Saturday, October 8, 2005

DALLAS. — Mack Brown’s nightmares usually come in shades of crimson and cream. When No. 2 Texas takes the field against flagging Oklahoma today in the 100th edition of the Red River Rivalry, one question from college football’s collective conscious will hang in the air above the Cotton Bowl: Will Mack and his men melt against Bob Stoops’ Sooners once again?

The query isn’t simply mean spirited. It’s required given the preponderance of recent evidence.

In each of the past five seasons, Brown and his Longhorns have rolled into Dallas for their annual meeting with Oklahoma undefeated and ranked in the top 10. And each time a virtual push on paper has turned into an on-field steamroll for the Sooner Schooner.

Five games. Five double-digit losses for the Longhorns. Five otherwise-exemplary seasons spoiled by 60 minutes of anomalous football against the Sooners. And through it all, the common denominators have been as obvious as the 27-point average margin has been glaring: Stoops and Brown, dynamo and dullard.

“As a team, we hate that because coach Brown makes the real big decisions, but the assistant coaches and the players have a big part to do with it,” said junior Texas quarterback Vince Young when asked about the Mack factor. “A lot of the guys on the team like me, Rod Wright, Cedric Benson and the guys that were here, we’ll go up to Coach and tell him that it’s not all his fault. It’s not him, it’s us. We played a big factor.”

But the fact is, the actors in burnt orange have come and gone — from Chris Simms and Major Applewhite to Roy Williams and Benson to Derrick Thomas and Young. But the director, the head ‘Horn, has remained the same. From the 63-14 humbling in 2000 to the offensive anemia of last year’s 12-0 shutout, Brown has been the grimacing constant, the face of Texas’ futility against Oklahoma.

“I do understand in modern-day sports, regardless of whether it’s fair or not, you don’t get credit for the wins but you do get criticized for the losses,” Brown said earlier this week. “I am not happy that we haven’t done better in the series. I feel like I’ve let our team down and the school down in this game.”

What makes Brown’s hapless streak against the Sooners so amazing is that his teams have been so otherwise outstanding. During the last five seasons, Texas is 0-5 vs. Oklahoma and 52-6 against the rest of the college football world. Brown’s futility against Oklahoma stands as such a singular, anomalous blight on his resume that it has come to define him. Like college football Ahabs John Cooper (see Michigan) and Phil Fulmer (see Steve Spurrier) before him, Brown has become the man who can’t beat Oklahoma.

Eventually, such a streak takes on a psychological, self-fulfilling life of its own. It’s difficult to pinpoint obvious strategic snafus Brown has made in the series, but breakthrough stress has forced him to deviate from his standard operating procedure. He has a nasty habit of suddenly yanking freshmen from the starting lineup during Oklahoma week. In 2000, wideout phenoms Roy Williams and B.J. Johnson were banished to the bench. In 2001, he kept Benson on the sideline. Last season, he pulled playmaker Ramonce Taylor.

In the past that maniacal conservatism, some would call it fear, has rubbed off on his team, leaving the Longhorns routinely tighter than their Oklahoma counterparts.

But Brown seems different this week. He has been looser around both his players and the media. On the recommendation of Young, Brown has downloaded a playlist of 50 Cent tunes to his iPod. In truth, he’s about as hip-hop as a corduroy sportscoat, but at least he’s trying to humor his players and keep the pregame atmosphere light.

Aware of his personnel mania, Brown joked about his tendencies earlier this week with the media when asked if he would bench superfrosh tailback Jamaal Charles, who leads the Longhorns (4-0) with 447 rushing yards and a gaudy average of 8.13 yards per carry.

“If I start Jamaal, I’d be depriving you of another great story,” said Brown with a genuine chuckle. “If I start [backup Selvin Young], you all could say, ‘He did it again. He’s the dumbest man on the planet.’ ”

The Brown of old would never have authored such a self-deprecating quip.

Perhaps Mack is simply more at ease this week because he enters the game with the vastly superior squad. With Young and Charles operating behind the nation’s best offensive line and an offensively anemic group of Sooners (2-2) on the opposite sideline, oddsmakers have installed the Longhorns as 14-point favorites. And frankly, most folks feel Texas could win today if Brown chose 50 Cent and earphones over gridiron jargon and a headset.

But perhaps he truly has changed. Perhaps futility, humility and introspection have conspired to produce a healthier attitude toward the game that has defined his career. Another loss today would be devastating, possibly career-threatening given his team’s obvious superiority. But perhaps he finally realizes that the only way to handle such a reality is to smile instead of shuddering.

“I don’t kill myself like I used to over the losses,” Brown said. “I understand now that it’s not about me. It’s much bigger than that.”

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