AUSTIN, Texas — Texas got better and is going back to a bowl this season. Around these parts, few people are likely to call a 7-5 season a success.
Not at a program that won a national championship in 2005, played for another in 2009 and won at least 10 games every year from 2001-2009.
That's the standard set by coach Mack Brown and the one he now finds himself fighting to live up to. A losing season in 2010, the first at Texas in 13 years, forced Brown to make sweeping changes inside a program that had become stale and complacent with success.
Some changes worked. Six new assistant coaches brought new ideas and energy.
Others didn't. Changing the playbook took time to master and shaky quarterback play dogged the offense all season.
A 6-2 record in late October had optimistic fans dreaming of 10 wins again. A 1-3 finish — saved only by a last-second win over rival Texas A&M — sent the Longhorns back to the Holiday Bowl, where they will play California on Dec. 28.
By season's end, Brown was the subject of rumors that he would retire or be forced out. Athletic director DeLoss Dodds shot them down on Sunday as false and suggested they were being started as a way to ward off recruits from signing with Texas.
Brown said he wants to coach a "long time" and believes his program has made significant progress since the 5-7 finish in 2010. He also sees getting win No. 8 over Cal (7-5) in the bowl game as critical to keeping Texas on an upward trend.
"The kids have been resilient," Brown said after Texas lost 48-24 to No. 15 Baylor in the final game of the regular season. "They've done a good job. We just need to finish with our eighth win."
The 2011 season really started just days after final loss of 2010.
Brown acknowledged that his staff needed some new faces, recruiting had misfired and that he had assumed Texas was on cruise control as an annual championship contender. After a long December watching everyone else play in bowl games, Brown started 2011 with a staff that included new coordinators on offense (Bryan Harsin) and defense (Manny Diaz).
"We knew this was a year where we'd have to grab and hold on and try to build and start over. I really disrupted everything in this program this year. Starting from strength program to offense to defense to kicking game," Brown said.
Texas started 4-0. Diaz' defense, ripped by Oklahoma in a 55-17 loss, eventually matured into the Big 12's best unit over the final six weeks of the season. Harsin's offense was just starting to produce a dominant running game when it was derailed by injuries to running backs Fozzy Whittaker, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron.
Whittaker, a senior, was the heart of the offense when he tore ligaments in his right knee and was lost for the season. Malcolm Brown was on pace for 1,000 yards before injuries forced him and Bergeron to miss losses to Missouri and Baylor.
The biggest problems were at quarterback.
Garrett Gilbert started the season determined to wash away the bad memories of his 17 interceptions in 2010. But he struggled the first two games, got booed at home and was pulled for Case McCoy. He didn't play again. After McCoy led Texas to a road win at UCLA, Gilbert had surgery to repair a previously undisclosed injury in his right throwing shoulder and announced plans to transfer.
That left Texas with McCoy and freshman David Ash as the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
Brown and Harsin then played a weekly quarterback dance with the media, refusing to name either as the outright starter. The two youngsters shared the job for the next three weeks before Ash started against Oklahoma State, Kansas, Texas Tech, Missouri and Kansas State.
Ash went 2-3 as a starter and threw eight interceptions against just three touchdowns. McCoy started the last two games and Texas beat Texas A&M thanks largely to his 25-yard scramble in the final minute that set up Justin Tucker's winning field goal.
McCoy's run will rank among the greats in Texas history because it came in the last game of the 118-year-old rivalry with the Aggies, who are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC next season.Comment on this story
But McCoy fell apart just a week later against Baylor with five turnovers in a meltdown that likely threw the quarterback battle wide open again heading into the bowl game.
Brown, who is under contract through 2016 and one of the nation's highest-paid coaches at $5.2 million per year, is rounding up what recruiting experts are calling one of the best classes in the country. He will likely need some of them to play right away to help Texas return to the championship level he expects.
"Better than last year," Brown said of 2011. "Guys fought hard about every week. I think it's headed back in the right direction."