AUSTIN (AP) — Texas coach Mack Brown has had a running joke all week: He is the only coach in America playing for a conference championship while also shrugging off speculation that he could be replaced.
That perfectly sums up the drama surrounding Brown and a team who have fought their way through a topsy-turvy season of embarrassing losses and big wins and now find themselves on the verge of a Big 12 title in the final game of the regular season.
The No. 23 Longhorns (8-3, 7-1) play at No. 9 Baylor (10-1, 7-1) with at least a share of the conference title at stake. For either team, a win coupled with an Oklahoma State loss — the Cowboys beat both in November — will earn the victor the crown outright.
For Brown — and Texas fans — the bigger drama may be what comes after the game.
Brown’s future has been the subject of intense speculation nearly all season. A 1-2 start with a team that even Brown expected would contend for a national championship was coupled with revelations that as far back as January, some top school officials and donors were courting Alabama coach Nick Saban through a meeting with his agent.
Texas President Bill Powers, who has been one of Brown’s strongest allies, wasn’t part of the talks with Saban’s agent. In a Thursday meeting with the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, Powers said he has never met or talked with Saban and denied the school had reached an agreement to hire him.
“Mack’s our coach, and I can say flatly that the rumors we have hired or come to an agreement with Nick Saban or even talked to him are false,” Powers said.
When asked if Brown has told Powers that he wants to stay beyond this season, Powers said, “That’s for Mack to decide. I think he would (tell me).”
Brown, who is under contract until 2020 and will make $5.4 million this year, said this week he hasn’t talked to his team about his job future.
“This is about these kids and it’s about this team and I’m very unimportant and have absolutely not mentioned it,” Brown said. “I did not mention it after Ole Miss, Brigham Young. I just said, ‘Let’s go back to work.’”
Brown said he talked briefly about his future with his staff, but only in a way to keep them focused on the turning the season around.
“Hey, we can all lay down, feel sorry for ourselves because we didn’t do our job in the first three ballgames, or we can all go back to work, pull this thing in tight and pick these kids up and be the team that we thought we were going to be in preseason,” Brown said.
Brown has arguably done one of his best coaching jobs in 16 years at Texas.
Despite a fractured fan base — some printed burnt orange “Saban 2014” t-shirts and even former Longhorns Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell said it was time for Brown to be fired — Brown rallied his team to within one win from what would be his third league title.
To do it, Brown fired his defensive coordinator after two games and team endured season-ending injuries to starters at quarterback, running back, linebacker and defensive end that robbed the Longhorns of their best players on both sides of the ball. After David Ash was lost early in the season, Brown had to turn to backup quarterback Case McCoy, who had spent 10 weeks of his summer on a mission in Peru.
Along the way, the Longhorns pummeled arch-rival Oklahoma and narrowly escaped lowly Iowa State and West Virginia on the road.
“I thought we would be really good before the season started,” Brown said. “Then the two weeks were just a collapse for us. Then as we said, we were excited about starting over, challenged by it. But this is a good football team. It’s got a lot of older players on it that are smart and tough and have tremendous pride. They’ve been fighting to get to this for the last two years.”
After the early losses out of conference, Brown rallied his team by urging them to focus on the Big 12 and kept them on track all season.
“I think every week we’ve had negativity floating around, someone getting hurt, us losing a game. It’s been something every week,” junior center Dominic Espinosa said.
Brown won the 2005 national championship and returned to the title game four years later. Since then, Texas is 30-19 overall, with an 18-16 mark in the Big 12. And that’s exactly what some Texas fans fear, that an annual 9-3 finish with no chance of winning a national title has become the new normal for a program with much greater expectations.
On Sunday, Brown will head to New York for the National Football Foundation’s annual meeting and Powers and new athletic director Steve Patterson are both expected to go with him.
Although he hasn’t comment publicly directly about Brown, Patterson said at his introductory news conference last month that in general terms, he doesn’t intend to “make change just for the sake of making change.”