Few colleges had more success in the first decade of this century than the University of Texas, whose football and men’s basketball programs regularly brushed shoulders with the nation’s elite. But what’s been happening in recent years has been nothing short of bewildering.
With Mack Brown at the helm, the football team won 158 games in 16 seasons, for a win percentage of .767. That span included the Longhorns’ famous undefeated season of 2005, when Vince Young helped defeat USC and win the school’s first undisputed national title in 35 years. On the court, the Rick Barnes-era was the most successful in the school’s history. Barnes won 402 games in 17 seasons, for a win rate of .691, and took the Longhorns to their first Final Four in 56 years. Under Brown and Barnes, who both coached their first game for the Longhorns in 1998, the University of Texas represented dominance and stability. But after the football team fell to 4-5 on the season under Tom Herman last Saturday and with the men’s basketball team set to open its new season on Friday coming off of an 11-22 record last year, it’s the women’s basketball and volleyball teams keeping the Longhorns from total irrelevance.
Don’t get us wrong, the Longhorns will survive regardless of what happens to their two largest sports for generating revenue, especially if the women’s hoops team continues to make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s certainly baffling how much this former juggernaut of football and men’s basketball has declined considering the resources at its disposal to hire top coaches and recruit the best talent. It reportedly cost Texas $19 million to fire Charlie Strong from the top football coaching position and hire Herman from the University of Houston. And the deal to hire current men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart — who had numerous schools trying to secure his services after taking Virginia Commonwealth, a mid-major, to the Final Four in 2011 — wasn’t cheap either, costing Texas about $22 million over seven years.
The regression has been significant: Since Brown and Barnes departed, the football and men’s basketball programs combined to win less than half of their games.1 To give this some context, we compared Texas to some of the other schools that have been consistently competitive in both sports — in other words, not one-sport powers like Kansas (basketball) or Georgia (football). Specifically, we looked at every school that ranked inside the top 50 in all-time wins for both football and men’s basketball and calculated the harmonic mean of their football and men’s basketball Elo ratings since 1988, the earliest we have data for both sports.2 This allows us to see how these teams compare in the combined success of their two biggest programs. UT’s decline has been rapid and, for Longhorns fans, the results will be depressing.
Currently, only Missouri ranks worse than Texas, and Missouri’s problems in and away from the sports world have been well documented (sorry to drag you into this, Mizzou fans). For more context, Wisconsin is currently the best two-sport school.3 Based on this measure, it’s fair to say that the Longhorns are in the midst of one of their worst stretches in almost 30 years.
On the football side, the problem can be traced to recruitment. Between 2009 and 2012, Texas registered four consecutive top-5 recruiting classes, according to ESPN’s team rankings. In the next five years: zero. Last season, they ranked No. 33. Think about that for a second: The University of Texas with the 33rd-best crop of freshman football talent. The turnover from Brown to Strong to Herman is certainly a factor here. Since NCAA rules stipulate that football players must stay in school for three years, talented high-school players seek stability — not knowing who your head coach will be next year can be the difference between a top recruit committing to your program and going elsewhere.
But another disconcerting thing about the Longhorns’ recent dip in recruitment is that Texas plays in the epicenter of high school football — no state produced more recruits in ESPN’s Top 300 rankings in 2016, and only Florida produced more in 2017. But recently, it has lost its hold on the best prospects from within its own borders. As a result, the top Texas high school recruits are increasingly looking outside of the state. Among the top 30 recruits in Texas in 2017, LSU was the most popular destination (five players chose to go to Baton Rouge, compared with the three who picked Austin).
The basketball program’s recruitment problem hasn’t been attracting top talent — the Longhorns have produced several NBA stars in recent years, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and, most recently, Myles Turner. Instead the Longhorns have failed to translate their NBA-caliber talent into postseason success — the Longhorns have failed to make the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
But things may finally be turning around. After its rough recruiting class in 2017 — which was disrupted by the firing of Strong and hiring of Herman — the football team has rebounded to secure 16 commitments from the ESPN Top 300 so far for the 2018 class and is No. 2 in team rankings. And Smart has the basketball team ranked No. 12 as of Thursday, which is impressive considering that the school is coming off its worst season in decades. Smart’s class could improve after the early signing period, which is happening now. The Longhorns are in the hunt for No. 7 Keldon Johnson and No. 13 Quentin Grimes.
|RECRUITING CLASS||TEAM RANK||WIN PCT.||TEAM RANK||WIN PCT.|
Although the school has been rocked by huge personnel turnover over the past four years, there’s a little light on the horizon. The football team has three games remaining on its schedule and is just one win away from being bowl eligible, so Herman’s team could end another tough year on a positive note (Granted, Texas’s boosters won’t be doing backflips over a trip to the Cactus Bowl — but it’s something.) As for Smart and the basketball team, they’re resting their hopes on freshman center Mohamed Bamba, who is ranked No. 4 among incoming freshmen by ESPN heading into the new season. With a fresh start kicking off Friday, Smart will be looking to take his team back to the NCAA Tournament.