AUSTIN, Texas – Some are wondering if Texas coach Mack Brown might be closing in on his last rodeo.
After all, Brown is heading into his 16th season, the last three ending far below expectations, and he is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the country.
Don't count on it. There's little indication that Brown is ready to saddle up and ride off into a burnt-orange sunset of retirement, whether voluntary or forced. In fact, to hear Brown talk, the coach sounds like Texas may be on the verge of another run of dominance.
"I think we've got it fixed," Brown said as the Longhorns opened practice with 19 returning starters.
"It's been a fun challenge for me. I like fixing things. I don't like messing them up, and obviously I was involved in messing it up for whatever reason," Brown said.
It definitely got messy for a while.
Over a decade, Brown built Texas into the powerhouse fans had waited nearly 20 years for. The Longhorns won at least 10 games every year from 2001-2009, a run that included a national championship in 2005, playing for another in 2009 and playing in two more BCS bowl games (2004, 2008).
But just when Brown settled into cruise control, the wheels fell off in 2010. The Longhorns crashed to a 5-7 record before clawing back to 8-5 and 9-4 the last two seasons as Brown overhauled his staff and his playbook. Instead of reloading for another title run, Texas was mired in a long-haul rebuild.
And while many question whether the program can regain its spot among the national elite, Brown heads into this season with a quiet confidence that his team is underrated and ready to win again.
"Everything is in a better place that it was three years ago," Brown said. "I'm in a good place going forward. I like our staff, I like our kids. ... People ask if we have a chance to win all the games: we do."
Brown even took the unusual step of inviting the media to watch the first six practices, and opened the doors to the public for three of them. Brown has generally kept practices closed in recent years, particularly when he was trying to push younger players, such as quarterback David Ash, into starring roles.
"We played a lot of young guys that would take some hits early. When they got older we would be better and they are older. That's why I'm more confident this team will be the best one we've had in the last two years or three years," Brown said.
On paper, the Longhorns are getting a harder look as Big 12 contenders in a league that lost most of its stars from a year ago and would seem ripe for the taking. And while that boosts the energy around the program, it also raises the stakes again for Brown, who is facing a fan base increasingly frustrated by the slide into mediocrity and one that will only grow more impatient if the Longhorns don't win the Big 12.
But absent another disaster like 2010, Brown's tenure in Austin would appear safe.
Brown already ranks fourth nationally among current coaches for the most years with one program and is under contract until 2020. His salary is $5.3 million this year with $100,000 annual increases, making him one of the highest paid coaches in the country.
That deal was pushed through in early 2012 in part to quell any rumors that Brown might be on his way out. Brown enjoys solid support from school President Bill Powers, athletic director DeLoss Dodds and the program's biggest donors.
"If he feels pressure, it's unwarranted," said billionaire Houston attorney Joe Jamail Jr., one of Brown's closest advisers and friends whose statue stands next to that of Darrell K Royal at the stadium that bears Royal's name.
"Even Darrell Royal had some bad years," Jamail said. "Mack believes he's going to have a good football team this year. I do, too."
And even frustrated fans don't seem to be doing much beyond their complaints on online message boards. Texas recently ranked No. 1 nationally in merchandising sales, according to the Collegiate Licensing Co., topping even two-time defending national football champion Alabama. And driven by football, Texas remains the wealthiest athletic program in the country. In 2012, Texas reported to the NCAA revenue of more than $163 million, with nearly $104 million from football.
In other words, while the product on the field has taken a dip, there's still a lot of power in the Texas brand fueled by Brown and his football program.
"He's a fighter," Jamail said. "He doesn't back up from anything."
Brown still finds himself dismissing the rumors that he would have retired after the 2009 season if Texas had beaten Alabama for a second national title. Not a chance, Brown said. The success only left him wanting more.
Brown said Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden had warned him about winning a national title
"It will ruin your life," they said, "because once you win one, you always want to win another."