When it comes down to it, successful college football coaches are a disturbingly similar breed. They come in, they turn things around, they have initial success, they have great success, they plateau, they decline, they fall off a cliff, they get banished.
So in terms of coaching acumen, I don't see Jeff Tedford and Mack Brown all that differently. You know, outside the RAGE.
Now, Brown is a more accomplished coach than Tedford. And he's probably a bit better in terms of managing assistants. But not by that much. When you consider infrastructure and community support for the program, Texas is to Cal what Dubai is to Dharavi (if the Longhorns had to build an SAHPC, they would have money to spare for an indoor spa and a subterranean primary practice chamber). And I'm guessing assistant salary wouldn't have been a big deal the way it always was during Tedford's time at Cal (although results may vary).
1) Resurrecting programs. We all know the Tedford story in making Cal a relevant football program, but Brown helped build the Longhorns into the modern-day Notre Dame. Given the previous 20 years of pain, this is a really impressive accomplishment.
Unfortunately for us, Tedford had to overcome five decades of inertia and indifference to try and rebuild the football brand, and he never had the infrastructure to capitalize on his initial. Brown had Texas, which I believe has an indestructible money tree garden for its football program.
2) Quarterback success (or lack thereof). The defining characteristic of both programs. Tedford had the prototype Aaron Rodgers and an efficient signal-caller in Nate Longshore. Brown had the prototype in Vince Young and an efficient signal-caller in Colt McCoy. Tedford had no success finding anyone else, missing on so much home-grown California talent that we ended up with two years of Zach Maynard. Brown's QB shuffle post-McCoy-the-Elder wasn't much better. Garrett Gilbert anyone? Passing on Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III? When the quarterback recruiting went south, so did the team (and the offense too).
3) Underachieving with relative talent. It's the common refrain: Tedford didn't do enough with all the talent that he had, even though the majority of that talent resided in the 2004-2008 seasons, when Cal won a conference championship, nearly got to that Rose Bowl, and had only one disappointing year. But to be fair, Cal still had plenty of pros in 2009-2011 and barely treaded water with the rest of the conference. So there's a lot of merit to that argument.
Brown has worked with so much great talent. How many conference championships has Brown won since he got there?
Two. You heard me. TWO (and one of those nearly didn't happen because Colt McCoy went for the Kevin Riley special). That's the same number as the coach that shall never be named by Longhorn fans.
4) From control freak to CEO. Does this sound familiar?
The most highly ranked and/or most resurgent programs in college football are being led by head coaches who serve as their own coordinator, or are as good or better at the job than the junior men they've tasked. Whatever their outward shell, these coaches are, at their core, football nerds. Many are among the best teachers in the game and most of them have invented actual stuff - new plays, philosophies, novel ways of thinking, now copied at every level of football.
The so-called CEO coach - the manager, the administrator, the avuncular program chieftain, the titular face of the program and a broader culture, the telegenic figurehead, the representation of our brand of by-God-football, is disappearing, squeezed out by mercenary experts, inventors, and hard-driving implementers.
Prometheus has broken his chains, strangled the eagle, and Zeus is on the run.
Tedford was that innovator for the first half of his tenure before he eventually began delegating all responsibility to everyone else on his staff. Brown was the CEO pretty much the entire way, and that worked in old school college football when recruiting and management were the name of the game. But the rise of new innovators all over the ranks have diminished his impact.
Note: Depressingly, the CEO-type seems to fit Sonny a bit, but that's a topic for another post.
5) The lone encounter. I found that 2011 meeting so enlightening, because we were seeing two programs that had great decades tapering off. The result was a forgetful affair that ended the way many of us expected--Cal hanging around (as Tedford tended to do with big foes and Brown tended to let happen with opponents) and Texas pulling away at the end (ditto).
Texas beat Cal the way Texas beats 95% of their foes--great talent and good coaches doing just enough with that great talent not to mess it all up. Cal lost to Texas the way Cal lost to 95% of their foes--just putting together. It was a fitting game that confirmed all narratives that dated back to the first time the two really crossed paths.
6) December 5, 2004. And so it comes back to that. It always does.
I don't want to rehash this too much because we'll just end up mouth-frothing, but it's just too big a thing to ignore in the overall picture. Brown went recruiting voters, pollsters, and anyone else he could find to somehow convince enough of the East Coast/Southern bloc that Texas deserved that BCS bid. And damn did the mayor do his job while Tedford was out there winning silly football games and all that.
Mack has always said how much the players deserve it. Can you please explain to me why a Cal team that went toe-to-toe with the number one team in the country deserved it less than a Texas team (WITH supposedly the greatest college football player ever) that got shut out by your archrivals (look it up; not a single solitary point)? When Texas fans grumble about "45-35", I counter with "12-0". What team doesn't score a single point in one of their games and deserve a BCS at-large bid?
You could argue that the legacy of Brown and Tedford was defined by that endless politicking. Brown went to the Rose Bowl, his Texas team won a thrilling contest with Michigan, and that win seemed to catapult Texas on their national championship odyssey. Cal got run over by the Pirate, jump-started the meme that Tedford couldn't win big games, and the Bears would never reach such heights again. PEN YOUR NARRATIVES.
What happens if things get flipped? We can only wonder...
7) Both were successful for a long period of time. But the end was ugly for both. Tedford bottomed out in pretty much every way imaginable, and the results could be felt for the program years down the line.
Texas is far from being in a similar boat (they were ONE WIN away from the Fiesta Bowl, oh wow your life is soooo hard Horns), which is probably why Brown is being so stubborn in hanging onto his job. So I'm amused to see Texas and Brown finishing this divorce ugly.
Brown will probably be more beloved by Texas fans than Tedford will be by Cal fans, but I honestly feel that they followed a similar trajectory in their careers at their respective schools. One just happened up at a place happy to have a good college football team, while the other ended up at a place that wouldn't be happy if they didn't. That makes all the difference in the world.
It's the strange word of college football, where all situations aren't created equal, even if all good coaches tread similar paths. May he who begs the most finish first.