“I grew up in Texas, played high school football in southeast Texas,” said R.C. Slocum, a former Texas A&M coach. “The dads all worked in the refineries and shipyards together. So there was huge competitiveness: Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange. It was the biggest thing going on when I was growing up. If you were an able-bodied young guy, you almost had to play.”
“I know it’s big in Ohio and places like that,” he added, “but I’d say there’s no place it’s bigger than in Texas.”
So what is to blame for Texas’ stunning shutout? And can it recover in time not to undergo the same humiliation for a second consecutive year? Only one state team was included in The A.P.’s preseason top 25, which was released on Monday: the University of Texas, at No. 23.
To hear Texans tell it, last season’s troubles derived partly from misfortune — several simultaneous blips from programs that began the season with high hopes. T.C.U., for example, opened the season at No. 13, ahead of state rivals Houston (No. 15) and Baylor (No. 23).
“It just happened to happen,” said Ty Summers, a T.C.U. linebacker from San Antonio. “It’s not like we all got on the same page and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do bad this year.’”
T.C.U. — the most consistent of Texas’ major powers in recent years, having averaged more than nine wins a season in 16 years under Patterson — was 6-7. Texas A&M stumbled to its third consecutive 8-5 finish. Baylor, mired in a sexual-assault scandal and playing under a lame-duck acting coach, sputtered to 7-6. And the Texas Longhorns, not a decade removed from a national title game appearance under the former coach Mack Brown, had their third losing campaign in three seasons under his successor, Charlie Strong. Dogged for months by premature reports that he was out, Strong was finally fired, less than 24 hours after a 31-9 home loss to T.C.U. ended Texas’ season at 5-7.
But 2016 was more than just unlucky for Texas. The recent struggles of the state’s best teams are also structural, experts say, arising out of documented trends that have weakened several of the programs’ built-in advantages.
Most notably, a high school football pipeline that has produced a steady flow of talented prospects, the state’s longstanding point of pride, has been increasingly diverted.
Texas produces the most blue-chip high school players in the country, according to 247Sports, but last year, only one of the state’s top 10 recruits committed to a team in Texas. The rest were lured north to Oklahoma and Ohio State, east to Louisiana State, Florida State and Alabama, and west to Stanford. Many other prospects followed, taking their talents to places as diverse as Oklahoma State, Southern California, Michigan and Northwestern.
The days when Texas coaches had their choice of the cream of the state’s high school crop seem long gone. And Texas-size advantages like facilities, big crowds and television exposure, which once helped sway recruits to stay in the state, can now be found almost anywhere.
“Oklahoma and L.S.U. and Oklahoma State, those are three powerful programs, not to mention the Alabamas that can come in,” said Hal Wasson, the head coach at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, Tex. “I’ve got a kid at Stanford right now. Look what they have to offer. Travel’s not an issue anymore. Money’s not an issue. You’re going to get an education there, play in a great environment.”
Several observers suggested that Texas A&M’s move from the Big 12 — the league of the state’s other Power Five teams — to the Southeastern Conference several years ago greased the wheels for proximate SEC powers like L.S.U. and Alabama to make recruiting headway at Texas high schools.
But for the best teams, recruiting has become more of a national endeavor anyway. Tom Herman, the new Longhorns coach, whose Houston squad last year was the only Texas team even to receive votes in the final A.P. poll, last month referred to a nameless “Ohio State coordinator” a few years earlier who had signed several top Texas prospects, including the Buckeyes’ current starting quarterback, J.T. Barrett. As Herman’s bashful tone suggested, he and the aforementioned coordinator were one and the same.
“I think the doors to out-of-state recruiting have been opened a little bit,” Herman said.
Yet beyond distant teams’ hoarding of talented recruiters with deep Texas ties, life in 2017 has eroded whatever fence used to keep Texas high school players close to home.
“You see these kids being able to look on social media, on Twitter, and see these campuses and all these highlight films,” said Texas Tech Coach Kliff Kingsbury, a native Texan and former Red Raiders quarterback. “It makes it feel a lot closer than it actually is.”
“Whereas in the past,” he added, “they probably weren’t getting up to see all those places. It has provided this access, and that’s the day we’re in.”
The nationalization of recruiting in turn reflects the nationalization of the sport, in which coaching talent and resources have been spread ever more thinly, and in some ways more evenly. That has meant that Texas’ blue blood teams — and, above all, the Longhorns — can no longer count on contending every season.
“It used to be you could go around the country and think of 10 or 15 teams,” Slocum said, “and year in and year out, they were going to be those teams, and they didn’t vary too much.”
State programs like Baylor and T.C.U. have actually benefited from this dynamic, becoming national (and state) powers in the process. And there is cause to think both will be successful again: Baylor has hired a respected coach, Matt Rhule, as a permanent replacement for Art Briles, who was forced out before last season. Houston and Southern Methodist have promising young coaches in Major Applewhite and Chad Morris.
And then there are the Longhorns and the Aggies. They again produced the most revenue of the country’s athletic departments, per USA Today’s database. And between them they have secured verbal commitments from seven of Texas’ 10 best current high school seniors.
For that reason and others, Herman has infused his new Orange and White constituents with energy, and hope (even as Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin sits in a seat whose heat even he has acknowledged).
“The Orangebloods are as burnt as ever and excited about their new coach,” Dan Jenkins, the longtime Texas-based sportswriter, said in an email. “T.C.U. has found fame and fortune like no time since the glorious ’30s. There are obviously enough talented players coming out of Texas high schools to supply everybody in this state and others.”
This will continue, Jenkins said, as long as the population grows “and high schools build football stadiums that will hold more fans than Princeton.”
Jenkins, who was a child during T.C.U.’s “glorious ’30s,” seemed unworried about the future of Texas football.
“For me,” he added, “a larger question is why does the Big Ten have 14 teams, while the Big 12 only has 10?”
Continue reading the main story