Very much of the 2012 Bowl Season will indicate if Mack's still in control of the helm and whether or not players or staff are jettisoning in lifeboats.
That was one of our storylines to follow for Texas' bowl season and the answer has come very quickly.
What is clear to me is that Bryan Harsin was brought to Austin to install an offense. He realized quickly that what Texas really needed was to install a different culture. And that his offense could never be optimized without it. The best way to create a football culture is to be in charge of it. So he left for the first job where he could do just that.
The Texas culture built by Mack Brown is failing.
Much like how the Roman empire temporarily maintained it's power by replacing the depleted ranks of Roman farmers in the military with barbarians, Mack Brown tried to replace his original staff with outsiders who could fill in the gaps in the legions. But the original culture and program was still decaying and the new additions were committed to securing the best for themselves, not maintaining Mack's legacy or keeping Texas a national power in perpetuity.
Lasting strength comes from a renewable foundation. In football, that usually takes the form of a system or philosophy that can produce coaches and players and survive turnover and graduation. Mack's system is struggling to renew itself because it doesn't actually produce much home grown talent in the coaching ranks.
Texas fans should have little doubt that Bryan Harsin, the coach who installed a run-based offense on the remains of a ruined spread system and coached David Ash into College Football's 19th most efficient QB, will have success at Arkansas St. when free to create a total program. Much like Will Muschamp has done at Florida.
For the second time in three years Texas has lost a talented young coach with a talent for fashioning physical and dynamic teams while Mack's timeline for departure remains unclear.
Credit to Mack Brown for successfully bringing in those talented young coaches, but how long can he keep Texas stable through constant staff turnover?
The far worse indicator for Texas is in the world of recruiting. When Mack begin to assemble the 2013 recruiting class, Texas was still on the upswing after the 2011 season. While 7-5 wasn't awe inspiring, the youth and growing success of the team seemed to portend big things for the future.
The 2012 offense was strong, and stronger in the passing game than expected, but was not the physically bruising team Texas had intended to be. The defense simply collapsed. Harsin's departure suggests that the program is failing to grow as designed and people are jumping off the ship. Including recruits.
The 2013 class had 15 commitments at one time but is now down to 13 and the class' highest rated recruit, defensive tackle prospect A'Shawn Robinson, projects to be the next to take a lifeboat. The most recent to de-commit was Belton tight end Durham Smythe.
Texas has struggled for years to fill the tight end position and was finally beginning to bring in recruits like Smythe to stock and build the roster around versatile players who could be utilized as edge blockers or big receivers. Within the Boise St. system that Harsin brought to Texas the tight ends are the primary levers for the offense for out leveraging the defense.
Instead Smythe is choosing between Notre Dame, Stanford, and Florida. Programs that have demonstrated more competence in developing and utilizing the position.
The state of Texas is rich enough in talent to support two national contenders, after all it produced the no.'s 1 and 2 picks in last year's NFL draft, both Quarterbacks. But the Mack Brown program is not strong enough to fend off Texas A&M from grabbing from Texas' normal share of the impact recruits in the state and seizing the greater national spotlight.
Then there's the Big 12.
TCU already stole another of Texas' verbal commits (running back Kyle Hicks) and along with Baylor and Texas Tech will gladly challenge for more of the state's four and five star talents now and in the future. Bob Stoops' Oklahoma was driven away from competing with Texas for premier talent preferred by Mack but will gladly and vigorously begin challenging the Longhorns for top talent if the slide continues.
The success of Mack's Texas program was always about collecting the state's obvious blue chip talent and then deploying it against the rest of the league. Evidenced by missing on Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and countless other major Texas talents, Mack's staff hasn't always carefully examined the state's prospects and worked hard to land them. If forced into a world in which the universally recognized talent in the state wasn't defaulting to Texas, the work and development needed to sustain Mack's success would be beyond what he's had to put forth in the past.
There's no time to actually rebuild the Texas brand and program for Mack, he needs to win now to preserve his job and legacy. The story that he was going to take these years to rebuild what he had formerly built and then allowed to decay was always a myth, his goal was simply to infuse enough talent in the staff and team to win big and then go out a hero.
Currently, Texas still has enough on paper to accomplish that goal. The existing team returns virtually every starter on offense and most of the defense save for NFL prospects Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor. The current recruiting class of 13 still includes talented OL that will have the program stocked for the future, a handful of impact receivers and defenders, and JUCO jack-of-all-trades Geoff Swaim who could instantly provide Texas with a missing piece of the puzzle on offense with his punishing blocking as a tight end, halfback, or fullback.
Major Applewhite is now the leading man on offense and the team's play caller and he is arguably the team's best recruiter. The 2nd best recruiter, receivers coach Darrel Wyatt, has been made his lieutenant and "co-offensive coordinator."
Applewhite is now the anchor that prevents Mack's Texas from being lost at sea. Texas fans will get their first peek at his skills in watching how Texas finishes the 2013 recruiting season and how his offense handles the Oregon St. defense. He's the only true fruit from the Mack Brown coaching tree and now the old coach's best chance at leaving on his own terms. The one coach that Mack has successfully raised up could now determine his legacy.
If he can work within Mack's flawed infrastructure to finish the class and bring in some addition JUCO help for the 2013 system while maintaining and adding to the prospects for the future, he'll have made a good start. Focusing the team on winning the Alamo Bowl and tweaking the offense to be able to carry the team in a 2013 run at the league title will be next on the agenda.
Fixing the defense and overhauling the decaying Mack Brown empire? That's probably more than he can handle, and meanwhile the barbarians are at the gates.