Big 12 is better because of Mack Brown

Texas never had looked so bad as it did the second week of the 1997 football season.

By a final score tailor-made for a newspaper headline -- "Rout 66" -- UCLA ran coach John Mackovic's Longhorns off their own field 66-3. Fans poured out of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium well before halftime, scrambling to avoid seeing any more of the worst Texas loss since 1904.

But Texas' darkest hour came just before the dawn.

The humiliating defeat finally gave the burnt orange brass the impetus to fire Mackovic the day after a season-ending loss to Texas A&M.

It replaced him with Mack Brown.

On Saturday, Brown's 16-year tenure as Texas' head coach mercifully reached its conclusion, following months of speculation on when he ultimately would be forced out. After four seasons of relative mediocrity, Brown resigned, clearing the way for Texas to make another new start.

Predictably, Brown's failures the past four seasons will envelop his exit. No Big 12 titles. No 10-win seasons. Only one victory over Oklahoma, which came far too late to save his job.

Yet even the staunchest of Brown's adversaries can't deny he leaves Texas in better shape than when he got there.

And in turn, the Big 12 is better off with him having coached in it.

"He elevated the Texas football program," said former Oklahoma athletic director Donnie Duncan, who was one of the chief architects of the Big 12. "And that elevated the conference."

Brown's arrival in the Big 12 came at the perfect time, as Nebraska was carrying the torch for the conference in 1997.

The Cornhuskers had captured their third national championship in four years and had become college football's most dominant program.

But after that season, legendary coach Tom Osborne retired, starting a steady decline for Nebraska.

The Big 12 would need one of its other brands to emerge. Thanks to Brown and Bob Stoops, two did.

"Mack drove the competition around him to be better," said Gil Brandt, a former longtime executive with the Dallas Cowboys.

Before Brown came to Texas, the Red River Rivalry had plummeted to an all-time low.

Texas was a mess, and Oklahoma was in even worse shape under coach John Blake. The 1997 meeting was between teams that would go a combined 8-15 -- reducing the Big 12's premier rivalry game to a caricature.

The game still mattered along the Interstate 35 corridor. Elsewhere, it was barely noticed, including by recruits.

"Nobody cared about the Texas-OU rivalry then," said Rod Babers, who was a blue-chip defensive back out of Houston in the 1999 recruiting class. "It wasn't nationally relevant anymore."

Babers wanted to play in big college rivalry games. But that didn't include anywhere in the Big 12. So he initially had his eyes cast to Florida State, which had nationally relevant rivalry games with Florida and Miami.

But Brown soon would give Babers, and the state's other top players, a reason to look at Texas again.

Immediately after getting the job, Brown persuaded star running back Ricky Williams to return to school for one more year. Williams would go on to capture the Heisman Trophy in a 9-3 season -- an amazing one-year turnaround.

The following year, Stoops was hired at Oklahoma. Almost overnight, with the Longhorns and Sooners back to being perennial top-10 teams, the national spotlight returned to the Red River Rivalry.

"Mack Brown and Bob Stoops brought the rivalry back to national relevance, to where young kids being recruited actually cared about it," said Babers, who ended up signing with the Longhorns and became an All-Big 12 cornerback. "It meant something to them. It mattered. They paid attention to it again.

"One of the triumphs of Mack Brown was his role in bringing Texas-OU back to national relevance."

As a result, even as Nebraska dipped, the Big 12 remained nationally relevant.

Thanks to the Longhorns and Sooners, the Big 12 had a representative in the national championship game seven of 10 years from 2000 to 2009.

"Having a team in the national championship is big exposure," Duncan said. "Big for the team. Big for the conference."

Such exposure also translated into dollars.

"Texas gives the Big 12 national exposure on television," Brandt said. "Alone, there are teams in the Big 12 that don't get big TV numbers. But when they play Texas, they do."

In the spring, the conference distributed a record $198 million in television revenue to its 10 members. Without Brown turning Texas around 16 years ago, such a figure would not have been possible.

"Texas is a brand," Duncan said. "The combination of the brand and the success of the team generates that level of television interest. And that has a trickle-down effect."

Brown's success elevating Texas goes beyond Austin.

It has trickled to all corners of the Big 12.