Longhorn Football: Hubris, Counterfactual History and Mythological Lessons


Longhorn football could learn a thing or two from Greek myth

The Daily Texan Published on-line September 18, 2013 Print edition September 19, 2013


By Tom Palaima

In my many years of teaching ancient mythology, I have absorbed, as I hope my students have, the important lessons about life that the original myth-makers embedded in their stories.

One lesson is to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. A variant is to make sure you follow through on your side of whatever bargain you strike. A third is not to get too big for your britches — the Greeks called this hubris.

The immortal and ageless goddess Dawn falls in love with a handsome prince of Troy named Tithonus. She steals him away and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus asks her, “Do you want anything else?” She says no.

Zeus makes Tithonus deathless, but not ageless. He grows older and older, shrivels up and finally turns into a chirping cicada—not what Dawn had in mind.

A similar fate befalls the Cumaean Sibyl. According to Ovid, Apollo loves the Sibyl so much that he offers to grant her one wish if she will make love with him. She asks to live as many years as the grains of sand she holds. When she later refuses to give up her virginity, Apollo gives her long life, but lets her, too, grow old.

Counterfactual history, like Winston Churchill’s famous 1931 essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” focuses on key moments and their consequences by wondering “What if?” What if Dawn had thought through her request? What if the Sibyl had followed through on her promise?

Given the major distraction that the poor performance of the Longhorns football team has become lately at our university, it is worth posing a big counterfactual historical question. What if Vince Young had not scored the winning touchdown with nineteen seconds left in the 2006 Rose Bowl, considered by ESPN the fifth greatest play in the history of NCAA football?

The touchdown won the national title for the UT Longhorns, just weeks after William C. Powers, then dean of the UT Law School and long a sports enthusiast, was officially named the 28th president of UT Austin.

Winning the national championship was for head coach Mack Brown the NCAA sports equivalent of being head of a team of researchers awarded the Nobel Prize. As national champions, the football program brought in a bonanza in revenues from marketing souvenirs and our UT trademark.

The chief financial officer of the self-operating UT athletics program Ed Gobles has proclaimed, “We eat what we kill.” Translation: whatever monies athletics raises, it spends. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds has crowed, “We are the Joneses.”

The die was cast. From the Vince Young Rose Bowl onward, there has been no restraining athletics. Hubris has prevailed.

Stadium expansions, large salary increases coaches — not only in football, and a $1 million annuity for the athletics director were approved by the cronies within the UT sports silo, the regents who attend football games in the president’s skybox or their own, and the wealthy donors who, according to a local sportswriter, really decide whether head coaches are hired and fired.

The sense was that we would win another national title.

And we almost did. The Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21 in the national title game following the 2009 season. Trouble was, right before that loss, Mack Brown was given, over the strong protest of a core of faculty leaders, a $2-million raise. That set in motion the decamping of his heir apparent Will Muschamp.

Without Muschamp’s defensive coaching genius, the Longhorns fortunes have faded. Talk now is of winning Big XII titles. But this hope is almost counterfactual, given that teams coached by Mack Brown have only been Big XII champions twice in his fifteen years at UT (2005 and 2009).

One more counterfactual thought. If UT had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl, perhaps Vince Young would have played another year of college football, reined in his hubris about his own abilities, and faced the transition to the fame and fortune of professional football with more maturity.

One positive fact: Young has now earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies and has a loving wife and child. He can do some real good in the world before old age overtakes him, as it overtook Tithonus, and overtakes us all, even our greatest athletes.

Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics. 

Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track


Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013 

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.