Texas athletics mired in unusual hard times
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas, the behemoth of the Big 12, is in a serious funk.
The wealthiest athletic program in the country, the one with its own television network and some of the finest facilities around, has struggled on the field and been embarrassed by recent revelations of coaches having inappropriate relationships with students. Fans are calling for changes on the sideline and in the administration.
Even Red McCombs, the billionaire donor whose name is on the north end of the football stadium, said Texas seems to be stumbling along.
“I think it has been hospitalized,” McCombs said. “But it has been released and we are on the mend. It might take another year, but we are on our way.”
The “getting better” message is echoed by athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who remains steadfast in his support of longtime football and basketball coaches Mack Brown and Rick Barnes.
“It’s patience and doing the right things. Keep people in place who are good at what they do and that’s what we’ve done,” Dodds said. “You go through these times and if you’ve got good people they make it work. Good things will happen … Continuity is huge. Having a person who does it the right way is huge. Having a person who cares about kids is huge.”
There have been a few bright spots. The volleyball and men’s golf teams won the 2012 national championships.
But lighting the campus tower orange to celebrate those accomplishments does little to offset the frustration brewing over the underachieving football and basketball teams.
The football program has struggled since the first quarter of the 2010 BCS national championship game when Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy was injured on the first drive and Texas went on to lose to Alabama.
Texas is just 22-16 overall and 11-15 in the Big 12 the last three seasons. Consecutive blowout losses to rival Oklahoma fanned the flames of discontent. Brown, who won the 2005 national championship and was chasing two more in 2008-2009, now faces an irritable fan base.
“Football is fine,” Dodds said, calling last season’s 9-4 finish “the end of the world to some folks but it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to go through some downs to enjoy the ups. Now, we don’t want to have a lot of them. But 9-4 is pretty good, about where I thought we’d be. I think next year looks a lot better … back to our standards.”
And what is that standard?
“In football, you want to win them all,” Dodds said. “In basketball, you want to go deep in the (NCAA) tournament.”
Pleas for patience wear thin for fans like Marion Trapolino, a Texas graduate who’s had football season tickets for nearly 10 years and donates more than $1,000 annually to the Longhorn Foundation.
“I know how much money the Texas program has, the kind of facilities it has and the quality of recruits we get,” Trapolino said. “There’s something else that’s missing. And the only other thing you can think of is coaching.”
Dodds cautioned those who want coaches fired with the example of Tennessee, which won the 1998 football national championship. Since firing Philip Fulmer in 2008, the Volunteers are on their third head coach and the program is swimming in debt reported to be at $200 million.
“People think we only care about the money. Of course we care about money. Look at Tennessee,” Dodds said.
According to figures released by the university, Longhorn Foundation donations have gone up every year since 2007, with more than $36 million last year.
But frustrating Texas fans further was the rise of longtime rival Texas A&M to national prominence in its first year in the SEC.
The Aggies, who many assumed would struggle to make the transition to college football’s premiere conference, nearly turned the league upside down behind quarterback Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
That Texas tried to recruit Manziel to play safety is just another burr in the backside for Longhorns fans who have watched quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert, David Ash and Case McCoy struggle the last three seasons.
Even McCombs brought up Manziel as a misfire.
“I’m sure they would like to have some choices to make over again,” McCombs said. “We’ve got good players, they just weren’t good enough.”
Texas’ struggles on the field may be hurting recruiting. The Longhorns signed 15 players Wednesday, but this year’s class was notable because national recruiting experts didn’t rate it among the best in the country.
Brown, long considered a dominant recruiter, was burned by several players who committed to Texas only to change their mind. Most notable was the 11th-hour defection of top-rated defensive lineman A’shawn Robinson to Alabama.
“It may be disappointing on the day it happens, but you want people that will look you in the eye and tell you the truth and you want people that want to be at your school,” Brown said.
The men’s and women’s basketball programs are struggling through their own downturns.
The men are just 10-12 in coach Rick Barnes 15th season and are floundering near the bottom of the Big 12. Unless the Longhorns stage a huge turnaround over the final month of the season, they appear likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. The same goes for the women, who are 9-12 in a rough first season for coach Karen Aston.
While the losing irritates fans, university regents were embarrassed by revelations that two of its most prominent coaches had inappropriate relationships with students.
In October, a former women’s track athlete told school officials she had a relationship with track coach Bev Kearney in 2002. Kearney, who won six national championships with the Longhorns, was suspended in November while the claim was being investigated and resigned on Jan. 5. The school has said it was in the process of firing Kearney when she resigned.
Last week, the school and assistant football coach Major Applewhite acknowledged he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a student during the team trip to the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. Applewhite’s pay was frozen for a year and he was ordered to undergo counseling, but he also has been promoted since that incident and is now the offensive coordinator with play-calling duties next season.
“In a program this big, you’re going to have some bad news. You just are,” Dodds said. “It’s going to happen, so you need to handle it right. That’s what we do. Get it out and you’ve got to live with it. People will react to it and you can’t control how they react.”
Dodds won’t discuss the Kearney and Applewhite cases in detail but they may dog the program for some time. Kearney’s attorney has suggested she was treated unfairly and that she may sue the university.
Trapolino said that even if things don’t turn around, she’ll keep going to the games and giving money.
“I’m a fan. I’m not going to stop going to games. I may voice my opinion more. If that falls on deaf ears because I give money, oh well,” Trapolino said.