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How close was Nick Saban to leaving Alabama for Texas?

Imagine having Nick Saban's agent approach you, saying he'd like to coach for your school... and turning him down.

Such is life at Texas.

The year was 2012, and Saban had just won his third national championship at Alabama -- which was an incredible accomplishment, but still put him only halfway to the peak of Mount Bear Bryant.

That's when, according to Dallas billionaire and former UT regent Tom Hicks, Jimmy Sexton got on the phone.

"Another regent and I had the conversation with Saban's agent and he said, 'If Saban was a business guy, he'd be what you would call a turnaround artist. He's not a longterm CEO. Fix it, win and go on. He knows he will never catch Bear Bryant's legacy in Alabama, but he'd like to create his legacy that he's won national championships at more schools than anybody else. He's done it at LSU and Alabama, and he knows he can win a national championship at Alabama; he knows he can,'" Hicks said on Your Turn with Corby Davidson.

Brown and Saban faced off for the national championship at the end of the 2009 season, a game that proved to be a line of demarcation for the Mack Brown Era at Texas, dividing his 16 years in Austin into Before and After points. Heading into that game in January of 2010, Brown was 69-8 since the beginning of the 2004 season, winning three BCS games, two Big 12 championships and one national championship while knocking on the door of another.

But, as we know, Brown did not get title No. 2. Alabama defensive lineman Marcel Dareus knocked Colt McCoy out of the game on the Longhorns' first drive, allowing Alabama to cruise to a 37-21 win.

Alabama and Texas watched their fortunes go in opposite directions the moment Dareus' helmet met McCoy's ribs.

Brown never recovered from that game. His 2010 team went 5-7, and while subsequent Longhorn teams were never that bad under his watch -- UT was 8-5 in 2011 and 9-4 in 2012 -- Texas was never Texas again under Mack Brown. A 63-21 loss to Oklahoma in 2012 -- Brown's second straight blowout loss to the Sooners and fourth overall -- turned the heat on him to a boil, such to the point where Texas regents were willing to take a call from Saban's agent.

And why wouldn't they? The 2009 national title game was the official launch point of the Saban Dynasty, following that '09 title with crowns in 2011 and '12.

So, Hicks said, he met with Brown to see if he could pitch Mack on passing the torch to Saban. It didn't go well.

"I went to see Mack two days later," Hicks said. "We had lunch and I thought at the time he was ready to leave; he'd been telling people he was ready to leave. So I said, 'Mack, I want to tell you about a conversation I had with Jimmy Sexton. If you want to retire, I think you can graciously have Nick Saban come in and take your place and have it be your idea. That might be a nice way for you to end it.'

"Mack Brown turned bright red. Steam started coming out of his ears, and he said, 'That guy is not coming here to win a national championship with my players.' I said, 'Mack, I'm glad to see you have that passion. I didn't think you had that passion left."

Hicks's version of events tracks with what Wallace Hall, a former UT regent who served with Tom Hicks's brother Steve, told Monte Burke, author of the 2015 book Saban: The Making of a Coach.

As Burke wrote in the New York Timesin 2015:

“It was out of the blue,” Hall says. “He is a U.T. alum, a very well-thought-of, very successful guy who really isn’t a huge fan of football.” The man, whom Hall has refused to name, also happened to be a good friend of Saban’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. “My friend told me, ‘I don’t know how to put this any other way: Nick Saban wants to come to Texas,’ ” Hall says.


After Saban’s Crimson Tide won the national title, Hall contacted Hicks directly. This time Hicks acted on it, calling on his brother Tom, a former owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers and the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars. “I had been in pro sports for a long time, so I volunteered to see if this was real or not,” Tom Hicks says.

The drama continued into 2013, when Brown hit another rock bottom point in a 40-21 loss at BYU on Sept. 7, then dropped a 44-23 home decision to Ole Miss a week later. But his Longhorns rallied, stunning Oklahoma in October and, by December, Texas played Baylor in a de facto Big 12 championship game in Waco with a Fiesta Bowl trip on the line. The 'Horns played the heavily-favored Bears to a 3-3 tie at halftime, but Baylor pulled away in the second half, cruising to a 30-10 win, thus kicking off the most melodramatic week in Texas football history.

Brown spent the week traveling, which looked suspiciously like hiding to the burnt orange contingent that wanted him out. He joined the UT contingent at the National Football Foundation dinner in New York, then made an odd recruiting trip to Miami to see 5-star running back Dalvin Cook, a player everyone knew was headed to Florida State.

"I'm in Florida recruiting," Brown said in a text message to Horns247 on Tuesday of that week. "If I had decided to step down I sure wouldn't be killing myself down here. I have not decided to step down."

While this drama unfolded in Austin, a parallel drama played out in Tuscaloosa, where a contract extension sat... and sat.. and sat on Saban's desk. “I was worried about it, I’ll tell you that," then-Alabama AD Bill Battle said later.

Brown returned to Austin later in the week to take part in the Longhorns' annual year-end football banquet. And while the festivities played out--televised live on Longhorn Network--this news hit.

Wrote the Associated Press at the time:

Brown did not directly address the speculation swirling around his job, but news of Alabama's new contract with Nick Saban, a coach some Texas officials hoped to lure to the Longhorns, rippled through the banquet minutes before Brown gave his speech. 

Brown gave no indication he plans to step down. His lively speech seemed to lift the somber tone of the banquet and he told new athletic director Steve Patterson that he's looking forward to working with him.

"ESPN has had the story wrong," Brown told ESPN. "Everybody just needs to slow down. I have a good relationship with my bosses, Bill Powers and Steve Patterson, and I look forward to making the best decision (about my future)."

"When we have something to announce, we'll announce it," then-Texas AD Steve Patterson said.

Twenty-four hours later, they announced it.

"It's been a wonderful ride. Now, the program is again being pulled in different directions, and I think the time is right for a change," Brown said. "I love the University of Texas, all of its supporters, the great fans and everyone that played and coached here ... It is the best coaching job and the premier football program in America."

Texas would go on to hire Charlie Strong, but the turning-of-the-page never took. Patterson lasted less than two years as Texas' athletics director, and Strong only three as head coach.

Six years later, Texas is -- after a decade of unrest -- on solid ground again, with Chris Del Conte entrenched as AD and Tom Herman as head coach. After a five year respite, Brown is back in coaching again at North Carolina.

And Saban is still Saban. He never did lead a third school to a national title, instead adding two more (and counting) at Alabama, bringing the score to Bear 6, Saban 5. At one time, Saban was prepared to leave Tuscaloosa but now, to borrow a term from the man himself, he's happy to be where his feet are, building on a legacy that is every bit the equal of Bear Bryant while leaving one of the greatest What If? questions in college football history unanswered.