How Low is Texas? Botched Saban Deal, Too

There are people who laugh hysterically when the University of Texas flops in football. I mean, isn’t this one of those physical impossibilities in life? Texas spends a consciousness-blurring $160 million on athletics and still stays $15 million in the black. Texas cut a $247-million, 20-year contract with ESPN for its very own 24/7 Longhorn Network. Texas is the wealthiest and most mammoth of the booming college football factories, prompting athletic director DeLoss Dodds to say, “We are the Joneses.”

Seems the Joneses are struggling to keep up with themselves … and everyone else.

Despite all those moneyed-and-influenced Billy Bobs lurking in the shadows, and despite the many built-in advantages of doing business in the tech/music/barbecue/stoner wonderland that is Austin, the Longhorns aren’t hooking ’em anymore. Embarrassing, back-to-back losses to BYU and Ole Miss have left a lasting sting on a program well-equipped to contend for national championships every year, leaving 62-year-old coach Mack Brown on the skillet to be grilled, flipped, poked at and, inevitably, devoured. It was Brown who once told USA Today, “The thing you know at the University of Texas is that you’re going to be able to have the best of the best and you’re going to have it on a yearly basis.”

Well, somewhere between now and a BCS title game loss in 2010, Brown allowed the college football racket to pass him by and mediocritize his golden program. He seemed to lose energy and purpose — burnout, it’s called — and Texas somehow didn’t keep up with the competition in vital areas: advanced scouting and weight-room training. Recruiting slipped, and the players Brown did recruit weren’t being developed as they were in the 2000s. Brown rejected a swashbuckling rascal from Texas Hill Country named Johnny Manziel, who went to Texas A&M as it was bolting for the Southeastern Conference — in part because A&M, like other bitter Big 12 programs, was incredulous Texas had enough clout to cut the Longhorn Network deal — and you know the rest. As Manziel built the legend of Johnny Football, A&M cashed in like never before — a record $740 million in donations and pledges since last September, much due to Manziel’s influence.

Suddenly, Texas isn’t even the No. 1 program in Texas. As Manziel makes the cover of Time magazine, the Longhorns, who went 69-9 in a six-season span through 2009, are 24-18 over the last four seasons — 2-2 this season despite the presence of 19 returning starters. The Good Old Boys are mortified, as are their sons — when Johnny Football visited Austin in August, he was kicked out of a frat party and told never to come back, you hear?

So it was no surprise to learn the other day, courtesy of the Associated Press, that a few of the GOBs tried to fix their cotton-picking mess last January. They looked a few states eastward in Alabama and saw Nick Saban, without the resources of Texas, winning his third national championship in four years. No one is sure who initiated the first contact — these are things powerful men lie about to maintain their status and egos — but my hunch is, the GOBs whispered into an ear. And what you’re about to read is very important: Yes, Saban was willing to hear their pitch, via his agent, Jimmy Sexton, in a phone call that included UT regent Wallace Hall and billionaire power broker Tom Hicks, who once owned MLB’s Texas Rangers and the NHL’s Dallas Stars, once served as a UT regent and whose brother, Steve, currently is a UT regent. Enough was accomplished during the call that Tom Hicks had a lunch meeting with his friend, Brown. According to several AP sources, Hicks informed Brown about the phone call to Saban and asked Brown if he wished to retire.

No, Brown said.

The pursuit of Saban ended there, for now. But the fact so many details are being leaked — and that the power-brokers are open to talking about it — should spell out an amended song lyric for Brown despite his vow to coach until his contract expires in 2020: Hit the road, Mack. There’s no way he’ll return next season, even if a Saturday night victory over Kansas State soothes anxieties for a week. Not that a 31-21 win wasn’t without more issues: Did Brown and doctors rush back quarterback David Ash too quickly after a concussion, using him in the first half before removing him again when he showed symptoms from another apparent head injury? If the GOBs were so persistent before in contacting Saban, what happens now that everyone in the state wants Brown to scram? In Texas politics, which is how we can categorize this drama, no one goes down swinging after only one pitch. “I notified then-chairman Gene Powell, who then informed vice chairman and athletic liaison Steve Hicks, which resulted in a conference call with Mr. Sexton,” Hall said in a statement to the AP. “Introductions were made and then I withdrew from the process.” Tom Hicks refused comment, as did others.

It’s fascinating that Brown’s attorney, billionaire trial lawyer Joe Jamail, is threatening legal action against anyone involved in trying to talk Brown into retiring. “If there are any more, get ready for a lawsuit,” Jamail told the AP. “Mack has publicly stated he wants to coach.” Yes, but if the GOBs don’t want him there, he won’t be there, Joe. They’ll pay him off because they can afford it, just as they can afford bumping up Saban’s pay package from his current $5.6 million annually to, say, $8 million or more.

But even when they re-address their Saban pursuit, it appears the GOBs have blown their best shot. If Saban left the door open just wide enough to listen in January, they should have instantly fired Brown, paid him off and brought in Saban, who might have thirsted for a new challenge and a new venue at the time — Austin vs. Tuscaloosa? — immediately after his fourth overall college championship. Saban has had those straying impulses throughout his career, leaving Michigan State for LSU, LSU for the Miami Dolphins and then, after rejecting Drew Brees as a free agent and struggling in the NFL, escaping to Alabama. But you’ve got to nail him down quickly. The GOBs chose to have lunch with the guy they’re trying to dump, then let him decide his own future.

Some might call it loyalty.

I’d call it foolishness.

When asked about the story on his weekly radio show, Saban didn’t deny it. He said Brown is a good friend, which more or less confirmed that it happened. He said he and his wife, Terry, are comfortable and happy in Alabama. “And quite frankly, I’m just too damn old to start all over someplace else, to be honest with you,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

After surviving the Texas A&M shootout with Johnny Football, Saban walked to midfield and told A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, “You just took 10 years off my life.” The man is 61. At Alabama, he has what he calls “a process” and I call “a machine,” a dynasty that allows him to sign pretty much every recruit he wants. The only way he’ll flirt with Texas or another suitor is if the NCAA finds more than smoke in the Yahoo! Sports report, which alleges that five SEC players, including former Alabama All-American tackle D.J. Fluker, received impermissible benefits during their college careers, and that another ex-Alabama player, Luther Davis, acted as an intermediary for agents and arranged for Fluker to receive illegal gifts. Only if his feet get hot, as Pete Carroll’s did three years ago before USC was sanctioned by the NCAA, would Saban run. Yet there’s no sign the NCAA, immersed in its own enforcement and organizational troubles, has any interest in busting college football’s hallmark program of the 21st century.

In other words, Texas had its chance and blew it. The Joneses are stuck in an irreversible game of role reversal.

As the laughter grows louder.