Return of the Mack

Of all the coaches football writer John U. Bacon has studied, none has ever tried what Texas coach Mack Brown is now attempting—turning around a program he’s already taken to the top.

Photo by Jeff Wilson


Surgeons, pilots, and presidents face plenty of pressure every day. But consider for a moment the big-time college football coach. No, none of his decisions are life or death—no matter what the alumni might think—but he has to make countless make-or-break decisions every game, at 25-second intervals. Then he has to watch the whole thing boil down to a 19-year-old kicking a pointy ball between two pipes, 40 yards away, into a crosswind—all in front of 100,000 screaming maniacs.

Sound like pressure? We’re just getting started.

I’ve written whole books about some of the greatest football coaches in America. In my previous one, Michigan’s legendary coach Bo Schembechler spelled out the pressures that come with the job, and for my most recent one, I watched Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez experience it at close range. A year ago, Rodriguez was sitting on the hottest seat in America—but Mack Brown might have inherited the throne.

The Texas Longhorns play in the center of a state of 25 million people who know and love football like no one else. When they say the eyes of Texas are upon you, that’s not just a line, and it’s definitely not a joke. That’s your job description.

The coach’s already hot seat has been cranked up to sizzling after last year’s dreams of a second national title in five years came crashing down in a smoldering heap of seven losses, which kept the Longhorns home for the holidays for the first time in 13 years. Throw in a one-of-a-kind $300 million ESPN contract to broadcast Texas games coast to coast, and you’ve got the hottest seat in the country.

Now, if you were facing all this, would you take your 216 victories, your six division titles, your two Big 12 titles, and your 2006 national crown, turn the team over to your hand-picked successor, take the cushy TV commentator deal, and ride off into the sunset? Or would you double down and simply try to do better?

The 60-year-old Mack Brown is making a third, far riskier bet: recreate your entire staff, your team, and even yourself—with too few years left to backtrack if you’re wrong, with your legacy in the balance.
Brown would never admit it—maybe not even to himself—but that 5-7 season might be the best thing that ever happened to him.

From Tennessee to Texas
Mack Brown grew up in Cookeville, Tenn., the grandson, son, and little brother of successful coaches. But the best coach might have been his mother.

Brown recalled a game back in 2004, when Texas was losing 35-14 at halftime against Oklahoma State but stormed back to win 56-35. Afterward, Mack told his mother he had delivered a great halftime speech.

“If it was so great,” she asked, “why don’t you give it before the game?”

Brown worked his way up the coaching ladder, earning a reputation as a turnaround specialist after transforming Tulane from a 1-10 sleeper into a 6-6 bowl team in just three years, then pulling North Carolina up from consecutive 1-10 seasons to five straight bowl games. He thought he’d never leave Chapel Hill.

But in 1997, he got a call from Texas—not the kind of place that takes no for an answer. Texas had timing on its side, too. Within four months, Brown’s grandfather, father and grandmother had all passed away, which makes a man reconsider his life’s trajectory. But even at that, “We didn’t want to leave,” Brown said. “We didn’t even come here to interview.”

The UNC chancellor made a competitive bid, but also told Brown if he wanted football to be as big as basketball, he should go to Texas. Brown was still wavering until his wife, Sally, asked him, “If your grandparents and dad were here today, what would they tell you to do?” The answer was suddenly obvious.

When the search started, booster Tom Hicks told the press, “We want to hire someone who can win a national championship.”

When Sally saw the story, she slapped the paper down on their breakfast table. “Here, big boy. Think you can you win a national championship?”

When Hicks asked Brown the same question, Brown said, “No, but the place can.”

Good answer.

Texas Transition
After John Mackovic won the Big 12 title in 1996 with an upset over defending national champion Nebraska, he lost his quarterback early the next year, finished 4-7, and was fired.

Mack Brown immediately worked his trademark turnaround magic to get the Longhorns back in the bowls, the polls, and the hunt for conference crowns. He started an incredible run of nine straight 10-win seasons, including five top-10 finishes.

But because Darrell Royal had spoiled the natives with his three national titles, it wasn’t enough. “Second’s no good anymore,” Brown said. “Because of the BCS, there is more emphasis on national titles than conference titles.”

A few years ago, before a home game, Sally Brown got word that Barbara Bush wanted to meet her. On the way, Sally walked past George Strait, Walter Cronkite, and President H.W. Bush himself.

When they met, Barbara Bush said, “Oh my gosh, Sally, I can’t imagine the pressure of being the coach’s wife!”

When the wife of the leader of the free world is telling your wife that her job is a pressure cooker—well, that says it all.

After beating Michigan in UT’s first Rose Bowl on a dramatic, last-second field goal, Texas ran the table in 2005 to win the Longhorns’ first national title since Darrell Royal’s last one, in 1970.

Life was good—but the honeymoon didn’t last long. When Brown hugged his mother after the game, which happened to fall on her birthday, she told him it was such a nice birthday present, then asked, “What are you going to give me next year?”

“Mom, give me at least an hour to enjoy this!”

But she was onto something. Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told Brown, “You stay in here long enough, you’ll win all your games, and you’ll create a monster. And then you can’t feed it enough.”

Mistakes He Didn’t Know He Was Making
Three more 10-win seasons in a row didn’t do it.

But 2009, Colt McCoy’s senior year, looked like the Longhorns’ year. And if they beat Alabama for Brown’s second national title, with defensive coordinator Will Muschamp already named the “coach-in-waiting,” Brown’s exit seemed like it couldn’t have been scripted any better.

But as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
On just his fifth play, Colt McCoy suffered the same injury to his throwing shoulder he had as a freshman. He was out—and so were the Longhorns.

“That’s two championships we lost due to an injured quarterback,” Brown says. “If we have a better plan built around the quarterback, we’d be okay.”

Still, they had starters returning and a demonstrably effective coaching staff. There was no reason to think they couldn’t finish the job in 2010. Why not?

The “coach-in-waiting” plan initially helped quell speculation about Brown’s successor, but the longer it lasted, the more problems it created with the media, the staff, and the players.

“It’s a good idea,” Brown says, “but only if you are doing it for one year. Otherwise, you get too many questions, and it gets confusing. You’ve got to have one person in charge. You can’t be partially pregnant. Those lines have to be clear.

“It worked well for us—the reports of friction were just not true—but when there’s more talk about Will and me than my team, that’s not fair to the team, and it becomes a distraction.”

They also didn’t notice the subtle shift in the team’s focus. “I didn’t see there was a hangover after losing the national title game,” Brown says, “but we had never had lost one before. You probably don’t have the same edge. And we pouted over Alabama longer than we should have.” That violated one of the great coaching maxims: never let an opponent beat you twice.

Brown says the coaches and team worked as hard as they ever had. But he concedes that he and his assistants were probably “a little complacent as coaches, without realizing it. The players were probably a little entitled, without realizing it. I just didn’t feel like we went into every game with the edge we had in the past.”

After his players beat an unremarkable Rice team in a sluggish season opener, 34-17, Brown chewed them out. “I didn’t think we played with the fun and excitement we had before,” he says. “Last year I got miserable, mad at everybody, mad at everything. It got to be more about the wins than anything.”

The players, predictably, started pressing—and developed a bad habit of turning the ball over in crucial situations. On the other side, the defense created about the same number of fumbles as the year before, but didn’t secure nearly as many, finishing 116 of 120 teams in turnover ratio. “You do that, I don’t care who you are,” Brown says, “you’re going to lose some games.”

They did, first to unranked UCLA, then to Oklahoma. But after coming back to beat fifth-ranked Nebraska in Lincoln, they figured they were fixed—until they turned right around and lost to Iowa State at home for the first time in forever. They couldn’t kid themselves any longer.

“The kids were great,” Brown said. “They were on time. They really tried.” But they used to have “a swagger and a tremendous advantage in pregame, so much so we knew if we played well we’re gonna win. And we lost that.”

They also lost seven games, to finish with a shocking 5-7 record, and raise more questions than answers.

Turning Around Your Own Team
Brown’s mentors told him he would know it was time to turn in his letter when he no longer wanted to recruit, or even go to practice. By those measures, Brown knew, he was not finished.

When his mother was on her dying bed, she told him, “We know you can coach.  We just don’t know if you can do anything else.  You can golf when you’re done.”

Okay, you’re coming back.  Now what?

I’ve seen the pressure of the position up close, and studied the greats from afar. Every one of them, from Amos Alonzo Stagg to Bear Bryant to Bo Schembechler faced a season like Brown’s 5-7 debacle. They invariably did one of two things: called it quits, or simply dug in to do it better. But I cannot recall a single one doing what Brown’s doing now: attempting a complete turn-around of a program he already turned around once and taken to the top.

Brown spent December watching everyone else’s bowl games, searching for coaching talent. This time around, he learned, even assistant coaches now have agents and multi-year contracts, but he had new advantages too. The Internet allowed him to see them interact with their players, handle press conferences, and even run practices. He could scout at a distance.

When he met Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, he congratulated him on stopping Auburn’s Cam Newton. Diaz wasn’t having it. “Coach,” he said. “We lost 17-14. Therefore, we failed.”
Brown beamed. “What a great answer!” Diaz got the job.

Coach Royal advised Brown not to hire anyone who was not excited about being at Texas. “Because,” he said, “it will never work for him. There’s just too much pressure.”

To new staffers like Diaz, the pressure Texas presents is just the byproduct of the opportunity that comes with it. “When you hold this role,” Diaz says, “you realize what this university means to the people in this state, and how blessed you are. This, to me, is the epicenter of football in this country. You can’t help but feel it.”

Instead of wearing Brown out, he says, rebuilding is “keeping me young, and keeping the conversation lively. It gave me a chance to get some new energy.”

He also recognized how obsessed with wins and losses they had become. “When you feel you have to win every game, you quit thinking about what got you there,” Brown says. “So we had to make a shift. All of our messages of late are simple: Let’s start over, let’s be young, let’s be excited, let’s stop worrying about winning and losing, and get back to worrying about the program.”

Once Brown had hired a full slate of new assistants, they sat down and reconsidered everything, from special teams to stretching.

“So much has changed around here,” says former Longhorn star and now co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, “that if you left this building in November and came back now, you’d have no idea what’s going on. That’s where the rejuvenation is—a lot of good, new ideas.”

Brick by Brick
That process started officially on Jan. 17, 2011, at the first meeting of the 2011 Longhorns.

“We’ve all got to start over,” Brown told them. “We can’t continue to beat ourselves over last year. You can’t allow the media to get to you.

“We had great coaches last year, who got you a game away from a national title. We’ve hired five new coaches this year and added a new strength coach. If you’re still griping, it’s you.

“We’re not going to talk about ’06, ’08, or ’09, so why talk about 2010? We are not going to sit around here and say how bad we were,” he said. “We’re building our family back.”

Then he paused, looked up at the 150 faces in the room, and said, “Hi! I’m Mack Brown. I’m the head coach, and this is my first day at Texas.”

Every coach and player did the same. The message couldn’t be clearer.

“I’m as excited as I’ve ever been,” Brown told me in May. “I understand we’ve got some work to do, but that’s part of what motivates a coach. We had these rubber wrist bands made with ‘Brick by brick’ on them for a reason. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Feeling energized, inspired, and even reborn does not guarantee success on a football field. The ball is still pointy, after all, and can bounce any way it likes. But not feeling those things will guarantee failure.
Mack Brown has got his spirit back—and he’s betting it spreads to the players, the staff, and the entire state.

It’s the biggest gamble of his career.


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