Mac and Mack looking for a running game

In all my years of football I have known a handful of great assistant coaches. Four, to be precise. Sadly, in our business the word "great" is one of the casualties of exaggeration and pretense. It is so routinely applied to everything -- from unproven rookie athletes to every new product with a big advertising budget -- that we have not the vaguest notion of what it actually means.

Here are the characteristics of the word when applied to a college football assistant coach: preternaturally loyal to the team, staff and university; genuine caring for all players; committed to teaching; relentless as a recruiter; positive in his presence during adversity; tough as nails without being abusive; unconcerned about personal glory or recognition; able to produce results with his unit on the field that defy the odds and mystify opponents.

Tall order? Yes. Virtually impossible to find? Indeed, and that is the reason for the brevity of my list. Why bring it up here? Because there is at least one such man coaching in the game between Texas and Kansas State. His name is Mac McWhorter, and he is the offensive line coach for the Longhorns.

Avid football fans may remember McWhorter as the interim head coach at Georgia Tech after George O'Leary left in his ill-fated jump to Notre Dame. McWhorter took the Yellow Jackets to the Seattle Bowl where they beat a very good Stanford team in Tyrone Willingham's last game with the Cardinal.

At Texas, Mac was hired to toughen up the offensive line and improve the Longhorns' running game. He will do so, but he and his charges are not quite there yet.

Texas steamrolled three weak opponents but could not run the ball against Arkansas when the Longhorns desperately needed the production. McWhorter has been more obsessed with correcting the Arkansas embarrassment in recent weeks than celebrating the easy rollovers.

In 1980 I was the novice head coach at Georgia Tech and the program was in shambles, and I knew as I evaluated potential staff members I had to have people with consistently positive attitudes whether they were veteran college coaches or not.

I agreed to meet with a very young high school coach from a little town called Villa Rica, and immediately regretted it when he walked in on a rainy Saturday morning. His hair was pitiful, obviously having been sheared -- possibly with a chainsaw -- in the not-too-distant past. He was sopping wet, looking more like a farmer in a flash flood than a football coach. I thought maybe if I didn't ask too many questions he would leave quickly and I could get on home.

To make matters worse, he had been a Georgia Bulldog football captain and I couldn't imagine hiring someone with that kind of background to coach the Yellow Jackets. What had I been thinking when I agreed to the interview?

I offered him a towel and we sat down to talk. I asked about the haircut and he responded that he had promised his players that if they won the sub-region he would shave his head. The team had been terrible the year before, so he was willing to try anything. The team had improved so much that the kids had pulled it off and left him with no choice. His enthusiasm for his profession was contagious so I asked him about his methods.

An hour later I was so excited about hiring him that I offered the job on the spot. For the next nine years Mac McWhorter and I were together virtually every day, first at Tech and later at Alabama. He is a great football coach.

Texas head coach Mack Brown is the only coach in Division I-A that has coached his teams (North Carolina and the Longhorns) to nine or more wins each of the last seven seasons. His teams at Texas have produced 50 wins faster than any Longhorn coach in history (52-16 in five-plus seasons).

All of these realities are drastic improvements over what he inherited when he came to Austin and yet, however unfairly, the perception is that the Brown staff and teams have lacked toughness in big games. The last three Oklahoma games have been the biggest bones of contention.

The best way to prove toughness in football is to play great defense, which Texas has done for the most part, and to run the ball down opponents' throats no matter how many they stack in the box. But since the graduation of Ricky Williams the 'Horns running game has not been up to Brown's standards, prompting the hiring of McWhorter in the off season of 2002.

In the Texas press release for this week's game with Kansas State there is a box entitled "UT's Mack Brown Era Records". There are such tidbits as the fact that the team is 38-2 when recording more than 400 total yards, and 38-5 when scoring first.

But the numbers that jump off the page are the ones at the top. The Longhorns are 22-0 when rushing for more than 200 yards and 42-0 when out-rushing an opponent. These are amazing numbers to contemplate, and revealing when we consider how much attention is devoted to the more glamorous passing statistics in today's brand of football.

Needless to say, much of the emphasis in game planning this week has been devoted to out-rushing Kansas State. Over in Manhattan, Kan., the emphasis has been on stopping Cedric Benson while unleashing Darren Sproles and the now healthy Ell Roberson.

One game within the game this week will be the capacity of McWhorter's young offensive line to block Kansas State's stingy run defense. A year ago the Longhorns had the embarrassment of running 28 times for 40 yards against the Wildcats, and even though they won the game they knew they were lucky to do so with numbers like that. This year's KSU defense is holding opponents to 2.5 yards per carry, but showed severe vulnerability when Marshall ran for over 200 yards on 45 carries.

The other game within this game will be the ability of Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson to execute the offense in all directions. If his wrist injury prevents him from pitching the ball while going left on the option, things become considerably more problematic. I expect the wily Bill Snyder, Kansas State's brilliant head coach, to eventually have an answer for that scenario if it is the case. Rest assured that no one outside the Wildcat staff will know what that is until it is unveiled during the battle.

Hidden yardage should favor Texas unless Kansas State can get its vaunted kick-blocking machine in gear. In the all-important turnover margin, the Longhorns are at plus-8 while Kansas State is an uncharacteristic minus-3. Nathan Vasher and Selvin Young give Texas an edge in the return game, but the Texas defense is allowing opponent offenses to convert third downs at a 41.7 percent rate, much too high to maintain good field position on a consistent basis.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Game Plans for marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.