out. But it will happen.
Strangely, Brown’s contract is structured in a way that begs firing, although it’s assumed he’s earned too much respect to be terminated against his will. His deal, negotiated in January 2012, runs through 2020 and has $40 million to go. But, as reported by ESPN, it has a $2.75 million buyout clause – less than 7 percent of the total.
Brown wanted a Nick Saban-like salary, but he also wanted to make it easy for the University of Texas to escape the obligation. Brown was not worried, because he knew his services would be appreciated elsewhere if not in Austin.
Whatever criticism Brown deserves for his clumsy coaching tactics and faulty personnel decisions, he never made anyone ashamed to give to the University of Texas. When Cornhusker Nation sees Bo Pelini swinging his hat in a referee’s face and drawing a $10,000 fine from the Big Ten office, a low-keyed, even boring 62-year-old Mack Brown looks attractive.
Meanwhile, ever lurking is Saban. His wife Terry is not feeling enough love from Alabama after Auburn swept the Tide off the title stage. Rumors keep drifting out about the Alabama coach and his wife looking at Austin.
It’s public record that Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, has expressed an interest in UT, but he was not necessarily the initiator of the dialogue. In January 2012 the university contacted Saban while negotiations were going on with Brown over his extension. The American-Statesman reported that Powers confirmed “there was an outreach to his agent.”
Other reports have Sexton meeting last January with UT regents Tom Hicks and Wallace Hall to negotiate a contract that would land Saban in Austin. Now, with Saban’s post-Iron Bowl popularity wavering ever so slightly, the plausibility of such a move gains credibility.
The University of Texas, a pastoral campus a half century ago, given way in recent decades to massed concrete, is considered the best place in America for building a college football powerhouse.
Under Dodds, UT became the dominant economic force in college sports. With their budding Longhorn Network and endless revenue lines, they are the New York Yankees of collegiate athletics. If Saban wants more than the 5.5 mil a year he gets in Alabama, Texas will give it to him.
But while Powers seems comfortable with Saban, someone else might seek a younger coach to lead the Longhorns into the future. Saban, at 62 the same age as Brown, has described himself as “too old” to make a move to Texas or anywhere else. And the more he studies the politics of Austin, the more Saban is likely to cling to Tuscaloosa, where he is currently negotiating a contract extension.
As for Brown, he can only lament how drastically his career and legacy have changed since his team closed out its regular season on Saturday. Entering that game, Brown had quieted most of his critics by winning six out of seven, including a 36-20 thumping of Oklahoma in the all-important Red River Rivalry.
With a win over Baylor in the last game of the season, Texas would have won the Big 12 and Brown would have been, once again, unassailable.
Alas, the Longhorns did what they’ve usually done these past four years, fall on their faces when a lot is on the line. Baylor blew them away like they were tumbleweeds in the 30-mph winds of Waco. That left Texas 8-4 and unranked.
The postmortem words of Case McCoy echoed with orangebloods: “It’s a bitter taste in your mouth the last two years sitting on the field and watching other teams say ‘We are the champions.’”
Texas expects more than 8-4s and Alamo Bowls and, for that matter, Case McCoy at quarterback. Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston wanted to play their college ball here, after Robert Griffin III also was turned away. Winston is set to be the third Heisman winner out of that group of rejected Longhorn hopefuls.
Brown lost his job because he and his team lost their championship edge following the 2009 BCS title game loss to Alabama when the real McCoy – Case’s older brother Colt – was injured in the first quarter.
Since then Texas has been a mid-pack team in the Big Twelve. Notwithstanding his hectic trip this week to Florida, Brown is not the relentless recruiter he used to be. Friends say he has lost energy, and he himself has said he’s felt strained by the Longhorn Network obligations.
He could see the end coming, but he kept saying he wanted to go out on his own terms. If not a victory parade, at least a fond, happy farewell. Now even that is in doubt.