Mack Brown was open about the personal toll he suffered from losing the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. He admitted the loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl led to some pouting on his part.
Colt McCoy wasn't on campus in the fall of 2010, and a 5-7 season brought about change and a reboot of most of the program. Brown hired five new assistant coaches, including replacing both coordinators, adopted a more deliberate recruiting strategy and overhauled the strength and conditioning program by bringing on Bennie Wylie from Texas Tech.
That was two years ago. The Longhorns have won 17 games in the two seasons since, and while Bob Stoops has come under fire at rival Oklahoma for having the nerve to win just 20 games in that span, it's clear that all of Brown's changes have built toward this season. Employing scores of freshmen and sophomores during the 2011 and 2012 seasons was an implied indictment of previous recruiting classes and gave Brown the excuse of having a young team that was still underequipped to compete for its first Big 12 title since 2009.
That's not the case anymore. Texas is experienced. In a radio interview earlier this week, Brown called this team the deepest he's had in five or six years.
One season wasn't enough to erase the fresh memories of nine consecutive 10-win seasons, an accomplishment no coach in Big 12 history has ever duplicated. Two more seasons well below Texas' lofty expectations have given Brown's critics more ammo. Even though he has the public support of his bosses, AD DeLoss Dodds and Texas president Bill Powers, falling short of the BCS or double-digit wins in 2013 could change the course of the program.
Dodds and Powers' decision to let Brown make a partial overhaul of the program wasn't a difficult one. What would be difficult is sending a Longhorns legend away and electing to undergo a more complete rebuild. It's difficult to envision Brown, preparing for his 16th season in Austin, being dismissed, but Dodds delivered an ominous quote to the Dallas Morning News earlier this month.
"We’ll make changes if we need to make changes," he said.
It's possible that another 10-win season, Big 12 title or trip to the BCS could spark a similar run to the one Brown enjoyed from 2001-09. No Big 12 coach has been at his current school for a longer continuous tenure than Brown, but it's clear he's reached a crossroads. He earned enough capital to survive one disastrous 5-7 season and two that fell short of expectations.
Brown's reputation as a top-tier coach has slipped. His biggest problem is that it's easy to imagine many coaches in Texas and across the country being more successful with the natural advantages running the Texas program brings.
Art Briles building something out of nothing at Baylor can make Texas fans wistful, especially when the Bears have beaten the Longhorns in two of the past three seasons. You can't blame Texas fans for wondering what Boise State's Chris Petersen could do with the Longhorns. He's no stranger to high expectations. Petersen's Broncos won 11 games in 2012, and that was just his second season since 2006 with fewer than 12 wins. Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy and TCU's Gary Patterson have taken their programs to new levels. You can't blame Texas fans for wondering if the Longhorns could poach a coach from within the conference.
The pieces for another epic run are in place for Texas, thanks to a resurgent, more efficient recruiting strategy. The freshmen and sophomores Brown handed his program to in 2011 are juniors and seniors now. Texas returns 19 starters from a nine-win team in 2012 that won a fulfilling Alamo Bowl to close the season. No team in college football returns more.
It's not an overstatement to say the future of Texas football hinges on 2013. Returning to the glory days of 2009 are well within reach if Texas wins the Big 12 or comes close and cracks the BCS. The Longhorns have the team to do it, and Brown will be there to coach it.
Progress is a must. Nine wins will be tough to sell to Texas decision-makers looking for a change at the top of the program. Anything less and the debate will be a short one.
Change is coming to Texas. Whether it's a change in recent results or a change on the sideline is up to Brown.