AUSTIN, Texas -- On a sunny March afternoon, a few hours before he'd lead his team through practice, Mack Brown strolled into Dirty Martin's Place, an iconic lunch spot adjacent to campus. Texas' $5-million-a-year coach -- hardly incognito in his burnt orange logo polo -- is a regular at this old-fashioned $3.25 burger joint, and if any of the other diners were star-struck, they certainly weren't showing it.
Then again, the Longhorns' 15-year leader is not a universally beloved figure these days. For all he knew, the twenty-something typing on his laptop at a table against the back window could have been penning another screed why "Mack Brown has to go." Brown joked that he's "already been fired three times in the last 15 years," but the calls for his head reached unprecedented levels during last year's bumpy 9-4 campaign, which included yet another Red River blowout (63-21) at the hands of Oklahoma and an embarrassing Thanksgiving night home loss (20-13) to Big 12 newcomer TCU.
"This place predicates their attitude on basically the A&M and the Oklahoma game," said Brown over a lunch with two reporters. "Well A&M's gone, and Oklahoma, we've stunk two years in a row, so they're mad. And that's fair."
But the scorn of an angry fan base hasn't dampened the 61-year-old coach's enthusiasm. If anything, the recently elected AFCA president seems more energized than he did following the 'Horns' 2005 BCS championship season, when he required knee replacement surgery, or during their 2009 title-game run, when his then-defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, carried around the title of head coach in waiting. Retirement seemed closer for him then than it does now.
"I'm really having fun," said Brown. "My buddies worry about me because people are more critical. You know, I've had everything bad said about me you can have. Really and truly, I have matured enough, it's not about me anymore, I really could care less. I don't care about a legacy; I don't care about a record. I want to help kids, I want to help football and I want to win all the games. That's all I want to do."
Though many fans and media assume Brown is on the hot seat heading into the 2013 season, the truth is, he's really not. The head coach enjoys a uniquely protective relationship with his powerful boss, DeLoss Dodds. The Longhorns' largely uninspiring past three seasons -- a 22-16 overall record, including an 11-15 mark against Big 12 foes -- haven't affected the 73-year-old athletic director's confidence in the coach he hired back in 1997.
"What's here is reality. What's out there is whatever," said Dodds from his perch atop a tower. (Literally, Dodds' office is on the seventh floor of a tower in Royal-Memorial Stadium overlooking the north end zone.) "I know the reality, Mack knows the reality. Mack is as good as I've ever seen. ... I like stability, I like continuity."
Perhaps Dodds wouldn't be saying that if Texas was coming off another 5-7 debacle like the one Brown suffered in 2010, ending a streak of nine consecutive double-digit win seasons and prompting a massive staff makeover. In improving to 8-5 in 2011 and then 9-4 last season -- capped by a comeback Alamo Bowl victory over No. 13 Oregon State -- the 'Horns have shown enough progress to convince Dodds, Brown and everyone on down that the program will shortly return to its rightful status as a BCS contender.
Over lunch, Brown casually recited the reasons and excuses behind the past three seasons' struggles, as if he was rehashing a bad round of golf. The 2010 team, as he's said many times before, suffered from a hangover following the crushing BCS title game loss against Alabama the previous January. Left unsaid, five-star quarterback recruit and Colt McCoy heir apparent Garrett Gilbert did not pan out, leading to the 2011 squad's Achilles' heel, the inexperience of freshmen quarterbacks David Ash and Case McCoy.
Then, in 2012, coordinator Manny Diaz's previously stout defense imploded: Touted younger players struggled to replace four NFL-caliber starters, while two key veterans, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks, suffered early season-ending injuries. Statistically, the unit finished as the worst in program history, allowing 404.2 yards per game, though the school's publicity department has a fact sheet handy showing how much it improved late in the year. After horrid early performances marked by poor tackling against high-powered offenses from West Virginia and Baylor, the 'Horns actually led the Big 12 in total and scoring defense over their last five conference games, then notched a staggering 10 sacks in their 31-27 bowl win against the Beavers.
In 2013, however, there are no more excuses. Texas returns 19 starters. Ash, a baby-faced true freshman two years ago, is now the conference's most seasoned returning quarterback (18 starts). For the first time in his career, he's also Brown's undisputed starter, no longer part of a seemingly never-ending competition with McCoy. Running backs Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron and receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley are talented playmakers. And while the defense loses two standout performers from last season, defensive end Alex Okafor and safety Kenny Vacarro, it brings back everyone else, highlighted by Jeffcoat (who's been held out of contact drills in spring) and Hicks. It also features emerging middle linebacker Steve Edmond and veteran corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom.
"Two years ago we stunk on offense, and we were good on defense. Last year we stunk on defense but were pretty good on offense," said Brown. "Next year we're going to be older, everything's come together. We've got depth, the quarterback's older, he's been in that Oklahoma game two years. I finally think that all comes together and we're a lot better."
Texas' primary emphasis this spring has been tempo. After experimenting with a package of no-huddle plays in the bowl game, Brown and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite -- who takes over play-calling duties this season from Bryan Harsin, now the head coach at Arkansas State -- want the 'Horns to go full-on hurry-up like so many of their Big 12 competitors. Brown wants to see fewer worn-down linemen and defenders with hands on their hips.
Meanwhile, the coach also spent much the past few months focused on modernizing his program's recruiting infrastructure. As AFCA president, he helped lead the charge for the NCAA to reconsider recent rules deregulation that would have allowed for an unlimited recruiting staff (the Board of Directors suspended the measure last week). As Texas coach, he recently hired former Nick Saban support staffer Patrick Suddes as his first-ever director of player personnel, an administrative role that similarly deep-pocketed programs like Alabama, LSU and Michigan created several years before.
"We have been kind of 'mom-and-popping' it here for a long time," Brown said at a press conference. "I really appreciate DeLoss and [Texas president] Bill Powers stepping up and helping us with the level of personnel that we need to be the best in the country at everything we are doing again."
Brown is also embracing the social media aspect of recruiting. At lunch, he pulled out his phone and proudly loaded up Twitter, where he's created separate lists to follow current and former players and recruits, and Facebook, where he can see at any time which recruits are logged on and thus available to message.
Recruiting has recently become a source of fodder for Brown's critics. The past two Heisman winners, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel, as well as two-time runner-up Andrew Luck, were all Lone Star natives that Texas did not pursue to play quarterback in Austin. Muschamp, now the head coach at Florida, unintentionally created a Twitter parody meme when he reportedly told his team at halftime of last year's A&M game: "We recruited [Manziel] to play safety at Texas, and you're letting him beat you."
Brown carefully considered his words before answering a question about those perceived misses, unwilling to disparage the players Texas chose instead.
"I'm very aware of things people have said about the program," he said. "When you ask me the Johnny Manziel question, I can say we offered David Ash that year as our quarterback and we're really proud of where he is and where he's headed. I don't think David's gotten nearly the prestige or credit he deserves."
Ash did not win the Heisman last season, but he did complete 67.3 percent of his passes, led a game-winning drive at Oklahoma State and threw the go-ahead 36-yard touchdown pass with 2:24 left in the bowl game. A late-season rib injury limited him in the loss to TCU and sidelined him against Kansas State in the regular-season finale.
Of all the questions facing his team, the one that may ultimately determine whether Brown's 'Horns return to the mountaintop this fall is whether the heretofore shy and straitlaced quarterback can morph into a more forceful and confident leader. Former star Vince Young, back on campus this spring finishing his degree, underwent a similar transformation and has spent time counseling Ash to be more relaxed around his teammates to help build chemistry.
His ever-sociable coach doesn't have that issue. Though shouldering the brunt of the pressure hovering over these 'Horns, Brown was all smiles as he strutted out of Dirty Martin's, eager to return to work, to hit the practice field, to send the next tweet.
As he Brown got up, the server for his table, a college-aged male, smiled, thanked him and -- after a pause -- uttered a quiet: "Good luck." He seemed to mean it earnestly.
"I'm not going to be one of those guys that's bitter at the end," said Brown. "I'm going to enjoy this thing. I love being around the kids and I love the people I work for."
The people he works for love him back. Yet heading into 2013, many Texas fans need to be won back over.