Mack Brown knew this day would arrive. He had seen this movie before, seen it with men he admired in the leading role.
Eight years ago this week, over breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, he talked about how he had decided to take the pressure off himself. It had been a remarkable season. Texas had pounded its nemesis, Oklahoma, 45-12. The Longhorns had gone undefeated and risen to No. 2 in the nation. Four weeks hence, Brown would raise the crystal football above his head on the floor of the Rose Bowl, confetti dancing and swirling on a crisp California night.
But on that December morning, before Texas knocked off USC and ended the Trojans' 34-game winning streak on a night that would be the pinnacle of a remarkable career, Brown talked about how it would end. "Very few coaches," Brown said, "get to decide where they want to finish. And that's a real pressure point for a coach in his 50s and 60s, when he doesn't have a place to stop."
Brown, now 62, knew then where he would finish his career. He loved Texas from the moment he and his wife, Sally, left North Carolina to come to the Forty Acres in 1998. But Brown didn't get to decide when he would finish. He may find solace in knowing that Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Phillip Fulmer, Woody Hayes and so many others didn't get to say when, either. He has won 158 games at Texas and 244 games as a head coach. His detractors will say he only won one national, four Big 12 South and two Big 12 championships, that he went only 7-9 against Oklahoma. But Brown moved past Hayes this season into 10th place on the career wins list. Think about that: Brown is one of the top 10 winningest coaches in the history of college football, and Texas is shoving him out the door.
But coaching decisions are rarely made with history in mind. Coaches are changed because of the now. The now that Texas inhabits is not where the Longhorns lived for the first 12 seasons of Brown's tenure. If the apogee of Brown's career took place in the Rose Bowl, when Vince Young threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 more and ended USC's dynasty, so too was it the beginning of the end.
When Longhorns senior quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a nerve injury in his throwing shoulder on the sixth play of the 2010 BCS National Championship, Alabama rolled to a 37-21 victory. Brown had no Plan B behind McCoy, not only that night but for the next four years. Texas went 5-7 the following year, and though Brown arrested that slide, the Longhorns have been merely above average since that championship game: 30-20 (.600).
The loss to Alabama rocked Brown and his staff. In 2008, Texas' only loss came at Texas Tech on Halloween night with :01 to play, but it was enough to keep the Longhorns out of the national championship. They got there the following year and believed McCoy would lead them to victory. He didn't get the chance, surely a crueler way to lose. But Brown handled even the most painful of defeats with grace, a quality he seemed to wear every day, as if it were burnt orange.
After redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Bradford led Oklahoma to a 28-21 defeat of Texas in the Red River Rivalry in 2007, Brown wrote Bradford a congratulatory letter.