Rough start required Brown's best coaching

AUSTIN, Texas -- The question caught Mack Brown off guard on Monday, which is understandable. Any spare time he has this week gets devoted to Baylor. He’ll have time to reflect later.

But there is a case to be made, a perfectly legitimate one, that when it’s all said and done, this might’ve been one of Brown’s best coaching jobs in his 16 years at Texas.

So the question was asked: Has this been his most challenging season yet as head coach of the Longhorns? The obvious answer is no. But 2013 is in the running.

“Probably ’10,” Brown said. “That wasn’t a bright spot in my life. But probably the first year, ’10 and this year have been the three most challenging, I would think.”

The nightmarish 5-7 season of 2010, one year after playing for a BCS title, was as frustrating as it gets. The first year, 1998, presented its own challenges. Brown inherited Ricky Williams, but also a team that went 4-7 the year before and lost two of its first three to begin his tenure.

This 2013 season, though, has been something else. If Brown had been warned in advance of all the adversity he and his team were about to face, and yet they’d still be one game away from a Big 12 title, he would’ve been baffled.

“I would’ve been something more drastic than shock, I think,” Brown said.

When Case McCoy says this year “hasn’t been the Cinderella story we wanted,” he’s selling the story short. And there are still two games left that could completely alter how the season is judged.

But it’s hard not to judge 2013 as one of Brown’s best coaching jobs simply based on where his Longhorns stand today and the obstacles they had to overcome just to get here. If they pull off the upset of No. 9 Baylor and win or share the conference title, he’s due for some Big 12 Coach of the Year honors.

Texas went from two-loss laughingstock to respectable 8-3. A team ravaged by injuries and now missing five of arguably its 10 best players is 7-1 in the Big 12 after reeling of six straight wins before falling to Oklahoma State.

“It’s crazy to think about where we’ve come from, especially at 1-2,” center Dominic Espinosa said. “Obviously, it was dark. We were down there. I think it’s crazy to think about the opportunity we have in front of us now.”

Brown believed this could be Texas’ year, that his team could win any game. If quarterback David Ash had a great junior season, he really liked this squad’s chances. And then he lost Ash to a concussion that eventually ended his season after two and a half games. The only option was McCoy, the spunky senior who’d left the program for 10 weeks this summer on a mission trip in Peru.

The defense he believed was fixed collapsed against BYU, giving up 550 rushing yards in a stunning loss. Two games in, Brown made his most difficult decision yet and fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. He asked former coordinator Greg Robinson, a scouting analyst who was living in California and coached high school ball in 2012, to take over.

“It’s not something you like doing, especially during the season. I’ve never done that,” Brown said. “But I will say that it’s worked. I credit the defensive players for buying into him and buying in at a time when they could’ve basically boycotted and say, ‘To heck with it, we lost our leader.’”

They lost a bunch more after that. Linebacker Jordan Hicks’ season ended after four games. Running back Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley both went down in the West Virginia game. Tackle Josh Cochran missed eight games. Steve Edmond developed into Texas’ top linebacker in Hicks’ absence and is now done for the year too.

But Texas keeps clawing back. It started with beating Kansas State. It had last-second road victories at Iowa State and West Virginia. And convincing wins over TCU and Texas Tech. And the masterpiece, a surprise blowout of No. 12 Oklahoma. Each game became as much a must-win as the next.

“I still feel like we don’t get the credit we deserve,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said.

And that’s just the on-field business. It’s possible this season has been as infuriating off the field as any for Brown, whose work has been undermined for months by constant chatter that he’s finished.

The message boards sources say Nick Saban could ditch his dynasty and Terry Saban is house shopping and that Mack knows he’s done, that the end of his tenure is imminent and his fate irreversible.

And maybe the rumormongering will prove right. But win or lose, the talk doesn’t die. Brown has been asked to coach and recruit and win and smile through it all.

“What I’ve learned is, this place helps you focus on your job and not worry about all the stuff around it. That gets you in trouble,” Brown said. “What I’ve learned is, my job is to try to win the game on Saturday and keep these guys focused and keep our coaches focused. The rest of it is really unimportant.”

What is important? When this season was on the brink of disaster, when injuries mounted and critics called for his job, Brown and his team survived. Once again, against Baylor, they'll be the underdog. Pull this upset, though, and we can safely say this: one of Brown's toughest jobs ended up being his best.