Eric Dickerson tells a great story about his early practices with the Los Angeles Rams. Dickerson, you probably remember, had this beautiful and gliding running style. He ran straight up and it seemed effortless. It seemed TOO effortless.
"Run Dickerson, damn it," Rams coach John Robinson would yell at the running back practice after practice. Dickerson was only a rookie and so he took the abuse daily -- "If you don't start running, I'm going to send you back to home." Or whatever pro coaches yell.
And then, finally, he heard it one too many times. Robinson yelled at Dickerson "Run," and Dickerson said, "Coach, I AM running. If you don't believe me, put somebody out here and see if they can catch me." Dickerson ran for 1,808 yards and scored 18 touchdowns his rookie season. The next year he ran for 2,105 -- still the record 25 years later.
I love that story because it gets at one of the real wonders of sports -- those people who make brilliance look SO EASY that it doesn't even look all that special. Maybe it's Tim Duncan -- there are games you don't even notice him until the end when (again!) he has scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Maybe it's Carlos Beltran's easy style -- he hardly seems to be trying only he has another year where he scores 100 runs, drives in 100 runs, hits 30 home runs, steals 25 bases and wins another Gold Glove.
Or maybe ... it's Mack Brown back coaching in the BCS Championship game at Texas.
"It's really funny," Brown says. "I've been asked all week if I'm really nice."
There's a common line you hear about Mack Brown and it goes something like this: "Well, OF COURSE he wins -- hey, anyone could win at Texas."
He does win -- and win big. Nobody can deny this. Texas has been ranked for 156 consecutive weeks, almost twice as long as Ohio State's 83, the second-longest streak in the country. Texas has been in the top 5 for 27 weeks -- that's the longest streak, too. The Longhorns have scored more touchdowns since 2002 than any team but Boise State, and they have given up fewer touchdowns in the decade than any team except Miami, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. They are the only team to win 10 games or more for nine straight seasons. This is their fourth BCS bowl game since 2005.
No, nobody can deny the preposterous level of success. So you hear all that time that it's easy. Anyone could do it at Texas. Look, Texas has more money than other schools. Texas is the big school in recruiting heaven. Texas has the great history. Texas has the big TV market. Texas has the best facilities. Texas has the huge fan support, including those millionaire boosters. Texas is king of its conference. Texas ... Texas ... Texas. When people finally finish telling you just how many advantages they have at Texas, you might wonder why they even HAVE a football coach. Shoot, Darrell Royal's old Longhorn jacket could coach 'em up to a 10-win season year after year.
Mack Brown's easy personality adds to the perception. We get this image in our mind of what a football coach is supposed to be -- an image inspired by Bear Bryant's hat, Woody Hayes' scream, Knute Rockne's halftime speech and what we see in movies -- and he doesn't fit. Brown doesn't seem to have the new-age spiritedness of Pete Carroll or the old-school resolve of Jim Tressel. He's not a mad scientist running off to draw new plays on napkins like Steve Spurrier, and he does not strike you as a professor the way Joe Paterno might. He definitely does not have the Ohio stoniness of Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops, and you can't imagine him running out on the field and head-butting one of his defenders the way the great coach Erk Russell used to do.
So what is he? Even after all this time and all the success -- no college football team has won as many games the last 12 years as Brown's Texas Longhorns -- it's something of a mystery. This week leading up to tonight's BCS Championship Game, many have tried to contrast Brown with Alabama's Nick Saban. But Saban is easy. He's brilliant, grim, proudly paranoid, tough, smarter than you are and nakedly aware that he's smarter than you. He's also the kind of guy who can turn on enough charm to recruit anyone; the kind of charm that inspired that the best exchange in the movie The Blind Side. This was when Saban (persuasively playing himself at LSU) came to recruit Michael Oher, and Sandra Bullock swoons over him.
Bullock: "I find him to be handsome."
Tim McGraw (who plays Bullock's husband): "I'm standing right here."
Bullock: "I know."
Brown simply does not inspire a string of adjectives like Saban, or really almost any other successful football coach. He has a little bit of this, a little bit of that. He inspires one adjective: Nice. He's perpetually and genuinely nice -- he will tell you that's just how he was raised in Cookville, Tenn. -- and this makes him as likable as any coach in America. Nice undoubtedly pays big dividends when it comes to recruiting and fundraising and working with a staff and so on. But we are not used to our football coaches being nice, and we may not be entirely comfortable with our football coaches being nice.
And so, when people try to explain Brown's success they will often just fall back on the common line. It's easy at Texas. And Brown is just along for the ride.
There is a big problem with the "Anyone can win at Texas" theory though and it's simply this: Before Brown came along, Texas lost an awful lot. Sure, the school still had this big reputation, most of it left over from those Darrell Royal days and the wishbone offense. But for 15 years before Brown arrived at Texas in 1998, Texas had not finished a season in the top 10. Shoot, 10 of those 15 years they finished the season unranked. Seven of those years they finished 6-5 or worse. Texas was like an old ballplayer living on a reputation.
Brown came in and immediately led Texas to a nine-win season, which included a Cotton Bowl victory and a Heisman Trophy for Ricky Williams. Three seasons later, the Longhorns finished in the top 5. The next season, they finished sixth. The year after that, they went into their bowl game ranked fifth (and lost to Washington State to drop out of the top 10). You would think that after a 15-year malaise that Texas fans would have been ready to start naming buildings after Mack Brown.
Of course, the exact opposite was true: Nobody seemed especially happy with ol' Mack. They called him Mr. February -- the guy who looked great during recruiting season but could not beat Oklahoma. They complained about how, even with all his victories, he had never won a conference title. They said he was too nice, his players were too soft, his program was too corporate, whatever. They called him just about the nastiest word you can call a football coach. They called him "underachiever."
Then came 2005; The undefeated season. The 70-3 conference championship victory over Colorado (OK, you can put that never won a conference championship thing to rest). That year, his team beat Tressel's Ohio State, Stoops' Oklahoma, and finally Carroll's USC in one of the great games in bowl history. It is one of the great seasons in college football history. Nobody could deny Mack Brown his place now, right?
Only, of course, many did anyway. Big deal. He had a team loaded with NFL talent. He had the great Vince Young at quarterback. They said Brown had only LIVED UP to his talent. And it's a funny thing: Once things start going in THAT direction, well, no amount of winning can change things. The more he won -- since 2005, Texas has beaten Oklahoma three out of four times and the Longhorns' only loss the last two years was that miracle at Texas Tech last season -- the more he should have won. And the more willing people seemed to be to give the credit to the power and aura and wealth of Texas.
Put it this way: Most people, when doing matchup charts for tonight's game, put the coaching check mark next to Saban. You can bet on that. And if Texas loses tonight, you can bet there will be more than a few who will say: "That's Mack Brown for you."
And this just speaks to how good a coach Brown really is. He may come across as the nice guy next door who would lend you his lawn mower, but he is in fact the most organized coach in America, a guy who never fails to have an angle covered. He is, by all accounts, one of the best coaches in the country to work for -- his staff is famously loyal. He is, of course, one of America's best finishers when it comes to recruiting. He is, of course, one of America's best motivators: Texas has won more games than any team the last decade for a reason: Texas comes to play week after week after week.
Someone on Wednesday asked Brown what he will be thinking about when he wasn't sleeping the night before the game. His answer was so compelling and such an interesting look into his mind, that it's worth reprinting in full here:
"What you're doing is you're making sure that you're going through a checklist in your mind. Are they going to onside kick to open the game? Do we? How do you punt it? How do you protect? What about your fakes? What about protection? How do you start the game? How do you get your offense more comfortable than they were against Nebraska? What do you do on defense? Will Alabama open it up with a wide open offense like they did against Florida? Will they start with drop back and play action against us? Will they try to run (Mark) Ingram to start the game?
"And what am I supposed to say? I'll have 122 sets of eyes looking at me, an entire staff looking at me ... wanting me to put some sense into how important this game is ..."
And here, Brown almost involuntarily dived into a rough version of his pregame speech:
"I want you focused. I want you tough. I want you ready to play. I want you to have fun, which gets really contradictory when they're looking at you. Is it important, Coach? Yeah, it's the National Championship. You're the best at what you do in the country, and you've got three and a half hours to prove it. You want to respect Alabama, but you don't want it so your team is not sure you think they can win. They have to know myself and our coaches think they can win."
And here, Brown smiled and paused.
"So," he said, "all those things go through your mind."
And in those few seconds, maybe it was easy to see just why Brown is so good at this. There are other adjectives you can use about him beyond nice. He's smart, and he's focused, and he's organized. But perhaps more than anything else, he is thorough. He has thought about everything. He has planned everything. He will make sure that that the 12-year-old fan in Amarillo who wanted an autographed picture got one. He will make sure that all the targeted recruits in the country know exactly how Texas can be the right school for them. He will make sure that every player on his team knows their exact role. He will make sure every one of his coaches has the right theme in his mind but also the freedom to be his own coach. He will stay awake at night making sure the Texas players are in position if Alabama decides to start tonight's game with an onside kick.
He will handle all of it ... so that others don't have to think about it. And if people say that it's easy, that anyone can win at Texas, well, you get the feeling Mack Brown won't mind that at all. Anyone CAN win at Texas. Mack Brown made it that way.