How hard is starting over? How hard is it when you lead a program like Texas, where resources, recruiting and expectations have made it seem impossible ever to be down in football?
Texas was trying to reboot when Mack Brown arrived in 1998. From 1984-97, the Longhorns were merely average. They were 4-7 the season before Brown's arrival. Brown had three nine-win seasons to start his tenure at Texas. In the following nine years Texas never won fewer than 10 games, appeared in four BCS games, won a national championship and was on the verge of another.
"In 2009 I had absolutely no doubt in my mind; the setting was perfect for us to beat Alabama," Brown said. "They had just beat Florida. They were walking around like USC [against Texas in the 2005 BCS National Championship Game]. They felt good about themselves. We didn't play well on defense against Texas A&M. We didn't play well on offense against Nebraska. Alabama was watching all of that and they couldn't get those kids' attention. It was perfect."
But then the game began so imperfectly. On Texas' first offensive series, Colt McCoy, who had won more games than any quarterback in college football history, was out with an injured shoulder. The 94,000-plus people at the Rose Bowl, and Brown on the Texas sidelines, did not know it at the time, but the UT program was shaken to its core.
Success always seemed to be there for Brown.
He took over the football program at Tulane in 1985 and went 1-10 in his first season. Two years later Tulane was 6-6 and in the Independence Bowl.
He was then off to North Carolina where his first two Tar Heels teams finished 1-10. But Brown was working his program-building magic.
Brown's final two seasons in Chapel Hill saw consecutive 10-win seasons and top-10 finishes.
"He got that thing going," former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden said of Brown. "He came up his last two years and had two outstanding teams. Then he left and went to Texas. That really surprised me. I said, 'Man, what in the world is he going to Texas for?' He's got the North Carolina thing going; he rules the state. Why's he going out to Texas with all that pressure and everything?'"
Because Brown knew he could do it.
Even after losing McCoy in the first quarter against Alabama, Texas was within three points, with the ball with just under four minutes left in the national championship. After the 37-21 loss, the Longhorns finished No. 2 in the rankings.
Less than a year later Texas was 5-7. Brown had just suffered his first losing season in Austin. Longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis had resigned. The head coach-in-waiting, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, stopped waiting and became the head coach at Florida.
"Our kids were so driven and I went in the tank after [the Alabama game]," Brown said. "I look back and think, you lose one game in two years and you're walking around feeling sorry for yourself saying. It's not fair."
Fair or not, the Texas fan base was filled with angst and some in the media were wondering if Brown could fix things.
"In this dadgum business you have to turn it around if you are going to keep your job," Bowden said. "Mack got them to the top then he has that year that's not very good and the first thing you know people are screaming."
For the first time in his career, after always being the person hired to fix a program and having success, it was Brown in need of change.
Most football programs get one down cycle. Even the most accomplished coaches are one average season away from a golden parachute and a news conference talking about the new guy who will restore order and get the program back in the national championship hunt.
The more losses that pile up, the more pressure mounts.
"If you [give in to pressure], it is the downfall of a lot of coaches," Bowden said. "A lot of men can't handle the pressure. When people get down on them and really start giving them a hard time, they get out."
Instead of getting out, Brown started over.
"I think most wouldn't do it with the success we'd had because it's tough," the Texas coach said. "Most wouldn't have a chance to do it."
Brown took that second chance and overhauled his coaching staff, revamped his recruiting philosophy and even changed his thinking about his purpose as the leader of the program.
"[UT baseball coach] Augie Garrido said one time that he didn't define himself by winning and losing," Brown said. "I think I got to that point where I did. We had to win because that's who we were and we really weren't. When we got here we were about doing the things right to win. I got more into having to win. This thing gets big and it gets out of hand. We start thinking that the worse thing we can do is win 10 and that's stupid."
"The most important thing I did was get positive."
Even after a less-than-stellar 8-5 season in 2011, positivity remains at the forefront for Brown.
And while winning is important to Brown, it is only one characteristic used to define success to him.
"I have to decide what we did to win all those games. Let's go back and do it again," Brown said. "Secondly, you need to be about the kids and the game. It's not about you. It's not about how many games you win. It's very unimportant."
It's also about perspective.
"Right now Coach Royal is struggling some and nobody can tell you how many games he won. It doesn't matter," Brown said. "But all of those ex-players that are coming back and eating lunch with him and taking care of him and the relationships he built matter. So this is about relationships. This is about my and Sally's duty to these kids and these parents."
So how hard is starting over? While Texas might not be back yet, the reboot is in motion. Texas is ranked 15th in the first preseason poll of 2012 with two senior starters on each side of the ball. The Longhorns signed the No. 3 recruiting class in 2012 and are well on their way to another top 10 class in 2013.
Brown also has support from Texas. He signed a contract extension that will keep him at UT until 2020.
"It is important to us to have Mack Brown as our football coach as long as we can," Texas president Bill Powers said in January.
The expectations for Texas are still there and will only grow with each win. For Bowden, who saw struggles and losses force him into retirement, he had this to offer.
"Make it motivate you," he said. "We'll show them. We'll play us against the world. Let's show them what we're made of. You cannot let that get to you."
So far, it appears as if Brown is doing just that.
While 2013 and 2014 seem to be the years that could mean a real return the glory, Brown knows that Texas is his final stop. And while he doesn't know what will come of the revisions he has made to his coaching story, he knows the final chapters at Texas will be different from the first few.
"The one thing people don't understand about Texas is that it's important that we do it right," Brown said. "It's important that we handle the kids right. It's [more] important that we graduate them and stay out of trouble and go by the rules than it is to win every game."