AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown and Major Applewhite have been here before -- one the student, the other the teacher.
At the start of each of their careers at Texas 15 years ago, they were thrown into the same covered wagon trying to steer through the same territory. The area was sometimes hostile -- thanks, John Mackovic -- and relatively foreign, as Brown is from Tennessee and Applewhite is from Louisiana. But that was Texas football in 1998.
Now the two have become tethered again -- one’s fortunes riding with the other's choices -- as Applewhite has been elevated to playcaller with Brown desperately trying to turn around his program, which has seemed rudderless for three seasons. Each will need the other to escape the dead calm that has seized Texas. But whether it will be a shoulder-to-lean-on or one-to-peek-over relationship has yet to be determined.
Brown is trying to save his legacy. In 2012 that led to a micromanagement style of the staff that forced some fractures in the relationships of that staff.
Applewhite is trying to build his career, make a statement at his alma mater and coach for his next job. He now has ideas and opinions from his own perspective. He was an offensive coordinator at Rice, working under spread passing game proponent Todd Graham. He then spent a year on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Plus he knows what it is to be a quarterback on Brown’s depth chart.
As a player, Applewhite dodged the arrows in a quarterback controversy that consumed the program at the time and simply did his job. He did it with moxie and maturity that belied his Opie Taylor innocence.
Applewhite won. Or, in the case of the 2001 Big 12 title game against Colorado, nearly did when given the chance.
Brown, in more than a bit of foreshadowing, meddled. The bright lights and big arm of Chris Simms were a siren’s song for the coach. For that, justly or not, Brown was criticized.
Brown has been Applewhite’s boss since 2008, but the dynamic is different now. They’re not polar opposites in that they both want the same goal -- for Texas to achieve what it once had -- but they might have diametrically opposed opinions on how to get there and which quarterback could take them there. It is true that differing opinions can make for the best results. But college football is not a think tank. Oftentimes it can be a brain drain if there is a dictatorial structure within the staff.
Given their history and previous dynamic, to believe that Applewhite will be allowed to operate as a full-functioning offensive coordinator with maybe not complete autonomy but at least a longer leash might be a stretch.
Sure, it’s clear the relationship has changed. They are more equals than ever before. And that is the platform on which Brown will stand when describing how Applewhite will be asked to operate as the offensive coordinator.
When history is involved, it is difficult to change the history of a relationship. One is the teacher and the other the pupil. But if Texas’ offense is to become what both want it to be, the pupil will need his room to show what he has learned.