Benson, Johnson continue Texas tradition

It has been a rough couple of weeks for Texas coach Mack Brown, and the tension is evident in his voice.

"We're trying to clean up the mess you all make when we lose," Brown said, referring to the criticism in the media he has endured since the Longhorns' 28-20 loss to Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.

If Brown's skin were any thinner, you could read a playbook through it, but that's not the point. In fact, we come not to bury Brown but to praise him. Not because, despite Brown's supposed inability, Texas finished the season 10-3, one of only five I-A teams to win 10 games in each of the last three seasons (the others: Maryland, Miami, Oklahoma and Washington State).

Brown may be the best coach in the nation at keeping players from declaring early for the NFL draft. In his six seasons in Austin, not a single Longhorn has left before his senior season, which may be why five of them have been selected in the first round.

In fact, in Brown's 20 years as a head coach, he says that only North Carolina tailback Natrone Means has left early. The 2004 deadline came and went, and both All-American linebacker Derrick Johnson, a Butkus Award finalist, and tailback Cedric Benson stayed.

By staying, Johnson said, "I can do a lot of things with my talent. I get a chance to get my degree." Most important, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Waco native said, is "the family atmosphere. It feels so much at home here, man. It's amazing. The relationships you build on this team are so close. Having that bond just holds you here."

A year ago, wide receiver Roy Williams remained in Austin. In 2001, tackle Mike Williams, corner Quentin Jammer stayed, and both went in the top five picks of 2002.

Even in the winter of 1998, before Brown coached a game for Texas, tailback Ricky Williams decided to stay. He left a year later with the Heisman Trophy, and New Orleans traded all of its picks to draft him in the first round.

After he completed his eligibility, Ricky Williams said, "I'd go back for another year if they'd let me." Austin is definitely not the typical college town, and life as a Longhorn there is good.

But Brown doesn't sell them the nightlife on Sixth Street. In fact, Brown says, he doesn't sell them at all. He does what every coach does. He talks to NFL personnel men, gets the skinny on where the player may be drafted, and lays out the pros and cons of that position. But that's all he does.

"We have never asked a young man to stay," Brown said. "We may feel like it's in your best interest to stay, but if not, we'll stand by you and the weight room will be open to you. The worst thing that you can do is to come back because we pulled you back. We don't pressure them to stay."

Coaches have begun to be more proactive in getting their players to return. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said on the day before the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans that he has begun to impress on his players that leaving early often means leaving money on the table, even if you are drafted in the first round.

"Robert Gallery, the offensive tackle for Iowa, (is) a great, great player," said Stoops, a former Hawkeye himself. "A year ago, everyone projected him from the 10th to the 15th pick, and that's a point where most people say, 'Hey, go ahead and go.' But he stayed, and everyone said this year he's going to be a top-five pick. You can make a lot of money staying in school for a year, provided that you continue to improve as a player ... The agents are lying to them that they need to take the money and run."

Gallery won the Outland Trophy this year. Stoops' consensus All-American, junior defensive tackle Tommie Harris, won the Lombardi, listened to Stoops' arguments, and decided to come out anyway.

Harris has long been considered ahead of his time. He started his first game in a Sooner uniform.

Johnson understood that coming back will make him better, even though he will be playing in a defensive scheme unknown to him when he made the decision. Veteran defensive coordinator Carl Reese resigned after the season, and Brown hasn't hired a successor.

"I need to get stronger," Johnson said. "My speed is where it needs to be. A little more strength will help me taking on blocks. I want to try to (lift) 225 pounds 22 times. That's a big step. I can do 17, and that's pushing it."

The NFL season demands strength. It is a man's game.

"I remember Natrone calling me after the 12th game and saying, 'Coach, I am worn out.'" Brown said. "He ended up being in the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he could have had some chance to win the Heisman and he would have a better contract. He was the first pick of the second round."

Brown is thrilled that Johnson and Benson are coming back. Despite the disgruntlement in the media and among some alumni, Brown said, "We're closer to winning the national championship here than they've been since (Texas won it in) 1970, and the kids know that. They want to come back and help us win it."

If the Longhorns do so, senior stars at tailback and middle linebacker will be a big reason why.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.